From the Archives: Master Chef Brought Cuisine to the Masses

Julia Child tapes an episode of "The French Chef" in April 1970. Through the program, which made its debut in 1963, she became public television's first bona fide star.
(Paul Child)

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.

When she was 25, her mother died. She returned to California, where she dated Harrison Chandler, whose father, Harry, was publisher of the Los Angeles Times, but turned down his proposal of marriage. She was searching for meaning in her life, she told her biographer, Noel Riley Fitch. World War II helped her find it.


Too tall to join the military, she moved to Washington in 1942 and became a typist in the War Information Office. She later was hired as a researcher in the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the CIA, where she developed a shark repellent to protect airmen downed at sea. When the OSS wanted to open a branch in India, Julia volunteered.

The branch headquarters was a tea plantation in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). On May 1, 1944, out on the veranda, she met Paul Child, an artist turned mapmaker for the OSS who was 10 years her senior. They couldn’t have been more different.

“He had lived in France and I’d only been to Tijuana,” she told Fitch, “and he was also an intellectual. I was a kind of Southern California butterfly, a golf player and tennis person who acted in Junior League plays.”

But they became good friends in India and grew closer in Kunming, China, their next posting, where they relished excursions to local restaurants. (Chinese food would become her second favorite cuisine, after French.) Paul Child was a passionate gourmet who introduced Julia to a world where food was not merely nourishment but a sensual experience.


To capture his heart, Julia knew that she would have to learn to cook.

Back in the States after the war, she enrolled in the Hillcliff School of Cookery in Beverly Hills. When Paul Child came to visit, she cooked him calves’ brains in red wine sauce, but the results were disastrous.

But Paul “married me in spite of my cooking,” on Sept. 1, 1946. They lived in Washington, D.C., for two years, until Paul got a job as an exhibits officer for the U.S. Information Service in Paris.

En route to Paris from Le Havre, the Childs stopped in Rouen for lunch. Julia’s meal -- oysters Portugaises on the half-shell, sole meuniere browned in Normandy butter, a green salad, creme fraiche and cafe filtre -- was epiphanic.


“It was just divine food,” Child recalled decades later. “I never got over it. The whole experience was just something new and beautiful.”

She signed up at a Berlitz school to amplify her college French. She then registered at Le Cordon Bleu, the renowned school of French cooking. She was the only woman in Chef Max Bugnard’s class for ex-GIs who wanted to become professional cooks.

At 37, she realized that she “really knew just about nothing” about cooking. “I’d never made a real cake before,” she said. “I’d never made mayonnaise.”

Suddenly, she was skinning orange segments for canard a l’orange, rolling out dough for quiche lorraine, and mashing potatoes into white sauce for gnocchi a la florentine. From the moment she enrolled, Paul Child became a “Cordon Bleu widower” whose wife could not be pried from the kitchen day or night, “not even with an oyster knife.”


In 1951 Child met Beck, her future co-author, who introduced her to an exclusive gastronomic society for women known as Le Cercle des Gourmettes. With her friend Bertholle, Beck had written a slim French cookbook for Americans. Stymied in their attempts to get it published, they were advised by their editor to find “an American who is crazy about French cooking” to collaborate with them. Child embraced the role. Believing most cookbooks failed to give enough detail, she said, “I thought we could really do something to explain French cooking to America.”

First, however, the three women decided to open their own cooking school, L’Ecole des Trois Gourmandes, which charged $5 a lesson for classes in the Childs’ Left Bank apartment.

Work on the cookbook began in earnest in 1952. Beck developed the recipes and Child translated them into readable English. But Child wound up doing far more. When Beck sent her a recipe, Child tested it until it was foolproof. Bertholle would add some flourishes, then Child would write the final version.

It was Child’s idea to provide do-ahead steps, an innovation that kept the busy American housewife in mind. She also adjusted the recipes to accommodate American-size portions and supplies available in U.S. supermarkets.


She hated the skimpy directions offered in most American cookbooks. A typical recipe for chicken, for instance, said to spread butter on the carcass and broil for 20 minutes — by which time, Child observed, “it was burning.”

Her recipes were deliberately voluminous. Beating and folding egg whites alone took up four pages that detailed the exact number of strokes per second, the hand motion, even which part of the arm and wrist to employ. There were 50 pages on sauces, another 50 on poultry, and 100 on vegetables. (The longest recipe appeared in Volume II of “Mastering,” published in 1970, which in 22 pages explained how to make French bread.) If a book could hold a nervous cook’s hand, describing what a dish should look and feel like at every step, “Mastering” did.

“I was sure it was revolutionary,” Judith Jones, her longtime editor, told Bon Appetit in 2002. “It was like having a teacher right there beside you in the kitchen, and everything really worked.” It took 10 years to complete the tome. When at last the authors delivered the 700-page manuscript, Houghton Mifflin rejected it, pronouncing it “utterly unpublishable.” But Alfred A. Knopf, a gourmet as well as a publisher, quickly scooped it up, even though he mainly published fiction.

In 1961, when Child was 49, her public career was launched. Craig Claiborne, then the food editor of the New York Times, called the book “monumental ... what may be the finest volume on French cooking ever published in English.”


Although Claiborne, James Beard and others also were laboring to refine the American palate (pre-Child, the most popular cookbooks in the U.S. had titles like “The Can Opener Cookbook” and “10-Minute Meals”), “Mastering” created a sensation: People cooked their way through it, chapter by chapter. Said Beard, “I only wish I had written it myself.”

The book did not win raves from everyone. The New Yorker, for instance, frowned on the authors’ use of canned salmon and broth, among the book’s few concessions to the American god of convenience. The book’s success led in fairly short order to television. Invited to appear on a book review program on WGBH-TV, Boston’s educational television station, Child brought along a copper bowl and a giant wire whisk and proceeded to show viewers how to whip egg whites. “Who is this mad woman cooking an omelet on a book review program?” producer Russell Morash, Child’s future producer and director, thought the first time he saw her.

The station received 28 letters asking for more cooking demonstrations, a level of response that, for public television, suggested a hit in the making. Child filmed three pilot episodes. Dubbed “The French Chef,” the first show, on making a French omelet, aired Feb. 11, 1963.

The timing was fortuitous. The Kennedys had installed a French chef in the White House, and more Americans were traveling to Europe, where they acquired new tastes. A generation of nascent foodies tuned in for instruction, while others began to watch because its star, this droll mistress of cuisine bourgeoise, was so entertaining.


One time the show opened on a boiling pot of water shrouded by a piece of cheesecloth. Suddenly Child was in the picture, lifting the cheesecloth and inquiring, “What’s cooking under this gossamer veil? Why, here’s a great big, bad artichoke, and some people are afraid of it.”

She appeared in a pith helmet and fired a popgun to snare a squab for a show on “Small Roast Birds.” She wore a raincoat and an umbrella to dry lettuce with a salad spinner. She deftly deadpanned one-liners. “I have a self-cleaning floor,” she remarked after dropping potato peelings on hers. Afterward, viewers wrote to ask where they could purchase their own wonder floor.

Many viewers tuned in simply “to see just what rule of gastronomic or television decorum Julia might break tonight,” food historian Robert Clark observed. Her antics inspired not only the “Saturday Night Live” cast but a light opera in 1991 called “Bon Appetit,” which starred Jean Stapleton as Child.

The PBS show was broadcast from 1963 to 1966, went on hiatus while Child worked on the second volume of “Mastering,” then returned for another run from 1970 to 1973. In 1965, it won a Peabody. In 1966, it earned public television’s first Emmy. It remained a hot property for PBS and cable through the 1990s.


Child’s other television shows included “Dinner at Julia’s,” “Baking with Julia,” “Julia Child and Company” and “Julia Child — Cooking with Master Chefs.” Most were accompanied by cookbooks.

One of her last cookbooks reflected the changing tastes and technologies of the 1980s. Called “The Way to Cook,” it encompassed more dishes thought of as American, endorsed the use of such tools as the food processor, and was more health-conscious.

She was criticized over the years for favoring food that padded the hips while depleting the pocketbook. “Take Julia Child off the air,” one unhappy viewer complained years ago. “No more of her expensive recipes from Mars with a gallon of booze.” Some viewers thought alcohol was the reason for Child’s looniness, an accusation Child dismissed as pure bunk.

Although her later recipes, in a nod to the calorie police, reduced fat here and there, she disdained diet foods, which she called fake food. “I, for one, would much rather swoon over a few thin slices of prime beefsteak, or one small serving of chocolate mousse, or a sliver of foie gras, than indulge to the full on such nonentities as fat-free gelatin puddings,” she wrote in the introduction to her 1989 book “The Way to Cook.” “In spite of food fads, fitness programs, and health concerns, we must never lose sight of a beautifully conceived meal.”


To further the appreciation of gastronomy for amateurs and professionals alike, Child helped found the American Institute of Wine and Food with vintner Robert Mondavi in 1981. She donated 2,500 books, papers and manuscripts — the largest collection of cookbooks in the country — to the library of gastronomic literature at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University and Radcliffe College. And she was a driving force behind the effort to preserve Beard’s Greenwich Village brownstone and turn it into a culinary center housing the James Beard Foundation.

Although bent with age and walking with a cane, Child still had the stamina to tape a new show, with master chef Jacques Pepin, when she was 85, and went on the road to promote it and the accompanying book. By then, Paul Child, the man for whom she put on her signature blue apron and took up cooking in earnest, was no longer by her side. Her collaborator, manager, sous-chef and dishwasher, who also provided many of the photographs and drawings that illustrated her bestselling guides, died in 1994 at the age of 92. The couple never had children.

Child is survived by a sister, Dorothy Cousins of Mill Valley, Calif.; three nieces, Dr. Philadelphia Cousins of Golden, Colo., Carol Gibson of Hartland, Vt., and Patty McWilliams of Middletown Springs, Vt.; and three nephews, Sam Cousins of Sherman, Conn., John McWilliams of McLellanville, S.C., and David McWilliams of South Strafford, Vt.

Burial will be private. A public memorial service is being planned.


Alex Prudhomme, her late husband’s grandnephew, is completing Child’s last book, a memoir of the Childs’ years in the diplomatic service, which is due out in 2006 from Knopf.

The woman who considered her paramount life goals to be “marrying a nice man and cooking nice food” said Paul Child’s death took some of the fun out of being the doyenne of American home cuisine. But retirement had no appeal either.

In late 2001, Child closed the rambling, three-story house in Cambridge that she had shared with her husband for 40 years and moved permanently to a compact apartment in a planned community in the Santa Barbara area, where they had spent their winters. She donated most of her Cambridge kitchen to the Smithsonian, sending her French copper pots to Copia and keeping a few small no-stick frying pans and her favorite heavy-duty kitchen shears for whipping out a hamburger or a crepe.

Her new kitchen was about the size of a boat galley and could seat only six.


Yet “I never feel lonely in the kitchen,” she told Time magazine recently. “Food is very friendly. Just looking at a potato, I like to pat it. There’s something so pleasant about a big baking potato or a whole bunch of peas in their shells.... [T]o me, the kitchen has never stopped being a place just full of possibilities and pleasures.”