This week marks the centennial of the birth of Julia Child, and Julia stories abound. Here’s mine (a longer version appears in the IACP Frontburner).
I first met Julia in the spring of 1982, when I was a novice cooking school director. My job earned me the privilege of being a scullery assistant for Julia at the annual Los Angeles Planned Parenthood three-day Gourmet Gala extravaganza. Can you believe I still have the recipe booklets??
One day, as I cleared the cooking stage and Julia chatted with fans, she asked me to fetch some chuck stew meat and grind it for hamburgers for her own après-class meal. Here’s the thing: I was (still am) a self-taught, make-it-up-as-I-go type who had never before used a meat grinder. After I muddled through publicly, Julia asked me how I thought we should season the meat. We began to cook together, seasoning the meat with thyme (her gentle suggestion: they go so well together, don’t you think), and sautéing the burgers in butter.
Our serendipitous “private” class taught me a lot: how to make a decadent burger and a bit about the art of being a kind teacher.
Fast forward 21 years to Julia’s last public appearance, a benefit I co-chaired for the preservation of old cookbooks. Already frail but still passionate about the cause, Julia was determined to fulfill her honorary chair role if she could. At 3pm on the day of the event, the decision was made, and Julia and her assistant, Stephanie Hersh, barreled down Highway 101 at full speed in Stephanie’s compact from Montecito to the Beverly Hills Four Seasons Hotel. And headed right back up the coast after the event so Julia could sleep in her own bed. Today’s lesson: commitment.
The next day, Julia’s longtime friend, visiting culinary historian and event keynote speaker Barbara Haber, and Nancy Zaslavsky and I drove up to Montecito toting a moveable feast from Suzanne Goin. We spent an idyllic afternoon at Casa d’Orinda. Nancy and I were giddy at our good fortune to be able to listen to the two Cambridge friends have a good gossip. Ever gracious, Julia’s thank you note to me arrived in the mail a day or two later. Got it: no matter how big a one-name celeb you are, remember your friends and your manners!
The following summer, 2004, Julia’s great-nephew Alex Prud’homme and his family coincidentally came to housesit for my neighbors while he worked with Julia on My Life in France. Alex commuted up to Montecito regularly and would return with stories of his visits with Julia. The Prud’hommes were about to leave for Santa Barbara to attend Julia’s birthday celebration when the call came. Her last lesson to us all: stay productive until the end.