Bon Appetit! A Bow to Julia Child

CHEFS all over the United States are creating special "Julia Child" dishes this year to honor her remarkable contribution to cooking in America over the last three decades.

Events honoring Mrs. Child already have included a picnic at Vermont's Woodstock Inn, a wild mushroom hunt in Vail, Colo., a Harvest Home Weekend in Kansas City, Mo., and gala banquets from Washington, D.C., to Madison, Wisc., to Monterey, Calif.

This year marks 30 years of her TV appearances as well as the 80th anniversary of the birth of Child, who first captured America's imagination in 1961 during a two-month national tour with Simone Beck to promote their "Mastering the Art of French Cooking."

That led to "The French Chef" TV cooking series, more cookbooks, more TV series, and a nation's taking to the kitchen with both a more serious intent and a lighter heart.

To mark the occasion, the Monitor interviewed chefs and cooking professionals about Child's contribution to cooking in America. (Excerpts follow.) They attribute her star status to the fact that she dispelled the myth that French cooking was something only for the great chefs. She made cooking fun, they say, and showed her reading and viewing audience that food could be informal.

Most of all, she made light of her mistakes in a way that gave many the courage to cook.

"What interests me today is that cooking has become a really serious profession," Child said by phone from California, where she was attending two gala dinners in her honor in one week. "Today it is tremendously important to have good training in French cuisine," she went on. "A cook needs to know the whole spectrum of techniques before he can create - it's the same in painting, in art and music. A student may go to culinary school and pay a lot of money, but he hasn't learned the skill until he's had at

least 10 years' application and experience."

As for the future, "We still have a long way to go in the United States," she says. "We're not very mature about nutrition, although nutritionists are beginning to realize that taste is also very important."

WGBH, a Boston public TV station, aired a series of programs honoring Julia Child this summer and is hosting a gala celebration Nov. 2 in Boston's Copley Plaza Hotel.

Chefs from other public broadcasting stations will cook for Julia and guests at the black-tie, $250-a-plate affair. It will jointly benefit the station and the American Institute of Wine and Food, which Child helped co-found in 1981. The Boston AIWF chapter is compiling a cookbook of the chefs' recipes.

Here are some comments about Child from her friends and colleagues: Chef Pepin always cooks

"I've known Julia Child for a long time, 30 years or more," says Jacques Pepin, one of America's best-known cooking teachers and an award-winning cookbook author, "and when my first book was published in 1975, she called me and complimented me and was very supportive. I have always appreciated her comments because she is so straightforward and tells just what she thinks. She plows right through whether it's the popular opinion or not.

"I have been to the her home in Cambridge many times and she likes to have friends eat and cook together. Actually, I've never been at Julia's when I didn't do the cooking." A fan letter from Julia

"I sure do remember when I first heard from Julia Child," says Patricia Wells, author of four books on French cuisine and a restaurant critic for L'Express, a French weekly. "It was in 1985 and I'd never met her - knew who she was, of course, and I got a letter - a fan letter! I was thrilled.

"Now that I've gotten to know her well, I have to say this is just very typical of Julia Child. It's a kind of generosity she has that right after my Paris book she took the time to write me a letter....

"Julia Child, you see, is one person who never, ever gives praise unless she truly believes it. She might say about something I've cooked: `Well, it's not quite so good this time.' Or, `Maybe next time you could try it with not so much tarragon.' "

Last summer, Ms. Wells and 10 or so friends decided to go to the market, where each would choose something he really wanted to cook for dinner.

"Nobody knew what others were buying, but we figured we'd put it all together at the end of the day," she says.

"What did Julia buy? Fresh fava beans - which are so much trouble to cook.... Everyone else tried to find things easy to cook, but not Julia. She enjoys all the work that goes with food and cooking." How Child paved the way

"Julia Child actually set the stage and paved the way for my restaurant, Chez Panisse, and others that came along," says Alice Waters, who opened her Berkeley, Calif., restaurant in 1971. Ms. Waters was one of the first chefs in the United States to emphasize using the best, freshest foodstuffs from a network of special, regional sources. "I don't think it would have been possible to have a restaurant like this today if people hadn't had her introduction to the cooking of France.

"Her cooking programs are more than cooking lessons," Waters continues: "She explains French cooking and makes it enticing and appealing. She made it fun when so many people took cooking - especially French cuisine - so seriously." The secret of French bread

As an editor at Afred A. Knopf since 1957, Judith Jones has worked with such top food writers as James Beard, Marcella Hazan, and M.F.K. Fisher - as well as Julia Child.

"If not for Julia Child," she says, "I would never have gotten into cookbooks. When her manuscript [for "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," written with Simone Beck] came across my desk, it was a revelation. I thought, `Here is something so different.' It was a complete change in the way cookbooks had been written."

Ms. Jones mostly had been doing French translations for Knopf - Camus, Sartre, and other classics. Cooking was her hobby, but she saw cookbooks as "just a lot of recipes [with] no explanations of what made the sauce the way it should be.... [Child's] book was a special gift to me and, of course, to others....

"I remember the time when you couldn't get a loaf of French bread anywhere - not even in New York. And French food really needs French bread." So Ms. Jones talked with Child about it. Child's husband Paul, who had made bread in college, decided to do some testing. "He made, I'm sure, 50 or 60 loaves and kept sending them to me in the mail," she says.

Then Child took a new tack: " `We'll go to the very best bread baker in France and find out all about the flour and the special rising and how to get the crust just right,' " she told Jones. "She did. She sent me a postcard from France saying ... `It's all in the shaping of the dough.' "

Child's French bread recipe is famous to this day, Jones says. A home chef's phone call

Charles Gibson, co-host of ABC-TV's "Good Morning America," tells this story about Julia Child. A college friend of his moved to Cambridge, Mass., years ago. This friend and his wife "lived in a terribly small apartment with a closet for a kitchen," says Mr. Gibson. His friend's wife worked, so she had planned a small dinner party she could make ahead. But she was stymied when it came to one of the sauces.

"I think it was a Bearnaise sauce," says Gibson, "and she didn't know if she could make it ahead of time or if she should freeze it. No cookbooks could give her the answer.

"Her husband had a bright idea and suggested she look up Julia Child in the phonebook. And after much debating, she gave it a try. Mrs. Child answered the phone, asked all about the menu, made some great suggestions, told her where to go to buy several things, and solved all the problems. ... She's very efficient but she cares enough to take time to help people." One teacher to another

"I am reminded every day that we're fast becoming a country of illiterate cooks," says Marion Cunningham, who has taught cooking all over the world, often as James Beard's assistant. "Even intelligent people don't know the basics of cooking and Julia does the best job of teaching today - of really laying it out....

"I think she's the reason men started to cook more. Julia gives everybody confidence that they can do it. Partly it's because she admits her mistakes, but it's also in her ability to explain everything....

"Many of us who give lots of cooking classes make assumptions that people know what we mean when we say, for example, `diced potatoes.' I've had beginners in my class who think `diced' means large chunks." A chef's appreciation

Chris Schlesinger opened the highly successful East Coast Grill in Cambridge, Mass., in 1985. His latest venture, with two other chefs, is The Blue Room, also in Cambridge, which serves unusual food from around the world.

"Julia Child is aiming high and she's got a lot of things going - things that really need to be done to back up people in the food business," says Mr. Schlesinger.

"She's got the culinary library going. She encourages everybody to take courses. She's pushing the food seminars at Radcliffe. She's trying to establish a master's degree in gastronomy.... She wants a bigger exchange of ideas between the growers and the food purveyors and the consumers....

"The most poignant thing I can say about Julia is that she is so supportive with us all," Schlesinger says. "I get calls all the time from people she's recommended me to. She is the same with all the young chefs and anybody starting out with new restaurants or business. We all need good support and coming from her it is just great."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.