Julia Child cookbook sales are on fire

Ellen Bloom of Los Angeles never owned a Julia Child cookbook and always thought the famed chef's recipes would be just too difficult for an amateur like her to master.

But after seeing the movie "Julie & Julia" at the Grove last week, she rushed to the nearest Barnes & Noble bookstore to pick up the first volume of Child's classic "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." She noticed other people from the screening had the same idea.

"The way the photography displayed the food was fantastic," she said. "Just looking at it, it looked so delicious and intriguing that I thought I might be willing to put the time in to make it myself, or at least be willing to look at the recipes."

All over the country Americans are rediscovering Child, whose long career as TV chef began in the 1960s, and she is now captivating a new generation of food lovers.

On Amazon.com, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" shot to No. 1 on its most-popular list over the weekend. Bookstores have reported sellouts. Newly minted foodies have signed up for French cooking classes and made reservations to dine at bistros.

The sudden popularity reflects a rising interest among Americans in all things food, said Alice Waters, chef-owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley.

"It has tapped into our longing for joie de vivre in the kitchen," she said. "Cooking is not drudgery; cooking is about pleasure."

Waters said this renewed interest in food is evident in far more than the weekend box-office take of $20 million for "Julie & Julia" and brisk sales of Child's cookbooks.

"You can see it in the growth in farmers markets, in how much about food is out there in blogs, the planting of a White House vegetable garden by Michelle Obama and demand for better food on college campuses," Waters said.

It's also apparent in the rapidly expanding array of food items available at mainstream grocers, said Marcela Valladolid, the San Diego chef and Mexican food specialist.

"Slow food, local food, organic food. People are thinking a lot more about their ingredients -- even when it comes to burgers and fries," she said.

Child, said Waters, epitomized the enjoyment of cooking and eating.

You would "see her smacking her lips and talking about how beautiful the vegetables are. That's what has caught fire. This is a delicious revolution," Waters said.

A revolution the late Child would no doubt approve of.

"Julia showed people that, if you cook, you occasionally drop food and occasionally burn food, and that's OK," said Guy Gabriele, a onetime associate of Child's who is now chef-owner of Cafe Pierre in Manhattan Beach and Zazou in Redondo Beach.

She was about the "demystification" of food preparation, Gabriele said.

Raised in Pasadena, Child went to work for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. There she met her soon-to-be diplomat husband, and she took up cookbook writing while they were stationed in Paris.

She died in Montecito, Calif., on Aug. 13, 2004, at age 91.

The film, starring Meryl Streep as Child, follows her time abroad as portrayed in her memoir, "My Life in France." The chef's story is intertwined with the experience of writer Julie Powell, played by Amy Adams, who blogged about attempting to cook all 524 recipes in Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" in a year.

Child's cinematic makeover has triggered the resurgence of interest in her work.

"Julia's Kitchen Wisdom" began flying off shelves last week, as did several of Child's baking books and "My Life in France," said Justin Junge, book department manager at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena. The store sold out of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," which was first published nearly 50 years ago and is listed at $40 for a hardcover copy.

Some retailers, including Whole Foods Markets, raffled off VIP passes to screenings of the movie along with French wines, Le Creuset cookware sets, even "Julie & Julia" aprons.

Although some sales were triggered by marketing tie-ins, many were simply inspired by the film's celebration of food and cooking.

Taix French Restaurant in Echo Park has seen several customers who, after the movie, developed a hankering for French cuisine, manager Jill Lembke said.

"They saw the movie and said they just had to have some French food," she said.

Employees at the Barnes & Noble at Westside Pavilion, next door to a movie theater, know when a screening of "Julie & Julia" ends because moviegoers stream in to look for books by Child and Powell.

"It was a little crazy" when the film opened last week, akin to a foodie's "Harry Potter" event, store manager Lisa Abreu said. Within an hour of the first showing, the store had sold out of its stock.

"Mastering" and several other Child books sold out on Amazon over the weekend. On Monday, six of the top seven cookbooks on the online retailer's list were by Child.

At Sur La Table stores nationwide, Julia Child cookbooks are selling at 15 times the average weekly rate, while a "What Would Julia Do" greeting card is selling well also. In West Hollywood, French brasserie Comme Ca is hosting events dedicated to Child until her birthday Aug. 15.

After seeing the film over the weekend, Jackie Lyons, a medical imaging manager at a Sonoma Valley Hospital, decided she wanted "Mastering" for her cookbook collection.

"I was just sitting there, munching on a movie theater bag of popcorn, watching beautifully baked turkeys and lobsters in the pot," she said. "I just thought, I want to try something really, really good now."

But when she went onto Amazon.com, she could find only the republished version designed to promote the film and decided to wait for the classic tome, which she could pass on to her foodie children.

Phones were ringing off the hook unexpectedly Monday morning at the New School of Cooking in Culver City, assistant director Jessica Hilton said.

On a traditionally slow weekday of a traditionally slow month, Hilton said she had already received dozens of calls about the school's professional classes, which are based on classic French techniques.

Hilton, who deemed the movie to be "cute" after seeing it, said some callers over the weekend said the film was the final nudge they needed to push them into cooking school.

"We've been slammed, it's so busy right now," she said. "It's kind of been nonstop."

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jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

tiffany.hsu@latimes.com

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