French Pastry Chef Grandfather Inspires Tassie Pippert's Baking
As a lecturer at James Madison University’s Hart School of Hospitality, Tassie Pippert has traveled the world and sampled its most delicious foods: crisp calamari in Napa, California, classic fish and chips in the UK, fresh pasta and tomatoes in Italy.
But her family’s culinary culture is deeply rooted in France, the birthplace of her grandfather, Paul George LaPrevotte. He came to the United States in 1923, years after an American soldier he met during World War I inspired him to make the trip.
“He was an incredible baker,” said Pippert. “He had a bakery here in Harrisonburg in the late 1950s and later worked in a grocery store as their baker.”
She recalled her grandfather as a hardworking man, who was not afraid to laugh at himself. In one of her more vivid memories, he had discovered the wig she was using for a school play and casually placed it on his own head.
“He wore it around the house the rest of that afternoon,” Pippert said, laughing.
Aside from sweet memories, one of the treasures LaPrevotte left behind was a small notebook with some of his best baking recipes in it.
“It’s an old brown book, maybe 3-by-5 inches,” she said. “All the pages are coming apart.”
To bring the recipes back to life, Pippert’s sister took on the task of sizing each from its bakery-sized portions down to a more suitable family-sized yield.
“That’s not as easy as it sounds,” Pippert said, “because in baking, it’s not always a one-to-one reduction. Baking is really about chemistry, and the proportions aren’t always so straightforward. There was a lot of experimentation to get it right.”
Pippert said rediscovering her grandfather’s recipes has helped resurface memories. Even his thick French accent is reflected in the pages, where his distinctive script carefully spells out a recipe for chocolate “ship” cookies.
In addition to her work at JMU, Pippert is now headed into her fifth season as host of “Un-Wine’d,” the Emmy-winning show in which she combines her expertise as a chef and a certified wine specialist. She said as soon as she tastes a wine, she can picture the exact right dish to go with it.
“It’s like butter on bread,” she said, “just a natural combination.”
While Pippert’s career was no doubt inspired by her grandfather, he wasn’t the only creative cook in the family. She recalled a moment in which her father taught her the beauty of improvising in the kitchen.
“I had seen something about baked Alaska,” she said, “and I told him I really wanted to try to make one. It just looked so impressive to me.”
With great enthusiasm, but no ice cream in the house, her dad suggested a savory version based on ingredients they had on hand. So, they got to work on an equally impressive meatloaf, frosting it with mashed potatoes.
“It was really good!” she said.
That early lesson in presentation has stuck with Pippert, who considers not only the taste and texture of her dishes but also what beauty they have for the beholder.
“Every meal I make,” she said, “I try to make it a little more attractive than the recipe might call for.”
Her talent for making food as beautiful as it is delicious has led Pippert into a particular fascination with fruit centerpieces. She has created elaborate, oversized displays of fruit for social gatherings, including her son’s prom.
Pippert said she feels very lucky to be doing something she is good at and never seems to grow tired of.
“I truly love what I do,” she said. “It never really feels like I’m working.”
Tassie's Recipe for Oatmeal Cookies by Grandpa
- 3 pounds sugar
- 1 ¾ pounds Crisco
- ¾ ounce soda
- ¾ ounce cinnamon
- 1 ounce salt
- ½ pint eggs
- 1 pint water
- 3 pounds oatmeal
- 1 ⅜ ounces currants
- 3 pounds flour
- Makes 144 servings