French godfather of French food in America
Credit: Courtesy of Jacques Pépin

We asked food experts from various lands to tell their comfort food tales, then created lighter—but still deeply comforting—recipes inspired by their stories.

French food, like all great cuisines, can go high and fancy or low and rustic. Jacques Pépin's early memories lean toward the latter. He grew up during World War II, his dad away in the service and his mother left with meager means to feed her children. Pépin remembers her simple but magical dishes prepared almost out of thin air.

Pépin's comfort foods are quintessentially simple: bread and butter, mashed potatoes, soup. Soup has a special place in Pépin's psyche: He opened a French soup restaurant, La Potagerie, in New York in the 1970s.

Bean soup, split pea soup, and fish soup are all on his list of comfort favorites, but onion soup seems a perfect Pépin match: Humble ingredients are transformed into a deliciously hearty and comforting dish in a recipe that was synonymous with French cooking in the '60s (when Pépin began his American journey) and that, today, deserves remembering and reviving. In his wonderful new summing-up cookbook, Essential Pépin, he recalls: "When I was a young man, I often made it with my friends at 2 or 3 a.m. after returning home from a night of dancing."

Pépin sometimes adds a splash of port or egg to his broth to add flavor and richness. Our version hews to classic, comforting principles: Silky soft caramelized onions are stirred into a rich, meaty broth and topped with crusty bread and melty cheese. But it is far lighter.