Julia Child


By Kira Albin, interview conducted in 1997
Photo courtesy of Julia Child. © 1996 Michael McLaughin

It was a first lunch-hundreds of years after The Last Supper-that changed the course of history. Julia Child remembers it well: sole poached in white wine and draped in a cream sauce, with oysters on the side, nestled in their half shells.
It was 1948. Paris. Paul and Julia Child, an American couple, had come by boat for a stint in the Foreign Service, and their first lunch became the impetus for Mrs. Child's culinary coup of the American diet. "I couldn't get over it," recalls Mrs. Child, nearly 50 years after the event. "I'd never had such food in my life." Coming from a diet of "Middle western, ladies-magazine type of food," she found the French stuff heady and it filled her with delight and wonder. What began simply as love at first bite turned into a lifelong affair with French cooking and French food.

The Recipe for Success
Everyone has invited Julia Child into their kitchen for cooking lessons. For over 30 years she has chopped, diced, and whisked her way to the top of the gastronomic charts through television cooking shows, teaching millions of home chefs how to get the lumps out of a roux, keep souffles from falling, and give volume to egg whites. She loves the basics, the hows and whys of cooking, taking out the mystery but sharing the mystique. She comes from the pre-Martha Stewart era, before microwaves, bread machines, food processors, and nonstick frying pans. Her recipes aren't faddish. She loves to cook because she loves to eat.
Child, nee Julia McWilliams from Pasadena, California, was not born with a whisk in her hand. The family kitchen was run by a hired cook. Following graduation from Smith College, Child worked in advertising and publicity for W. & J. Sloane, a furniture store in New York. When the war broke out, she joined the OSS (precursor to the CIA) and was stationed in Ceylon and China, where she met her future husband, Paul Child, an artist-turned-map-maker. "That's when I got interested in food," remembers Julia Child. "Army food was terrible. We were hungry, so we were interested in eating."
Eventually, Paul and Julia married and settled in Paris. Child's awe-inspiring luncheon sent her straight to the Cordon Bleu-the world-renowned school of French cooking-for six months of training, after which she studied privately with one of Europe's premier chefs. After joining an exclusive cooking club for women, Le Cercle des Gourmettes, she was befriended by Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, and together the three started a cooking school, L'Ecole des Trois Gourmandes-"the school of the three hearty eaters"-with five-dollar lessons held in the Child's apartment on the Left Bank. Through years of collaboration and rewrites, the three persistent cooks finished a 700-page tome of their work, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, published in America by Alfred A. Knopf in 1961.
During a United States promotional tour for their first cookbook, Child and Beck gave cooking demonstrations, interviews, and television appearances. Child was invited to WGBH, Boston's educational television station, as a guest on I've Been Reading. During that appearance she demonstrated how to make an omelette using her copper bowl and trademark whisk. WGBH knew a good thing when they saw it, and from that was born America's first-ever television cooking show, The French Chef, which debuted February 11, 1963, with an aproned Julia Child in the heat of the kitchen.

Rising to the Occasion
Hundreds of awards, honorary degrees, cookbooks and television series have followed, solidifying her position as the doyenne of cooking. In 1965 she received "The George Foster Peabody Award" for distinguished achievement in television; in 1967 the French government awarded her the "Ordre de Mérite Agricole," and in 1976 the "Ordre de Mérite National." In 1980 she was elected the first woman member of the American Chapter of the chefs' society, La Commanderie des Cordon Bleus de France. Two of her most recent TV series, In Julia's Kitchen (1995-96) and Baking with Julia (1996-97), have won Emmy awards in the "Outstanding Service Show" category, beating out the chic Martha Stewart Living and renowned renovator Bob Vila's show, This Old House. Geoffrey Drummond, president of A La Carte Communications and executive producer of Child's recent shows remarks on her adroitness as a performer, her calmness in situations that would leave other people frazzled, and her awareness on the set. "She will notice and casually move the flour to clear the camera space," says Drummond.
Child's own recollections attest to her equanimity. During a guest appearance on a morning television show-the kind that typically provides primitive cooking equipment and only five to seven minutes in which to cook a four-course meal-she was flaming crępes with copious amounts of alcohol for the drama, when the straw hanging down the front of the festively decorated set caught fire. In a matter of moments, Child pulled the straw down, put out the fire, and went on cooking.
In addition to being a fantastic cook, Child, according to Drummond, can do and see things with honesty and purity. She's the kind of person, he comments, who will "call a spade a shovel." And she treats everyone with equal respect, whether cameraman, electrician, or third-line cook. The result is that everyone works to make the show the best it can be. "She has traditional graciousness and courtesy, and she's incredibly patient," remarks Drummond. But "she expects everyone to be as prepared and as professional as she is." If a photographer is bumbling around the set unprepared, Child will endure, but he won't be asked to come back.

A Work of Tart
Child strives for quality. "She's not into it for the bucks," says Drummond. She's serious about her work and, thousands of recipes later, still loves food. Passionate, you might say. With guest baker Nancy Silverton at the helm, the two create a beautiful brioche tart with caramel-poached fruit and White Secret Sauce for an episode of Baking with Julia (currently airing on public television and available in book form, William Morrow and Co., Inc; $40). At the end of the show, they remove their tantalizing work of art from the oven, and an exhilarated Child plunges her fork in for the taste test. This is not unusual; she is a continuous taster, from raw dough to the final product. Silverton watches Child's face for a reaction. Child tries to speak but can't summon words. Silverton is worried Child has burnt her mouth. The camera shows tears in Child's eyes, and when she finds her voice again, she says the dessert is so good it has made her cry. Says Drummond, who captured the sequence on camera, "She was emotionally overwhelmed by eating this thing that was so great. It tapped into something stored deep inside her."
Child's not the only one to feel enthusiastic about her cooking. The cameramen come to work with forks in their pockets. And once after a pizza-making episode, the cast and crew became so intoxicated by the smell and sight of the pizza, they demolished the entire thing before the final "beauty shots" had been taken. Stricter rules have since been established.

A Butcher, A Baker, A Mover & Shaker
What sort of meal does Amerca's most famous chef, the woman associated with haute cuisine, prepare for herself during a busy workday? Or does she even cook her own meals? "Cooking is my profession and my pleasure," responds Child. "I do all my own cooking, and I love to do it." She says the ice box is always filled with things like cold roast chicken, "and there's always peanut butter and honey, if worst comes to worst," laughs Child. The preeminent gourmet admits to a taste for hamburgers and hot dogs. And she has even been known to stop at a certain Burger King in Maine. Says Child defiantly, "I don't care, frankly, what people think. I do what I like."
Child is not reserved in her emotions for food she dislikes. Mention of the word lowfat or nonfat causes extreme dismay. "I think they've managed to scare everybody to pieces," she groans. Tuna packed in water makes her angry, and she claims its emergence has driven oil-packed tuna onto the endangered list. Talk about beef and you feed the ire. "[Steaks] are not marbled, they're not aged...that meat is not worth eating," she fumes. "As a matter of fact, I'm about to write a letter to the Cattlemen's Association, bitterly complaining," adds Child. Her assertion: only two percent of beef is prime; it's expensive, so you decide you don't really like beef much anyway. Child points to the French, who eat everything. She invokes her mantra: "Small helpings." Not to mention the requisite ingredient of their paradox: red wine. Or is it something in fermented cheeses? Whatever the case, she is quick to add that evidently Americans are just as obese as they ever were. "Couch potatoes," she remarks. An acceptable comment from one who rises every morning at six for a regimen of exercises.
Her philosophy of moderation is championed through The American Institute of Wine and Food (AIWF), which she and eminent winemaker Robert Mondavi helped establish. The tenets of their "Taste and Health" program: eat a variety of foods, watch your weight, exercise, and enjoy yourself. The AIWF and Child have contributed much to the elevation of the cooking profession and to the acceptance of gastronomy as a degreed course at colleges and universities. Her commitment to education includes patronage of a culinary sponsorship, active involvement in educational organizations, and an inspirational presence with students at culinary schools, with children participating in the AIWF's "Sensory Sleuth" program, and with graduates of a Boston homeless-shelter's cooking program.
For her 85th birthday on August 15, The International Association for Culinary Professionals (IACP) is sponsoring fundraising dinner events for the Julia Child Endowment Fund, which will help pay for the education of aspiring chefs. "Whether they dine at five-star restaurants or attend home dinner parties, indulge in foie gras or feast on pizza, we hope thousands of people will celebrate Julia's birthday just as she will-enjoying good food and good company," says Toni Allegra, IACP president.
The image is clear: a collective clinking of glasses will echo across the land, and from thousands of lips will emanate Child's trademark expression, "Bon appetit!"