Julia Child Wasn't a Chef

Julia Child: The Last Interview and Other Conversations / Melville House

Julia Child never forgot her first French meal. “It was so good! We had oysters and sole meuniere and crème fraiche and beautiful wine…and I’ve never turned back!” The moment would not only mark the beginning of a new life for Child, it would furnish her with a vital principle: to be any good as a cook, and to really determine what good food is, “first, I think you have to learn how to eat.” A new collection of interviews affords a unique way of tracing the impact of that meal through the rest of her life. Julia Child: The Last Interview collects six conversations spanning the length of Child’s career as a public figure and culminating in what would prove to be her final interview before her death in 2004.

Child was almost fifty when the publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I marked her entrée into the public eye in 1961. Though no single conversation provides a complete biography, the six taken together make up a picture of the years before she became the world’s most recognizable cook. She spent nearly a decade working for the OSS (precursor to the CIA) in Ceylon and China before moving to France, attending Le Cordon Bleu, opening her own cooking school for American ex-pats, and finally returning to the U.S. to publish the first of many bestselling cookbooks and become one of the first television cooks in history.

The interviews vary in their emphasis—one includes a lengthy discussion of U.S. foreign policy, while another includes an abundance of behind-the-scenes details about Child’s first television program, The French Chef— but at some point in every interview Child meditates on her job description. “I’m not a chef,” she insists, “I’m a teacher and a cook.” Over and over she reiterates the conviction that she is first and foremost an educator. This distinction allows her to differentiate her work from the new breed of food programming she saw on the rise in her later years. “I’m very much interested in the Food Network, but they have to make money, so they have to have entertainment,” she says, contrasting their model with the kind of “serious teaching show” she could produce on PBS.

The rift toward which Child points has only widened since her death. We now have a preponderance of cooking shows (some of them beautifully shot and well produced) that highlight the skill of professional chefs and the artful difficulty of their craft—from highbrow examples like open-flame cooking in Patagonia, to more popular competitions pitting trained cooks against each other in a race to make something edible from a basket of duck breast, eggplant, and cotton candy. But to hear Child tell it, she was never interested in difficult cooking. Indeed, “It’s very easy” is a common refrain in these pages. Child's unflappable TV persona is unmistakable even here, flattened into transcripts. “Why should you have [salad dressing] bottled? It’s so easy to make.” If the culinary entertainer wants to convince his audience that what he does is difficult, the good culinary teacher clearly has the opposite aim.

When she was asked in 1984, “What advice would you give to someone who is just learning to cook—to a real beginner?” Child answered, “Find a good friend who’s also a good cook…and get a good cookbook…follow it seriously and just start cooking…Plunge in fearlessly!” Whether it’s a book or a cook, she seems to say, cooking can be easy if you apprentice yourself to a good teacher. By being that teacher for millions, Julia Child did more than make cooking look easy; she made it so.

Sean Johnson is an associate editor of the Forma Journal and the FORMA Review. He teaches humanities at Trinitas Christian School in Pensacola, Florida.

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