Julia Child was, as an observer of the American food scene said, “the first rock star chef.”
She was one of the authors of the two-volume primer on French cuisine, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which has sold more than two-and-a-half million copies since its publication in 1961.
And she was the hostess of The French Chef, one of the earliest television cooking shows in the United States.
“Food is love,” she said. “It brings everyone together.”
Unusually tall, with a husky voice, Child brought style, flavor and imagination to the American table, leaving an indelible impression on millions of Americans.
Child is at the core of Julia, a 95-minute biopic by Julie Cohen and Betsy West which opens on November 26. It’s an absorbing film that covers the arc of her life from birth in 1912 to death in 2004. Commentaries on her achievements are offered by a host of food critics.
Born in Pasadena, California, into a well-heeled conservative family, she was the eldest of three children. They were raised on “sensible New England” fare, but food was not a topic of conversation in their dining room.
Child graduated from Smith College in 1934, but had not prepared herself for any particular career. She worked as a copywriter before joining the U.S. army’s women’s corps and the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency.
During World War II, she was posted to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), where she met her husband and soul mate, Paul, and to China, where she stumbled upon its gastronomic wonders.
Happily married, her formula for a successful marital relationship consisted of what she described as the three Fs — “feed, fuck and flatter your man.”
After the war, Paul joined the diplomatic corps and was assigned to Paris, where, as Child puts it, “our wonderful life began” and where she discovered herself. Child was enchanted by the restaurants and food markets, and she admired the French way of life and attitude to culinary matters.
In an unforgettable experience in Rouen, she feasted on a simple yet exquisite meal of filet of sole simmered in butter. It would exert a powerful influence on Child, whose appetite for good food was astonishing.
At the Cordon Bleu cooking school, where she was the only female in the class, she learned the fundamentals of her craft. To her disappointment, restaurant cooking in France was almost exclusively a man’s world.
Along with two colleagues, Child labored for 12 years on their magnum opus, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The manuscript was rejected by a major American publishing house as too detailed and plodding. Fortunately, a bright editor at a rival company in New York City recognized it as a classic. The publisher, however, held out little hope of its success. In this instance, his usual acumen failed him completely.
The French Chef, broadcast on public television, was an immediate hit, though she was initially paid only $50 per show. In the opening episode, she made beef bourguignon, a favorite French dish. Child offered sound advice to listeners. Be fearless in the kitchen. Experiment. Do not be discouraged by failure.
Paul became her business manager after he left government service. He went everywhere with Child. He was a constant presence.
She never spoke about retirement. At 75, she landed a new gig on a major TV network. At 87, she launched a 27-part cooking show. At 91, she started writing her memoir.
Child was a force to be reckoned with, and her success encouraged ambitious women to aim higher. Julia provides viewers with a well-rounded portrait of an amazing and supremely talented women.