Julia Child, the masterful cooking instructor, author and television personality whose knowledge, exuberance and daft antics lured legions of inexperienced cooks into the kitchen, demystified French cuisine and launched an enduring epicurean craze in America, died early Friday at her apartment in Montecito. She was 91.

Child, a longtime Cambridge, Mass., resident who moved back to her native California in 2001, had been in generally good health, visiting farmers markets and eating out several times a week, until a month ago, when she began suffering from kidney failure, her nephew, David McWilliams, said Friday. She passed away in her sleep after a last meal of French onion soup prepared by her longtime assistant, Stephanie Hersh.

Literally a towering figure in the culinary world, the 6-foot, 2-inch Child planted the seeds of a revolution in 1961 when she published, with co-authors Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." She was an irreverent American completely at ease in the formal French kitchen, who translated that higher culinary sensibility to a generation of cooks who were intimidated by anything beyond meatloaf and casseroles. With more than 1 million copies sold and a 40th-anniversary edition published in 2001, "Mastering" is still considered the definitive classical French cookbook in the English language.

Child went on from there to blaze trails on public television, where her cooking shows have charmed and educated millions.

"She woke Americans up to the pleasures of cooking," said Alice Waters, the founder of Berkeley's famed Chez Panisse restaurant, which started its own revolution in 1971 with a fresh take on French food. "By demystifying French cooking and with her great sense of humor, she got Americans into the kitchen, experimenting on their own. That's the first step to having a different kind of relationship with food."

"She really paved the way for a restaurant like Chez Panisse," Waters added. "I am a Francophile like she was. It was so important -- the ritual of the table, sitting down and having these courses. That was happening in fancy, intimidating, three-star restaurants owned by Frenchmen in the 1950s, but there weren't a lot of little places. She got people to understand the vocabulary of the food. It allowed us to flourish from the very beginning."

A self-described ham, Child promoted "Mastering" on a Boston educational television station and wound up with her own show, "The French Chef," in 1963. Captivating audiences with her merry patter, often klutzy maneuvers and down-to-earth attitude about a cuisine that had been too haute for the masses, she became public television's first bona fide star.

By the late 1970s, Child was an American icon, ripe for parody. In a classic "Saturday Night Live" skit, comedian Dan Aykroyd blew large her foibles, showing her blithely chattering about chicken giblets and livers despite chopping off her finger and drenching the kitchen in blood. Throughout the piece, Aykroyd trilled and warbled in the falsetto familiar to anyone who had ever watched her shows.

Delighted by the spoof, Child was the first to admit that cooking was often messy and its results imperfect. But that was part of the fun.

One time she was flipping a potato pancake and dropped it. She pulled a souffle from the oven and it promptly collapsed. On another occasion, after struggling to carve a roast suckling pig, she set down the knife, rested her hands on the table and admitted defeat. But, reminding audiences that "you are alone in the kitchen and no one can see you," Child just sailed the dishes to the table as if nothing were amiss. "Never apologize" was her steadfast rule.

Along the way, Child introduced Americans to the tools of good cooking and to a bounty of unfamiliar foods, launching stampedes to kitchen supply stores and supermarkets for copper bowls and wire whisks, goose liver and leeks.

"She made mistakes in the kitchen. But by making them and fixing them, she made everyone realize that's OK," said Sara Moulton, a former prep cook for Child before becoming executive chef of Gourmet magazine and a cooking-show host on the Food Network cable channel. "She took away the fear of cooking."

In the last few years, Child was accorded both the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom and the French Legion of Honor. Her 90th birthday in August 2002 was celebrated by foodies at parties around the country, including at Copia, the wine and food museum in Napa, Calif., that named its centerpiece dining room Julia's Kitchen. The occasion also was marked by the unveiling of a replica of Child's Cambridge kitchen at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. The exhibit includes nearly all the original contents, from potato peelers to the kitchen sink.

Pro-butter, pro-salt, pro-fat and pro-red meat in moderation, Child prided herself as the loyal opposition of "food terrorists," believing their alarms about cholesterol, calories and contaminants would deprive the palate of joyful tastes. She crusaded against the minimalist tendencies of nouvelle cuisine for years.

In Child's world, cooking and eating were, above all, about having a good time.

"I can remember eating with her in the great three-star restaurants of France. She would just dig into food, swab her plate with a piece of bread. Julia believed food should be enjoyed. If there was any one lesson of Julia's, that was it," said chef Patrick Healy of Santa Monica's Buffalo Club restaurant, who once spent a summer in France with her.

Her love of gastronomy was not bred at home. Born Aug. 15, 1912, Julia McWilliams was the oldest of three children of a patrician Pasadena family who remembered the kitchen of her youth as "a dismal place." Her parents employed a series of cooks who turned out the standard meat-and-potatoes fare of the day. On the cook's night off, Julia's mother took over, but her efforts were not inspiring: Baking-powder biscuits, codfish balls and Welsh rarebit were mainstays. Fortunately, Julia had the "appetite of a wolf" and was always hungry.

She attended private schools: Polytechnic in Pasadena, Katharine Branson School for Girls in Mill Valley and Smith College, her mother's alma mater. Less a scholar than the life of the party, she graduated from college with a C average, then returned to Pasadena where she tried to immerse herself in the rituals of her social class: joining the Junior League and finding a husband.

Her height was a disadvantage in the dating game. So, with thoughts of being a novelist, she went east, where she wrote advertising copy for W.J. Sloane in New York and published a few pieces in the New Yorker.