Over in the Pro Chef’s forum, there’s this long-running fight about who gets to be called “chef.” Setting that particular piece of pedantry aside, there has also been an extensive digression about what Julia Child did or did not do, what she could or could not cook, and so on. I am not a professional in the culinary industry, thus I do not post in that forum. But I’d like to clear up a few misunderstandings.
1. Le Cordon Bleu
Julia Child did attend the Cordon Bleu at a time when a number of American and French housewives were doing so as well, learning how to boil an egg and such. Mrs. Child found this tedious and silly, and insisted that she be permitted to enroll in a serious culinary class intended for professionals. The director, at that time a notorious mediocrity, had to choose between permitting Child to join a full-on haute cuisine course and sending her to an understaffed, poorly-equipped basement course primarily for ex-GI’s intending to join low-end brigades in the States. She chose the latter, figuring Child would flee. Instead, she quickly rose to the top of the class and became a protégée of Chef Max Bugnard, one of the senior faculty. (Yes, he is permitted the title. You can use it too when you become a senior member of the teaching faculty of Le Cordon Bleu, particularly if you’re a protégé of Henri-Paul Pellaprat.) After completing the year-long course, Child took the examination and failed it because it was entirely a matter of copying out from memory some nonsense recipes from the housewives’ course pamphlet. In a rage, Child did something she disliked intensely: she pulled strings with the Embassy, and let Chef Bugnard do the same within the school. They insisted on a standing rule of the school, such that she could take the exam again, this time in an appropriate fashion. She passed it easily.
2. Mastering the Art of French Cooking
This book was and is in no sense an ordinary cookbook knocked together by anyone. It was radical, unheard-of, and remains an extraordinary statement of the foundations of la cuisine bourgeoise. Jacques Pépin’s immediate reaction upon reading the manuscript in Helen McCully’s apartment was that this was a book he really ought to have written. In a sense, Pépin has spent a good part of his cookbook-writing career attempting to do so, with indifferent success. If you think it was nothing, you might want to think very, very seriously about why Pépin, not long after arriving in the U.S.A, scouted to be Kennedy’s chef in the White House, with a permanent job awaiting him near the top of the Plaza Athenée, would respond this way to this book. These days, you could argue that he’s mellowed; then, he used to have fights with McCully about why all cake mixes are intrinsically bad. But he adored Child’s book — and later Child herself. Ask yourself why.
3. Reference Cookbooks
In passing, the counter-remark that people in that era, i.e. the 1960s, didn’t know about Larousse Gastronomique and Escoffier and so on is rather confused. Perhaps time has dulled memory. In that day, the serious French cook relied primarily on Le répertoire de la cuisine, which doesn’t bother with nonsense like ingredients and formulas, but uses dense shorthand for experts trained in the apprentice system. Pépin relied on it, as did all his colleagues — including Mrs. Child. In his memoir, Pépin notes that the first chance he got to really study things like Pellaprat and Escoffier and such was when he was working for the President — not DeGaulle, the first one he worked for — who was something of a gourmet and would decide to have his chef (Pépin) cook something he saw in the pictures in Pellaprat. This was a great education for Pépin, but an odd one: nobody actually cooked these things in restaurants, because restaurants didn’t want to lose money hand over fist.
4. Dropping Omelets
There is a common story, told again and again, that Mrs. Child was always dropping things on TV — omelets, chickens, fish, and so on. At least during her original French Chef series, this refers to a single incident: flipping a potato galette, part of which broke. She never apologized for this, nor did she permit any cutting. She felt it was essential that people learn what to do when something went wrong. (Somebody once defined a great cook in precisely these terms — perhaps Paul Bocuse?) It is worth bearing in mind, though again she herself never apologized or made excuses, that she was working on an underpowered electric ring that was bent crosswise, such that she could not get her pans hot enough. In any event, if you are sure you saw her flip an omelet and drop it, go look again: she didn’t flip omelets anyway, and the omelet shows she did on that program were quite clean. (She preferred the one-hand method to the fork method.)
In a number of interviews, including a very lengthy archival one near the end of her life, interviewers used the term “chef” in reference to Mrs. Child. She refused it flatly. She felt that a chef is someone who runs a restaurant kitchen, having worked his way up the ladder over the years. She never did this, so she rejected the title’s application to herself. Those fighting in that forum might consider her definition, incidentally.
6. Fashion and Legacy
Last but not least: Anyone who believes that Mrs. Child was following fashion, either in choosing to enroll in the Cordon Bleu (or indeed take up cooking at all while in Paris) or in entering the world of cookbooks and television cooking, is simply incorrect. In all these things she was bucking fashion, and strongly. She was in many of these things the first to do it, and she made it possible for others. When she began in Paris, American “hobby cooking” among housewives was basically nonexistent. Her husband’s colleagues at the Embassy, and their wives, refused to eat that awful French food — all snails and frogs and yuck, you know. This was the early 1950s, the era of crew cuts, McCarthy, and red-blooded burgers burnt to a crisp for good hearty red-blooded Americans.
What Julia Child did, by refusing all these things, getting serious training in French cooking, and then fighting endlessly to convince Americans to try it themselves — in the restaurant as well as at home — changed the way all Americans eat. If one had to pick a single figure as the catalyst of the “culinary revolution” — without which this website would not exist, for example, and most of the pros on here would not have jobs — Julia Child would be it. I think she would have laughed this off, frankly. She’d have said what about Pépin, or Jim Beard, or Helen McCully, or Pierre Franey, or Craig Claiborne, or Paul Prudhomme, or any of those people? No one person could possibly be responsible. But everything I know about these people — and some of them I know quite a bit about, in fact — suggests that they’d all laugh back and say, “sure, but without Julia it would never have happened.”