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Julia Child's great success was built on both a willingness to innovate and an utter devotion to her craft.

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That career began with a desire to improve her cooking and was spurred on by the fascination and awe she felt for French cuisine. Culinary curiosity led to lessons at Le Cordon Bleu, inspiring experimentation in her tiny Parisian kitchen to a degree that brings innovators like Bill Gates to mind. In fact, Child could easily be a case-study in Malcolm Gladwell’s "Outliers," as a woman who achieved immense success, in part due to circumstance, but most strikingly, because of the time she devoted to her craft. Spitz emphasizes that “[h]our upon hour was devoted to cooking, analyzing, tasting, recalibrating, cooking again and again and again and again,” to perfect the recipes that would comprise her chef d’oeuvre, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking."

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Her childlessness, part chance and part choice – here, Spitz’s account is uncharacteristically spare – left Julia free to pursue cooking and authorship at full tilt.  (See Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent controversial, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” for possible correlations between ultra-successful career-women and opting out of motherhood.) Her television career was sparked by an appearance on WGBH, where she was a natural, charming the audience with her down-to-earth sensibility while entertaining them with her quirky humor, qualities that endured throughout her long and storied career.  Here, too, hours of practice off-screen and support from now-retired Paul were as key to her success as was her unique sense of play.

Her timing was good, too. The experimentation and translation of recipes in the 1950’s led to the launch of her series "The French Chef" in the early 1960’s, just as JKF introduced a new era of chic by hiring an actual French chef for the White House. (Imagine the fallout were the Obamas to pull this “elitist” move today!) 

Mainly, though, Julia Child’s life makes for a fascinating read less for its circumstances than for her complexity and strength of character: After a decade in Europe, she became an American icon, embodying domesticity, yet promoting women’s rights through Planned Parenthood, as well as in restaurant kitchens, and working tirelessly out of love of her art until her death in 2004.  What better way to celebrate her centenary!

Elizabeth Toohey is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, NY.


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