The Legacy of Julia Child

by Emily Bell
May 2010

Most Americans immediately associate Julia Child with three things: a goosey, pitch-jumping voice, impressive height—dwarfing most of the guest chefs on her shows—and Mastering the Art of French Cooking. And while they would be correct to identify her for all of those things—and lately for the film “Julie & Julia”—what makes Julia Child such an enduring figure in the annals of American culinary history (complete with the relocation of her Cambridge kitchen to the Smithsonian) is her impact not just on home cooks, but on professional chefs.

Julia Child did not, by any means, consider herself a chef. “If pressed she would say ‘I guess I’m a pretty good teacher,’” says longtime editor and friend Judith Jones. Despite being surrounded by chefs, working constantly with chefs, and having many close friendships with chefs, Child never assumed the mantle of the chef herself. She even rationalized why she, a non-chef, starred in a show called The French Chef for over twenty years. “Why The French Chef, since I am neither the one nor the other?” she asks in her preface to the 40th Anniversary Edition to Mastering the Art of French Cooking. “The first reason was that I always hoped we would have some real French chefs on the shows,” Child explains. “We never managed that until later on. The second and more important reason: the title was short, it described the shows as real French cooking, and, of equal significance, it fit on a single line in the TV guides.”

So while adamantly insistent that she was not a chef, and while catering inclusively to a non-professional cooking and dining public, Child nonetheless had a pivotal role in the success of generations of chefs around the world. How? Child’s work endeavored to bridge the gap between the cloistered traditions of classical French cuisine and the capabilities—and quieter aspirations—of the home cook. And in bridging this uncharted gulf between an effectively non-culinary public and rank and file professional French chefs, Child opened generations of palates to the sublime potential of fine cuisine. Jones sums it up neatly: “In awakening us to taste, [Julia] also prepared us to appreciate and demand wonderful cooking from our chefs. In that way,” she says, “Julia prepared us all for good cooking.”

But Julia Child was an unlikely hero of cuisine—French or American. Prior to meeting her future husband, Paul Child, Julia McWilliams, a California native and erstwhile advertising employee, had never delved deeply into cooking. Among her earliest food memories were the sturdy two-dimensional classics of the early to mid 20th century: rib roasts, creamed onions, lobster salad with Melba toasts, and a variety of oddly shaped aspics. It was only when she married Paul—brought up on a lifetime of home cooking—that Child dutifully took up her pots and pans and ventured earnestly into cooking.

And she was among the first well-to-do housewives to do so. “Nobody I knew, either American or French, seemed at all interested in la cuisine Francaise,” Child recalls of her trailblazing culinary days in Paris. Along with French counterparts Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, Child eagerly plumbed the annals of French culinary history, daring to tread in a chefs-only world on behalf of the greater culinary good. In fact Child became the leading force in Beck and Bertholle’s nascent literary project, which would communicate to an effectively global audience (the gastronomically uninitiated) the methods, techniques, and principles of a national culinary legacy.

The crowning achievement of their determination was the most comprehensive and accessible guide to the lexicon of French cuisine ever attempted by an American—or, arguably, even a French person—the seminal Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Beyond bringing traditional French recipes and dishes to the American dining public, what the book did—and what Julia continued to do throughout her career—was emphasize the fundamentals to a nearly professional extent (from batterie de cuisine to the components of mise en place) and expand upon the array of ingredients previously unknown or underappreciated in home kitchens. Everything from game and innards to classic stocks, breads, and pastries were suddenly and generously at the fingertips of the world. Child, Beck, and Bertholle didn’t simply equip kitchens, they whet the appetites of a generation. And the book was only the beginning of Child’s influence.

Food television, now rote to the American public, was a relatively new phenomenon in the mid-to-late twentieth century. And thanks to the book’s exposure, Julia Child was its first shining star. But where today’s ubiquitous food television shows—with their catch-phrase happy, endlessly grinning-megastars—tend to diminish the public’s expectation for sophisticated cuisine, Child’s forays into television were revolutionary. They brought consciousness of a finer rank of cuisine to the widest possible audience. Beyond merely empowering the home cook to attempt a rack of lamb or soufflé, Child essentially reminded her viewing public that something better—something more sophisticated, food with greater potential and integrity—was out there, along with a generation of young, ambitious, inspired chefs.

Thanks to Child’s charming, goofy proselytizing, chefs who followed in the wake of her success encountered an increasingly eager dining public who were newly devoted to the experience of cuisine. And French wasn’t the only cuisine reinvigorated. “According to me,” Child says in the anniversary preface, “if you are thoroughly skilled in French techniques, because the repertoire is so vast, you have the background for almost any type of cuisine.” In other words, the tradition of discipline and technique that Child continuously upheld translates to every culture, every approach, and every pantry.

It would be easy to measure the impact of Child’s career in terms of book sales and televised appearances, but her real impact—whereby she helped coax Americans into a culinary evolution—is immeasurable. Child helped put America on a steady course towards culinary maturity. With no lesser example than the grand tradition of French cookery, Child taught a nation of diners and chefs to respect its own pantry. She demythologized fine cuisine, and in the culinary culture that followed, the intimidation of fine dining was replaced with awe, respect, and deserved pomp. And since the 1960s, chefs across the country have held Julia Child, their non-chef apostle, in high and grateful regard.

Remembering Julia

Julia Child was a beacon of culinary enthusiasm among her friends and contemporaries, leading the way from America’s culinary nascence. But her influence on chefs extends well beyond her own generation. Here we offer chefs a forum to remember Julia Child, either their personal encounters or the impact of her legacy on their life’s work.

"I remember when she was making cassoulet and couldn’t find garlic sausage even in New York. Next time I went over she had a wall of French charcuterie cookbooks. She said ‘It’s not much harder than making a hamburger!’"

I was working at Knopf as a young editor. No one was really doing cookbooks. This manuscript came in and it was turned down. They said no American wants to learn this much about French cooking. And it just so happened I did want to know that much about French cooking."

- Judith Jones, her former Book Editor at Knopf

"I always cherished her constant rediscovery of food—how it was always new. Whether it was another roast chicken, she would take it and enjoy it. The appreciation of food as daily.

We’d have beers and onion rings and ribs and sit down and just feast on lunch…She’d want to try all the Southwest dishes…She has a real love for Southwest cuisine. You’d think someone that traditional wouldn’t turn their head towards that but she did and that’s what made us so close.

She was an adventurer. She loved food and she was always inquisitive of things that I did in the Texas style."

- Chef Dean Fearing of The Mansion on Turtle Creek – Dallas, TX

"She was really the first teacher of home chefs. She showed America how to bring gourmet cooking into their own homes. She really was a great leader and pioneer in the industry for the rest of us to follow, and she changed the way people thought about cooking at home."

"She had such passion for what she did, and that’s really what it’s all about…the love for what we do, and she had that, and she was true to that all the time."

- Chef Todd English of Olives – Boston, MA

"For me, the great memory was cooking with her in her home, on her stove!"

"She spent a lot of time with me at 21 [in 1996], going through 21’s historic dishes that I had reinstated onto the menu in the early 90s. We also did a lot of classic French dishes…It was really an inspirational thing because we cooked in the morning and then dined together. We always talked a lot about American food and how far it had come."

"She really was a friend, a mentor and a sounding board and someone I could always talk to about food."

"He takes away from working w/ her: “A deep appreciation of ingredients and purity of flavor. Great simplicity became a driving force for me in my cooking. The beauty of a meal lies in the technique and quality of ingredients. My cooking is less about me and more about an interpretive experience—I create a dining experience for people. That was Julia’s mission, based in purity and simplicity."

"Julia once said ‘You don’t have to cook fancy for complicated masterpieces, just good food from fresh ingredients.’"

- Chef Michael Lomonaco of Porter House – New York, NY

"Julia’s work inspired me to become thoughtful and disciplined about cooking. I’m inspired by her passion and joy she evoked when she was in the kitchen."

"She was passionate about food and had such willingness to try everything. And, also, being a woman in this field, she definitely inspired a lot of women chefs to become who they are."

"She made everyone believe they can cook this way and they can make this at home. I think it paves the way for a lot of chefs, and in particular for women chefs."

- Chef Kristine Subido of Wave – Chicago, IL