Famed New England chef Jasper White was taking a quick tour of the Julia Child’s kitchen exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in late June when he came face to face with himself from more than 20 years ago.
As one of Child’s favorite chefs and someone who had often cooked at her house, the kitchen — which was moved to the museum intact from her Cambridge, Mass., home — was very familiar to him.
But it became even more familiar when he turned a corner and found a television screen broadcasting one of Child’s old shows — including one in which he was teaching her how to make his special pan-roasted lobster.
White was at the museum for the judging of the newly created Julia Child Award, started by the foundation that bears her name in cooperation with the Smithsonian. The annual award will honor a food world figure who best represents Child’s legacy of education, innovation and mentorship.
The first winner will be announced Aug. 15, on what would have been Child’s 103rd birthday. At a gala event at the Smithsonian on Oct. 22, the winner will be presented $50,000 to donate to a charity of his or her choice.
White was not the only one experiencing a deja vu moment that day. Two of the other judges — Mozza’s Nancy Silverton and Bon Appetit Management Co.’s Jim Dodge — had also appeared on on her show “In Julia’s Kitchen With Master Chefs,” in which Child gave some of America’s best young chefs their first national television exposure.
The remaining judges were Darra Goldstein, the founding editor of the journal Gastronomica, awards director Tanya Steel, who has edited at Food & Wine, Gourmet and Epicurious, and myself. All three chefs have vivid memories of doing the show.
“When I did Julia's show, there was a lot of talk about killing a lobster on TV,” White wrote in an e-mail. “A few months before, ['Today Show' host] Katie Couric had screamed after someone dropped a lobster into a pot of boiling water and the producers didn't want Julia to take any heat.”
They talked through some alternative methods, but when White said the result wouldn’t be as good, Child stood firm.
“Julia decided we would not sacrifice flavor for animal-rights paranoia. I cut up the lobster in record time and Julia showed no emotion. She never did take any heat for it, but I did — TV Guide referred to me as the ‘cruel chef.’ ”
Silverton, who appeared in “In Julia’s Kitchen With Master Chefs” and “Baking With Julia,” remembers one particular taping including a moment of sheer terror, followed immediately by total bliss.
“Before the show, Julia took me aside and explained that she was not big on editing and that when I needed to wrap up my segment, she would tap me on my hip with her hand.
“Well, I am making this brioche tart with stone fruits and a hot wine syrup. I'm sauteing the fruits and putting the tart together when I get the tap. So, I quickly finish it off and cut a forkful and hand it to Julia who tastes it. There is silence.
“Then I see tears in her eyes and then she starts crying. I am thinking ‘Oh my, I've burned Julia Child.’ But, then Julia says, ‘That is the most delicious dessert I have ever had.’ ”
For Dodge, a longtime friend of Child and her husband, Paul, the tapings weren’t as memorable as some other moments, especially the grand opening of the Smithsonian exhibition in 2002.
“My favorite memory? Having her arm in mine as she entered for the first time her Cambridge kitchen at the Smithsonian American History Museum,” he e-mailed.
“Once inside she stopped, squeezed my arm and said, ‘How much Paul would have loved this, I am sorry he is not here to see it.’ For me this was just another reminder of what an incredible marriage they had.”