Remembering Julia Child

On the

On the “French Chef” set. Credit: Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

Julia Child would have turned 100 on August 15. She had an enormous impact on the housewares industry, and years after her passing she still elicits fond memories from people who knew her. Here, HFN celebrates the culinary icon, and those who knew her share their memories and discuss what she meant to them.

By Andrea Lillo

“As a girl I had zero interest in the stove. I was never encouraged to cook and just didn’t see the point in it.”

So said Julia Child in her introduction to “My Life in France.” But her first meal in France, which included sole meunière, oysters on the half shell and a bottle of Pouilly-Fumé white wine, changed her life—as well as the course of American cooking.

Child made French cooking accessible to American women, coming to prominence with her first book, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume One,” and then her PBS show, “The French Chef.”  

No one—including Child—could have guessed that she would become a culinary icon based on her earlier career path, which actually included working as a copywriter for an upscale home furnishings firm, W. & J. Sloane, when she was in her 20s. But it was when she joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA, that she met the older, worldly Paul Child, her future husband. They married, and Paul took a position with the U.S. Foreign Service, which eventually sent the Childs to France—and that fateful first meal in Rouen.  

Along the way she wrote and co-wrote books, earned Emmy and James Beard Foundation awards, had 11 televisions shows, appeared on the cover of Time magazine, co-founded the French cooking school L’Ecole des Trois Gourmandes and the American Institute of Wine & Food, and received both France’s National Order of the Legion of Honor and the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, among countless other accomplishments.

But even with all of that, Child is known more for her accessibility, her quick-witted humor and her curiosity. With Child, cooking was no longer a chore but a passion. As she would say, “Bon appétit!”

Lidia Bastianich, celebrity chef:
“She is and was the beginning of my food TV career. When I first opened Felidia in 1981, Julia would come in quite often to eat. She would come with Paul, James Beard and friends. We soon became friends, and she wanted to know how many of the regional Italian dishes were prepared, so much so that she came into the kitchen where I was the chef at the time and ultimately asked me to do to episodes with her for her Master Chef series. We had a grand time; one of the shows went on to be nominated for an Emmy. She has left an indelible mark on cooking and the way America appreciates food, she has reintroduced the joy, validity and need of cooking good, wholesome food at home with—and for—the family.

“[One Sunday, we were filming with her in my kitchen.] After spending the afternoon perfecting a pot of risotto together, we all sat down and had a great Sunday afternoon kind of late lunch. Lunch came to a close with my husband Felice playing the accordion, and all of us singing Italian folk songs. I remember Julia humming along—it was that day that she became a part of our family. She was wonderful to work with—a force in front of the camera, but at the same time she was inquisitive and humble in her mannerism. She would openly ask the simplest of questions because she genuinely wanted to know, and those were the same questions the viewers had. She communicated so well with the viewer, without intimidating them with her wisdom and knowledge. What I learned from her was to speak to the viewers in a non-imperative manner, and to include them in the process. She showed me it is important to empower them, and make them feel comfortable behind a stove. After all, if Julia Child dropped a chicken on the floor while cooking, that and certainly much more happens to all of us. She was not about being a Super Chef with a high toque, but about Americans cooking.

“One of my most tender moments with Julia is when she retired in Santa Barbara and I went to visit her. She had just gotten an all-black little kitten which she loved. We spent some time at her townhouse then we went out to the pier in Santa Barbara and had lunch. We had some fried Santa Barbara shrimp and some white wine while watching the waves coming in and the sea gulls dancing with the surf. That was the last time I saw Julia.”

Brian Maynard, director, brand marketing, Jenn-Air (formerly with KitchenAid):
“She really helped launch my career in a lot of ways. I met Julia in 1995 at the Housewares Show in Chicago. Julia walked into the KitchenAid booth—I had been at the company maybe two months—and she ended up talking to me for 45 minutes. [Later, when my boss asked what we had talked about,] I said it was about the shape of a dough hook.

“Julia was very frugal; she wasn’t particularly interested in high-tech, cutting-edge product. For her, the kitchen was a place to work. She wasn’t interested in a beautifully decorated kitchen. [When her KitchenAid refrigerator broke, I wanted to send her a new one instead of fix the old one, but she was] insistent that I not send a new one.

“She was fun and funny. She was a no-nonsense person, honest and straight forward. The French took cooking seriously, and taught it through apprenticeships—the “magic apron” method. Julia documented all that. Julia was very much about technique. When Jacques Pepin saw the book, he was jealous, saying ‘That was the book I should have written.’ [Julia and Jacques eventually became very good friends.] Julia made French cooking approachable. [When she started “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in France,] she was testing it with American flour, American butter, etc. She wanted to make sure to get it right, and was constantly testing and retesting. The timing was right; she recognized the book was what people wanted. She took a more traditional view of a what a chef was. She didn’t call herself a chef—a chef worked in a restaurant. She called herself a cook, or an author.”

Todd English, celebrity chef:
“She would come in and surprise me in my restaurants in Boston and I would get the pleasure of getting to cook for her. I miss her bluntness. She had no filter; she just said it like it was and I loved that quality about her. You never knew what she was going to say but you could always count on the honest truth and a good laugh because she was one of the most hilarious people I’ve ever met!”

Lisa Callaghan, director of culinary relations for All-Clad, Groupe SEB:
“[Child visited the All-Clad booth at the International Home + Housewares Show and] she gravitated to a 12-inch nonstick pan and asked me several questions. She wanted to know how our nonstick pans were different from others that were cheaper. After I finished my explanation she said, ‘My, I wish it wasn’t so expensive.’ She was so genuine—so right to the point. Julia loved people and cooking was an extension of that. Like Julia, once you connect cooking with the pleasure it brings you and others, it’s joyful. I love that famous clip where Julia throws all of the dippy little rolling pins into the garbage, then brandishes the really big one as the only one worth buying. Julia wanted to eliminate silly equipment that made cooks work harder or fail.  She urged her viewers to do research before purchasing and invest in good equipment. Julia loved people and cooking was an extension of that. Like Julia, once you connect cooking with the pleasure it brings you and others, it’s joyful.”

Marcus Samuelsson, celebrity chef:
“My earliest memories of Julia are watching her on TV—she was so natural and different from the more serious chefs I was used to seeing. One of my last memories of Julia was cooking for her at the James Beard House. She entered the culinary world from a normal person’s perspective. People related to her. Her sense of joy and passion for cooking was also very powerful. She is a national treasure.”

Emeril Lagasse, celebrity chef (via Twitter):
“My favorite Julia Child memory was eating crawfish with her. She had never had them before! She was and still is such an inspiration.”