Before there was Giada, Ina and Nigella, there was Julia. Julia Child, who was born 105 years ago yesterday, paved the way for them and every single Food Network star. Her career was prolific, pioneering and unpretentious. Unlike many contemporary celebrity chefs, Julia did not set out to be cook. She was in the Foreign Service along with her husband. How fortuitous for the world that they she would be assigned to a post in Paris where she discovered French cuisine and embarked on a second career as a culinary teacher and cookbook writer, making French cuisine and phrases like mise en place a household term (okay maybe not in yours, and not even in the one I grew up in, but I know what it means now — look it up).
I remember watching Julia Child’s show on my local PBS station in the 70s. It really didn’t make much of an impression on me at the time. The studio kitchen seemed quaint, almost like it was built by the local high school tech crew. Her cadence, a product of blueblood upbringing, made her seem so old to me and foreign to me. And the food that she was making, seemed unextraordinary to me compared to the exotic food served at the Chinese restaurants that my family frequented.
It was not until the early 90s, when I truly discovered Julia Child through her series, Cooking with Master Chefs. Through her I was introduced to restauranteur chefs Charlie Palmer, Emeril Lagasse, Lidia Bastianich, Michel Richard and Robert Del Grande, and eventually I would eat at each of their restaurants over the next 20 years. From the companion book of the same title, I replicated the recipes of Bastianich and Palmer along with Andre Soltner. I went onto In Julia’s Kitchen with Master Chefs, Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home and Baking with Julia watching each sporadically, but reading through each companion book religiously.
About 10 years after Cooking with the Master Chefs aired, I was fortunate enough to acquire a number of recipe books from a neighbor of my in-laws in Pittsburgh, Pa. Among the books, the two that introduced Julia Child, along with her French co-author Simone Beck, to Americans: Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vols. 1 and 2. Finally, I had come full circle to where it all started. I had grown to appreciate a broad palate of tastes and different cuisines over the years and Julia was certainly a part of that for me; just as she had done in 1961 when she empowered Americans to try their hand at French cuisine.
It’s hard to say if Julia Child would have been a television star had she come along within the last 10 years. There are plenty of chefs who are talented and show passion for their craft. A small subset has the charm and telegenic looks to make it on television today. But I can’t think of one that is as gracious in sharing their love of food as Julia Child.
Happy belated birthday.