Lunch with a culinary icon

Julia Child is curious – not about the plate of Chilean sea bass on polenta before her, but about the experiences her new photographer friend had in Afghanistan.

"Did you get all the way up into those caves?" she asks the Monitor photographer Bob Harbison.

Before I can sneak in a question, Ms. Child has turned to another new acquaintance in our luncheon foursome: "And where in town do you like to eat?" she asks.

When she finally focuses her robin's-egg blues on me, it's with another question: "How is life back in Boston?"

So goes a gracious lunch with America's grande dame of gastronomy. As she approaches her 90th birthday on Aug. 15, Child remains a tough interview. But it's not because she's imperious, haughty or self-absorbed. To the contrary. Julia Child is as down-to-earth as the farmers' market she frequents every Saturday morning.

Over the course of four decades, during which she's written 12 books and starred in eight television series, Child has set the standard for cooking in the US.

So? She gives us the cue to start eating with "Dig in!" She is not too self-conscious to ask what panini sandwiches are or too refined to wonder aloud what the fuss is about over expensive salts such as Fleur de Sel. ("Salt is salt," she says.) And she is more interested in hearing others' stories than in talking about her own.

It's this warmth and accessibility that endeared Child, known to the world simply as Julia, to TV audiences from the start. On public television's award-winning series "The French Chef," which premiered in 1963, she demystified French cooking for home cooks – and she never got flustered when recipes didn't work out. Instead, she turned her blunders into lessons, tossing out that first dreadful crepe, for example, as one might well do with all first crepes.

The years since haven't spoiled her.

Not until a perfect-looking dish of crème brûlée arrives at our table, along with four forks, does she begin to talk more about herself.

"Well, I'm not running any road races," she responds, when asked about her life since moving to Santa Barbara last winter from her home of 45 years in Cambridge, Mass.

But she is wearing sneakers – just as she did when she and I last met in her former kitchen eight years ago. And they are almost as symbolic now as then. Never one to slow down too much, she is frequently seen about town, not only at the farmers' market, but also at local culinary events.

Last November, she helped open COPIA, the lavish cultural center for food, wine, and the arts in Napa Valley, Calif. "It celebrates America's emergence into civilization," she says. "We now have world-class wines and food. We no longer have to apologize for anything."

And back at her retirement home, she rarely puts her feet up. She was sending e-mail from her bedroom when I rang her bell. "Let me just turn off my computer," she says, inviting me inside.

Her bedroom appears to be the epicenter of activity. The computer on her desk is surrounded by tidy piles of papers, and shelves over her bed are packed with copies of her own cookbooks. She recently installed a kitchen, where she frequently makes her own lunch and dinner – omelets, salads, and roast chicken are typical. For breakfast, she eats in the dining room at her residence. A peek into the new space reveals a touch of her former life: a pegboard wall with outlines for cooking tools, just like those her late husband, Paul Child, designed for their kitchens in Cambridge and Grasse, France.

Child is no stranger to the West Coast. Raised in Pasadena, Calif., she has been coming to Santa Barbara since she was 3. She and Mr. Child bought a condo there in the early 1980s, and before then, they often stayed at the tony San Ysidro Ranch. Now living in a quiet gated community just outside Santa Barbara, Child is hardly the only recognizable face in town. Oprah, Oliver Stone, and Jeff Bridges are just a few of the other celebrities who live nearby.

E-mail keeps her in touch with pals back east, such as chef Jacques Pépin. When Child isn't online corresponding with friends, she might tune in to a cooking show on TV. One of her favorites is that of Jamie West, executive chef at the San Ysidro Ranch. She also enjoys Emeril Lagasse, Sara Moulton, and, for the most part, Nigella Lawson.

Mid-sentence, while remarking on TV chefs, she exclaims: "Don't you just love our profession? You're always working with people who love what they're doing."

Especially in the last decade, she says, the world of food has come a long way. "When I started out, people hadn't even heard of puff pastry," she says in disbelief. "But now, there's a much greater awareness of food, and so many able people are entering the field."

For a moment, her enthusiasm makes me forget that my lunch companion has more to do with this progress than anyone else. Some of America's greatest chefs as well as avid home cooks point to Child as their inspiration.

Even the Smithsonian Institution is paying tribute to her with the opening next month of "Bon Appetit: Julia Child's Kitchen at the Smithsonian," an exhibition of her Cambridge kitchen, which was hauled – copper pots, whisks, fish poachers, and all – to Washington.

But despite her larger-than-life status, she is still just Julia.

At her front door, we comment on the delightful lunch and say goodbye. As she shaking hands with Harbison, the photographer recently back from assignment in Afghanistan, she looks him in the eye and warmly says, "I am so glad you survived."

Chocolate Soufflé

'This is the best formula for chocolate soufflé I have run into so far,' says Julia Child. 'It has a fine chocolate flavor, a subtle texture, and it holds up well for serving. The secret is in the egg whites, which are beaten into a meringue – 6 egg whites held up with 1/2 cup of sugar.'

7 ounces sweet baking chocolate, smoothly melted with 1/3 cup strong regular or decaffeinated coffee

1/3 cup flour

2 cups milk

3 tablespoons butter, optional

A big pinch of salt

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

4 egg yolks

6 egg whites (3/4 cup)

1/2 cup granulated sugar

Confectioners' sugar in a fine-meshed sieve

Optional accompaniment: lightly whipped cream

To get started, melt the chocolate with the coffee in a double boiler, measure out all the other ingredients listed, butter the soufflé dish, and surround it with a foil collar. (A collar of buttered, double-thickness foil wrapped around the outside of the dish that supports the soufflé puff as it rises 2 to 3 inches above the rim. Secure it with a straight pin.) Then, preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.

In a large pot, whisk the flour and half of the milk (1 cup) together and boil slowly, for about 2 minutes. As you continue whisking, pour in the remaining 1 cup of milk. Off heat, whisk in the optional butter (if using), the salt, and the vanilla. Then add the egg yolks and, finally, the melted chocolate/coffee mixture.

In a clean separate bowl with an electric mixer, beat the egg whites to soft peaks, gradually sprinkle in the 1/2 cup sugar, and beat to stiff shining peaks.

Ladle the chocolate-sauce base down the side of the egg-white bowl, rapidly fold the mixtures together, and turn the soufflé into the prepared baking dish.

Set the soufflé on the lower rack of the preheated oven and turn the thermostat down to 375 degrees F.

In 35 to 40 minutes, the soufflé will have puffed and risen an inch or so over the rim of the dish. At that point, slide the rack out gently, quickly dust the top of the soufflé with sifted confectioners' sugar, and continue baking until the soufflé has puffed 2 to 3 inches over the rim of the baking dish into the collar. You can test it by plunging a skewer down into the side of the puff. If wet particles cling to it, the soufflé will be creamy inside and will not hold as long as if the skewer comes out almost clean.

As soon as it is done, bring the soufflé to the table. To keep the puff standing, hold your serving spoon and fork upright and back to back; plunge them into the crust and tear it apart.

Serves 8.

– Adapted from 'The Way to Cook," by Julia Child(Alfred A. Knopf, $30)

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