France was her entree, then the world was her oyster

Paris -- WHEN Julia Child first came to France in 1948, she couldn't cook an omelet. She was a tall, gawky Pasadena girl married to a cultural liaison officer posted at the U.S. Embassy in Paris. She had heard the French were touchy. She couldn't speak their language and had no expectations for her stay.

At Le Havre, the couple's Buick station wagon was unloaded from the ocean liner America, and they set off toward Paris. Julia's husband, Paul, wanted to stop for lunch at La Couronne, a restaurant he knew in Rouen. She felt nervous and shy but was happy to discover that the waiters were friendly, chiefly because Paul spoke French and loved to talk about cuisine.

Then came her first taste of proper French food: briny portugaises oysters with rye bread, followed by Dover sole in butter sauce and a simple green salad. Julia felt guilty about drinking wine at lunch -- a crisp, white, Loire Valley Pouilly Fum. They had fromage blanc for dessert and espresso.

"It was the most exciting meal of my life," she wrote in "My Life in France," the book she was working on with her grand-nephew Alex Prud'homme when she died in 2004.

Reading it recently, I realized I had in my hands not just a tender memoir of Child's young married days, with photos taken by her husband, but also a guidebook to her adopted country, La Belle France.

For instance, the venerable Couronne restaurant, founded in 1345, is still open for business in a half-timbered building on Rouen's old market square. Over the years, many noteworthy people have supped there, including Salvador Dali, who especially loved the duck. To my mind, La Couronne deserves its name, which means "the crown," for serving Julia Child the meal that changed her life -- and eventually Americans' perspectives.

I met Child shortly before she died and wrote a column about her Cambridge, Mass., kitchen, installed in 2002 at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Before that, I put grease stains on my copy of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" and laughed myself silly at Dan Aykroyd's impersonation of Child boning a chicken on "Saturday Night Live."

When I moved here about three years ago, I felt as intimidated as she did at La Couronne. But I kept something she told me tucked in the back of my mind: "Being tall, like I am, I never felt inferior."

The Childs took to Paris like butter to a hot pan. At first, they stayed in the Hotel Pont Royal at 7 Rue Montalembert, now the home of L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, a restaurant created by one of the most famous chefs in France. Guests sit at the high bar lining the exposed kitchen and eat multiple small courses, instead of the big, traditional French meals Julia adored. But the food is delicious, so I think she'd approve.

The Childs ultimately settled into an apartment at 81 Rue de l'Universite on the Left Bank; "Roo de Loo," they called it. The flat had shabby, old-fashioned decor, weak electric lights and no central heating. It came with a series of nutty maids and a potbellied stove that Julia immediately replaced with a new range.

Although pressed for cash, the Childs often ate out. By accident, they discovered Le Grand Vefour, on the northern side of the Palais Royal and one of the oldest and most elegant restaurants in Paris. The head waiter soon got to know them; one day there, Julia spotted the writer Colette, widely known for her voracious appetite.

Julia celebrated her 40th birthday at the three-star restaurant Laperouse on the Left Bank: sole with truffles, roast duck and a bottle of red Chambertin from Burgundy.

By then, she knew her Burgundies from her Bordeaux and her bechamel sauce from her beurre blanc because she had enrolled at the Cordon Bleu cooking school, where she studied under chef Max Bugnard. Those classes, held at 24 Rue du Champ de Mars near the Ecole Militaire, proved to be an epiphany for her.

The Cordon Bleu, founded in 1895, moved to 8 Rue Leon Delhomme in the 15th arrondissement in 1988. Although Julia never studied at the new location, it's worth a visit if only to buy a souvenir apron or pick up a schedule of daylong and weekend-long courses suitable for visitors.

Another important stop on the cook's tour is E. Dehillerin, a kitchen store that dates to 1820, one location of which is on the Right Bank at 18-20 Rue Coquilliere. From the outside, it looks like a hardware store, but inside, the shelves are packed with highly specialized cooking implements: wire whisks in dozens of sizes, petit four molds, meat saws, pepper grinders, copper pots and smokers.

Julia roamed the aisles regularly, then sat drinking red wine in the brasserie next door while her purchases were wrapped.

The Childs were positively giddy about the City of Light. "Lipstick on my belly button and music in the air -- tha-a-t's Paris, son," wrote Paul to his twin brother, Charlie.

It was a shock when they were posted to Marseilles, then to Germany and Norway. In 1961, the Childs returned to the States, moving into an old house at 103 Irving St. in Cambridge, Mass., convenient to the studios of WGBH, Boston's public television station, where "The French Chef" would be produced.

Around the same time, Simone Beck, Julia's friend and co-author of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," offered the Childs a corner lot on the property outside the village of Plascassier in the south of France. The Childs called the small, tile-roofed house they built near the Becks' place La Pitchoune and spent time there every winter, cooking and entertaining, until Paul's health forced them to close it up in 1992.

The story of La Pitchoune then passed to Kathie Alex, a native of Long Beach, who took her first cooking class from Beck in 1979. After that, she abandoned her accounting career to work in the kitchen at Roger Verge's restaurant Le Moulin de Mougins on the Riviera, learn pastry-making with Gaston Lenotre in Paris and assist visiting French chefs at COPIA, the American Center for Wine Food & the Arts in Napa Valley.

Alex didn't want to open a restaurant. But running a cooking school appealed to her, and she found the ideal place when she was offered the chance to first rent and then buy La Pitchoune.

Now, students can beat egg whites for souffles and fill eclairs in the kitchen where Child and Beck perfected the recipes that appear in "Mastering the Art of French Cooking."

Alex's six-night Cooking With Friends in France program is offered weekly at La Pitchoune from April to June and from September to November, for $2,450. Students can stay in the house, which now has a swimming pool.

Someday, I'm going to try it.

But for now, I have a nice piece of Dover sole awaiting me for dinner, which I will cook in butter while thinking of Julia.

Julia sauteed here

Cooking With Friends in France (at La Pitchoune), 696 San Ramon Valley Blvd., No. 102, Danville, CA 94526; (800) 236-9067,