Julia Child foundation sues Williams-Sonoma over chef’s name, image

Julia Child in Montecito.
Julia Child in Montecito.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
This post has been corrected. See note below for details.

The nonprofit organization that safeguards Julia Child’s legacy has a beef with culinary retail giant Williams-Sonoma, according to a lawsuit filed last week in Santa Barbara County Superior Court.

The chain has been illegally using Child’s name and picture in online promotional materials -- which isn’t kosher, especially in light of the iconic chef’s long-standing policy against shilling for products or companies, according to the complaint.

“As almost any Julia fan can tell you that this was the policy during her lifetime,” said Todd Schulkin, spokesman for the Montecito-based Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts.


Despite numerous overtures by a range of companies over the years, Child -- who died in 2004 -- wanted to make it clear that “her opinions and guidance weren’t influenced by any outside force,” he said.

The complaint alleges Williams-Sonoma used Child’s name and photograph more than 100 times on its website, in promotional email blasts, as well as on social media -- all without asking permission. The suit also alleged Child was improperly used as a theme for a promotional contest.

Jeffrey Abrams, a lawyer for the foundation, said the suit first and foremost aims to force Williams-Sonoma to remove the images with an injunction.

He said attorneys for the foundation still need to determine the full number of images used and the value “of an American icon to be used broadly in a commercial marketing campaign for a billion-dollar food company” before estimating the damages the foundation will seek.

“Given the value of today’s food celebrities, the value will be in the millions of dollars,” he said.

Williams-Sonoma Inc. did not respond to requests for comment.

Child became a towering figure in the food world through her first cookbook, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”


But it was through her TV show, “The French Chef,” that she became instantly recognizable. That show aired on public television throughout the 1960s and featured Child cheerily reassuring the average American that they, too, could produce hearty Continental delights.

That teaching spirit, Schulkin said, manifested in her hard and fast policy against commercial endorsements.

“There’s a really consistent trail of very diplomatic responses,” he said. “‘I respect your product or offering, but that’s something I don’t do.’”

The lawsuit against Williams-Sonoma is the second such suit alleging the misappropriation of Child’s name, image and likeness that the foundation has filed.

Last year, the foundation got into a legal tiff with Thermador, the company that made the oven in which she baked the tartes aux pommes and gratins she made on her show.

A case involving an ad agency that did work for Thermador is set to go to trial on Nov. 1, Abrams said.

[For the Record, 11:19 a.m., PDT, Sept. 11: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated the Thermador case is set to go to trial Nov. 1; a case involving an ad agency that did work for Thermador is set to got on trial Nov. 1.]



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