Julia Child, the American ambassador of French cooking, recently returned to Paris, where she received her formal culinary training at the Cordon Bleu in 1948. America has watched her on television for 32 years. Her signature closing, with her familiar voice bidding us “bon appétit” as she poured herself a glass of wine, sent a generation of us on our way with the confidence to prepare a perfect gourmet meal.
Child, now 83, first became interested in food in China, where she worked for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. In a recent interview she fondly remembered her time spent in Paris in the late ’40s and early ’50s. “My husband [Paul] joined the US Information Service and he was sent to Paris – what could be nicer! We were in Paris for five years, maybe a little longer.” While studying at the Cordon Bleu, she met Simone Beck, who would become a close friend. “I was considered a nut because I was so interested in cooking. Nobody else was – I had no one else to talk to.” Child and Beck later met Louisette Bertholle, and in 1949 they opened a cooking school, L’Ecole des Trois Gourmandes, in Child’s kitchen on the rue de l’Université in the 7th arrondissement. When asked if the school made any money, she laughed and replied, “No, we didn’t make any money at all, but we had a good time and we learned a lot.”
Child’s first book, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” written with Beck and Bertholle, was published in 1961. At the time, “many [American] cooks had never heard of a leek, had never seen or used a shallot, hardly knew that the word ‘braise’ existed, and most salads were made with iceberg lettuce,” she recalls in the introduction to “In Julia’s Kitchen with Master Chefs” (Knopf, 1995). “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” was a hit in America and it was soon fashionable to entertain using French menus. Child was invited to appear on a segment of a program on Boston’s WGBH, “I’ve Been Reading,” and the television station was so impressed that it booked her for a series of 13 shows. On February 11, 1963, the first broadcast of “The French Chef” aired, the first in a long line of award-winning cooking shows by Child.
Several different shows and nine books later, she still has a busy schedule, having recently finished filming her current series, “Master Chefs.” “It was a little difficult filming baking and pastry during the summer, as you can imagine, with the yeast rising and falling.” Now, she says, she wants to do less television. “I’d like to be able to get back into my kitchen, where I can work on developing recipes. After all, that’s what I do.”
Probably no one has had a greater influence in terms of teaching Americans good cooking. Her contributions are also highly regarded by the French, who have awarded her special honors. When asked about the changes in cooking in America today, she said, “I’m delighted that a career in the culinary professional arts is accepted as a real profession. The first Masters in Gastronomy is being offered at Boston University. There is so much more to it than being a chef: writing, culinary history, food development and so forth.”
She is worried, however, about what she refers to as the “fear of food”: with low-fat this and low-cholesterol that, people just aren’t eating real food, she says. As she put it in “The Way To Cook” (Knopf, 1989): “People nowadays are deathly afraid of their food, and what does fear of food do to the digestive system? I am sure that an unhappy or suspicious stomach, constricted and uneasy with worry, cannot digest properly. And if digestion is poor, the whole body politic suffers.”
She added, “Yet you see such a large number of obese people [in the States]. Perhaps we have a bunch of couch potatoes munching Twinkies, I don’t know. I don’t see that problem in France.” Her advice? “Eat a great variety of foods; eat well but in moderation; watch your weight and exercise.” As she says in her introduction to “The Way to Cook”: “I, for one, would much rather swoon over a few thin slices of prime beefsteak, or one small serving of chocolate mousse, or a sliver of foie gras, than indulge to the full on such nonentities as fat-free gelatin puddings. The pleasures of the table – that lovely old-fashioned phrase – depict food as an art form, as a delightful part of civilized life. In spite of food fads, fitness programs and health concerns, we must never lose sight of a beautifully conceived meal.”