The Enduring Legacy of Julia Child
She would have been 110 years old this week
This week was Julia Child's birthday; born August 15, 1912 Child would have been 110.
Child's co-written book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, along with her television show, The French Chef, made Child a celebrity chef long before there was such a thing.
Child was an unlikely figure to become a beloved television personality even in 1963 when it debuted.
She was considered too tall to join the United States Navy's WAVES or the Womens' Army Corps, and with an unusual voice, Child nevertheless became a beloved television figure because of her joie de vivre and her ability to capture the attention of people. In an era that embraced the modernity of frozen TV dinners and instant Jell-O, Child reminded people that the act of cooking for someone is also an act of love. She also taught American housewives — and later everyone else, that cooking need not be a chore — it can be a creative outlet and a source of great pride.
Nearly two decades after her death in 2004 at the age of 91, Child is still much loved and revered. The movie Julie and Julia in which Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci brought Child and her beloved husband, Paul, to life, brought a renewed interest in the French Chef.
In 2021 a documentary on her life, entitled Julia, was released, and HBO released an excellent series, also entitled Julia, this past year which focuses on Child's rise to television fame.
Child did more than merely entertain. She also influenced a cadre of talented women to enter the culinary world — once a profession only overseen by men. We interviewed a handful of women chefs who talk about her legacy.
Alex Guarnaschelli, herself a chef, restaurateur, and television personality — her show Alex vs. America is now airing on Food Network — says that she grew up with Julia Child on TV. “My mom watched Julia Child on PBS. She would take notes, shop, and recreate the dishes.,” she says. “Those classic dishes and flavors woke me up to food. The aroma of melting Gruyere, the floral notes in a lemon curd, or the pure beefy flavor from a simple stew. They became the very flavors I have pursued and tried to recreate my whole career.”
Nina Compton, who won the 2018 James Beard award for Best Chef, South and was named Best New Chef by Food & Wine in 2017, says Julia Child’s legacy is long lasting. The Top Chef season 11 “fan favorite” and owner of Compere Lapin and Bywater American Bistro, both in New Orleans, says of Child, “She was able to tap into peoples’ curiosities about French cuisine and present it in a way that was sophisticated but not scary. She made it approachable for people who might have thought it was beyond their abilities — cooking wise — and also assured them it was OK to try and fail and try again, She helped teach a generation that being a good cook was not just about innate talent — it was also about practice. And to have fun while doing it.”
Sophina Uong, chef/owner of New Orleans’ Mister Mao calls Child “fearless.” The chef says, “She was a force of nature, empowering women to pursue a culinary career defying the norm. She encouraged institutions like the Culinary Institute of America to become more inclusive,” she says. “She basically kicked open the door for women chefs so we would be stronger and surpass our male peers unapologetically. She also taught me to love butter and cream, which was a luxury to have in our Asian household. They were mysterious ingredients to me.”
James Beard award-winning chef, Michelle Bernstein, who is a partner in Miami’s Cafe la Trova, didn’t grow up watching Child on TV, but found her just as she, herself, was embarking on her own culinary career. “Julia is the reason I had the courage to travel to France to pursue my dreams and work under chef Jean-Louis Palladin. It was a tough kitchen to be in as a young woman and as an American. They didn’t believe I had the same skills and strength as the men on the line,” she says.
“I often thought of Julia at this time and she gave me the grit to push through and show them what I was capable of doing. I met her a little later in life at a chance encounter at the grocery store. I approached her and she gave me the warmest, most genuine embrace. It’s something I will never forget. I ran home to grab my cookbook of hers and had her sign it. She was such an inspiration to so many women and home cooks and for me as a professional cook to pursue my dreams despite the industry being predominantly male-driven.”