Julia Child: New Friends, New Energy

'The French Chef' invites some of America's best cooks into her kitchen -- and we get to eavesdrop

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

SHE'S at it again. Mastering the art of French cooking was only the beginning for Julia Child. The woman who changed the way we eat and encouraged us to cook with confidence won't be putting her feet up anytime soon.

With vigor surpassing that of a marathon runner, Julia, as she is universally known, is doing all she can to celebrate the exciting flavors and faces of contemporary food in America.

At the stage in life when many people reflect on past accomplishments, Julia has flung open the window on this country's cooking with yet another television series.

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''In Julia's Kitchen with Master Chefs,'' co-produced by Maryland Public Television and A La Carte Communications, follows a familiar pattern. Like her ''French Chef'' series, which eventually took her into the world spotlight after its debut on public-television station WGBH in 1963, to a recent series ''Cooking with Master Chefs,'' the latest is also a ''how to'' for the home cook.

But this time, Julia has invited 26 of America's best chefs right into her own kitchen. Some of them grew up watching her: They learned how to crack an egg with one hand even before they'd learned to twirl spaghetti.

The 26-part series, now airing, opens with Julia looking splendid in pink and green. She cheerfully greets viewers from the front steps of her roomy Victorian home in Cambridge, Mass.

Once inside, the chefs take the lead, and Julia plays a supporting role. She watches closely, asks questions, and sometimes dips in for a taste.

''You've done this often!'' she winces as Jasper White dispatches a live lobster for his Pan-Fried Lobster Dish, one of her favorite entrees from his restaurant in Boston.

Tips from Toques

Like any dedicated teacher, Julia firmly believes that ''all good cooks learn something new everyday.''

Sitting at her kitchen table and wearing a bold heart-and-spade patterned blouse, casual trousers, and running shoes, Julia tells a reporter some of what she learned from her guest chefs.

She credits Mark Militello with introducing her to fresh tamarind. Christopher Gross has a clever way of stripping kernels off the cob, she says. And Jasper White tosses a whole fish instead of pieces into chowder.

Julia relished the experience of opening up her home to other cooks for the taping last summer. ''It was not only a lot of fun,'' she says, ''but so interesting. The pride these chefs take in their work was wonderful to see.''

The chefs clearly liked being there, too. Daniel Boulud, owner and executive chef of Daniel, an award-winning restaurant in New York, calls it the ''best experience I've ever had in America, the ultimate gift as a chef.''

Mr. Boulud was especially impressed with Julia's vitality: ''I'd arrive at 6 in the morning, barely awake, and Julia would already be in her study room working on her computer,'' he recalls.

''Julia's positive spirit and passion for food set the tone,'' says Jody Adams, chef at Rialto in Cambridge. And master baker Jim Dodge speaks of Julia's kitchen as one ''with heart.''

Even those who might be critical of other chefs have nothing but praise for Julia.

Recipes from the guest chefs on her series can be found in a companion cookbook (''In Julia's Kitchen with Master Chefs,'' Alfred A. Knopf, 302 pp., $35.) It has well-written profiles of each cook, tips from Julia, and some fine photographs.

It was no easy task for Julia and her assistant Nancy Verde Barr to convert chefs' recipes for the home cook. ''They give you enough ingredients for a restaurant-size dish,'' Julia groans.

No shortcuts for real cooks

Even after Julia and Nancy's efforts, the longer recipes can challenge the time-strapped cook. For this, Julia makes no excuses. ''You need all the details,'' she writes.

Part of Julia's appeal is that she has strong convictions, and she's not timid when asked about today's trend toward slam-dunk meals and cookbooks touting quick and easy dishes. ''These are for people who really don't like to cook,'' she says.

As for other food trends, Julia is no fan of low-fat cooking: ''It's more sensible to take an adult approach: moderation, small helpings, and a great variety of food.'' She defends French cuisine: ''It's a shame people today say 'Oh, no, all that butter and cream,' when, of course, there are all kinds of French cooking.''

She's also dismayed by the way some cooks handle food with their bare hands. ''Contemporary chefs are not trained to use utensils,'' she says. ''It's bad for viewers to see that.''

But even more disconcerting than some food trends, she says, are social trends. ''I deplore schools that extend their programs into dinner time,'' she says, emphasizing the importance of shared family meals.

Cooking helps community

Julia also understands the connection between cooking and community, and isn't shy about advocating for causes she believes in. She recently took time to speak with graduates of an innovative cooking program at a Boston shelter for the homeless.

She urges chefs to go beyond making a terrific seafood stew to make a larger contribution to society. ''All you need is a table, a bucket, a hot plate, a frying pan, and a pot, and you can do an awful lot,'' she says.

She's heartened by the progress women have made in this country's kitchens -- which is better than what women face abroad.

''In France, women are not made welcome at all. Even for men there, it's not an honored profession unless you're a [Roger] Verge or a [Paul] Bocuse,'' she says.

When Julia was studying cooking in France, women chefs were scarce. Her only models were Dionne Lucas, Fannie Farmer, and ''a wonderful old girl who came from Vermont'' whose name she does not recall.

Undaunted by sexism and ignited by the joy, pride, and dedication of her teachers, Julia forged ahead, becoming an example to women and men all over the world who want to excel in both their kitchens and careers.

Julia has no plans to loaf. She's already plotting her next series on baking. It will be taped at her home this summer. And like the current program, this series ''is not for fluffies.''

With characteristic exuberance, she says: ''This is a type of series that could go on forever.'' Pausing for a moment, she adds with a laugh: ''But not in this kitchen!''

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