Julia Child, the Grand Dame of French cooking, would have celebrated her 100th birthday this August 15th. Foodies across the country are marking the occasion in various ways. PBS has run a mini-marathon of The French Chef, Julia’s black and white television show which paved the way for every celebrity chef we see today. Locally, two acclaimed restaurants, Le Bec-Fin and Talula’s Garden, are celebrating with special events throughout the week.
The love for Julia Child has seen a resurgence in recent years with Julie and Julia, the acclaimed book written by Julie Powell. That book, and the subsequent movie starring Meryl Streep (and directed by the late Nora Ephron), has helped a new generation discover the passion and confidence for creating hearty delicious meals at home. While I was not as obsessed with Julia’s cooking as Julie, I do know watching Julia Child in the kitchen was always entertaining. She helped me understand that cooking could sometimes be improvised and should always be fun.
I was lucky enough to have met Julia Child once. She had come to West Chester to sell her book Cooking with Master Chefs, which was the companion book to her popular cooking series on PBS. This was in late 1993 or early 1994 while I was a producer in the studios of QVC. The moment was very exciting for me. I had watched her cooking show as a kid and understood she was an iconic figure, her legend preceded her. Our cooking shows were live, and though we were selling kitchen pans or gadgets, we strived to entertain as she had.
Julia was tall and gracious, giving her full attention to the person she was with. When she greeted me with her signature warbling voice, I couldn’t help but grin. I had stopped at Chester County Books on the way to work to purchase a copy of the cookbook. She smiled with delight when I asked her if she would autograph my copy.
As we chatted, a young chef came out from behind the set and waited patiently for Julia to finish our discussion. Julia waved the shy chef over and introduced us. “Jim, I’d like you to meet Emeril Lagasse, he’s one of the chefs featured in the cookbook.” At the time, I would have never predicted Emeril would himself become a celebrity television chef. Looking back now, he obviously was being mentored by the best, as he has gratefully acknowledged over the years.
This past weekend, PBS held a marathon of The French Chef and I watched for a bit. In one episode, Julia lined a up a series of chickens as if they were the Rockettes and articulately described how a roaster is different than a fryer. She also had a blast making bouillabaisse, and then seated her lanky frame at a table, created a giant white bib out of a linen napkin before indulging in her creation. She took the mystery and pretentiousness out of French cooking, and she did it with her own joie de vivre.
To Julia, Bon Appetit!
Photographs credited to Paul Child and Jim Breslin.