Child's Play in the Kitchen

The Fascinating Life of Julia Child

Julia Child was a towering figure in television, and not just because she stood six-foot-one-and-three-quarter-inches tall. With her booming voice and approachable style, Child brought haute cuisine to the masses through some forty years of cooking shows and a shelf full of best-selling cookbooks.

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The French Chef, the first and most famous of her nine public television series, debuted on WGBH in Boston in 1963. Along with making her mark on air, Child had a major impact beyond it. Her emphasis on fresh ingredients encouraged Americans to move away from frozen and other packaged food and to shop for and cook meals in a different way. In essence, she helped change everyday life. Child also played an important role in building an audience for public television during its early years. A staple of nascent pledge drives, Child—with boundless energy and eccentric humor—helped public television find an audience, and she eventually became the first PBS personality to win an Emmy. When Child retired to California in the late nineties, she donated her Cambridge kitchen, with its famous Garland stove, pots and pans, and eight hundred knives, to the Smithsonian Institution.

Born in Pasadena, California, in 1912, Child did not learn to make meals from her mother. Her family employed a cook, but “Bon Appetit!” experiences were few. “Gray lamb with mint,” Child recalled, was a typical dish. After graduating from Smith College in 1934, Child worked in advertising in New York for a time before returning to California. When World War II began, her height kept her out of the female branches of the armed services, the WACS and WAVES, but she was able to do her part for the war effort as a file clerk for the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the CIA. A foreign posting to Ceylon was the turning point in Child’s life. It was there she met Paul Child, an artist and OSS official who would become her husband in 1946. Paul spoke fluent French, and he loved a fine dining experience—two factors that would define his wife’s career.

Living in Washington, DC, after the war, Child began to learn to cook, but not until the couple moved to Paris, where in 1948 Paul took a job with the United States Information Agency, did she delve into the creation of great cuisine in a meaningful way, including classes at the legendary Cordon Bleu. It was there that she met Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, who would become her partners first in a cooking school and then as coauthors of a French cookbook for Americans.

The research and writing of the eight-hundred-page Mastering the Art of French Cooking took ten years. It was while promoting the book on a literary talk show on Boston’s public television station in 1962 that Child began her TV career. By then a resident of nearby Cambridge, where she and her husband moved upon his retirement, Child arrived at her appearance on WGBH with a bowl, a whisk, and some eggs. When she began making an omelet on the air, a fifty-year-old overnight sensation was born. Her fresh and funny manner led to her own show on WGBH. The French Chef was chosen for the title because it fit easily on one line in TV Guide.

Child’s formula was simple: in a studio kitchen, she chatted away while making the dishes of the week, which, she always insisted, were within the grasp of any cook willing to follow the recipes. She then consumed the food with a glass of wine at hand. Though Child’s inclusion of wine with a meal, in the European manner, led to her image as the sozzled chef, it also had a profound impact on the wine business in the United States. Americans suddenly began demanding wine with meals. Alas, Child’s televised wine was not the real thing, but a combination of Gravy Master and water.

Child was diligent about following a recipe, but less fussy about everything else. If a pan fell, so be it. She was famously said to have dropped a chicken on the floor—it was actually a potato pancake—which she retrieved and put back in the pan. “Remember, you are alone in the kitchen, and no one can see you,” she told her viewers. Child’s mistakes, and her carefree reaction to them, were key to her success: they made viewers feel she was one of them. The spontaneity of The French Chef was born in part of low budgets. With no funds for reshoots, each installment was filmed straight through and included Child’s errors and ad-libs. Before long, The French Chef was an essential part of America’s television diet. After filming some 200 programs on French cooking, Child moved on to contemporary cuisine with Julia Child and Company and other PBS shows. Though not technically the producer of her early programs, Child was very involved in creating them. Her personality, combined with her cooking techniques and style, contributed enormously to the show’s look, feel, and taste. Her manner was so distinctive and became such a part of seventies pop culture that she received one of television’s highest honors: a parody on Saturday Night Live. In a 1978 sketch, Dan Aykroyd played her bleeding to death from cooking-related wounds.

Child had many opportunities to move to commercial television—and in the eighties she was cooking editor for Good Morning America concurrent with her PBS duties—but in general she preferred the freedom afforded by WGBH, where she could cook whatever she wanted without regard to trends or the feelings of commercial sponsors.

Child was active in a number of professional organizations, including the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

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