Washington -- After 34 years, the woman who gave new meaning to the term "TV dinner" is still going strong: still cooking, still teaching, still telling television audiences what good cuisine is and how to put it on their own tables. Julia Child, doyenne of American cooking teachers, has just launched her latest TV series, "In Julia's Kitchen with Master Chefs."
In the series, filmed in the kitchen of Ms. Child's 1880 house in Cambridge, Mass., more than two dozen chefs talk about their culinary passions and, under the hostess' watchful eye, prepare signature dishes for folks at home to replicate.
"The point is for us, the home cook, to be able to look at the pros and see what they do and how they do it -- and it's also a window on contemporary professional cooking today," said Ms. Child sitting in her top-floor suite in a Washington hotel on a brilliant spring day.
The series, from A La Carte Productions and Maryland Public Television, is accompanied by a book written by Ms. Child with cookbook author Nancy Verde Barr that gives detailed recipes, plus tips and techniques. (The show airs at 5 p.m. Sundays on MPT; check local listings.)
"The book is written for the serious home cook. In other words, it's all do-able," Ms. Child said. Don't look for six-ingredient, 30-minute preparations, however. "I think chef's recipes are something else," she said, laughing.
"We wanted something much more detailed so the book stands on its own -- you don't have to see the television series. The recipes are detailed, in other words, lo-oong. That's my style, anyway, because I want people to be able to do it, and they need all the details. If they're put off by length, they aren't really cooks. In other words, as we say, 'It ain't for fluffies.'
Cooking as a hobby
"It's for people who really love the mechanics of cooking," she said, "and there are lots of people who do cooking as a hobby."
When it came to choosing chefs, Ms. Child said, "We chose them because we wanted a representative group from around the country. We tried to get as many backgrounds as possible."
And there was more to being on the show than being able to cook. "We had to get people who were really at ease, and could project, and who were really masters of their trade as well as communicators -- because half an hour is a long time if you can't understand what anyone's saying."
All the chosen chefs made their way to Ms. Child's kitchen, where the kitchen table had been banished in favor of a cooking island, where pipes were rigged across the ceiling to carry wires and lights, and where a huge, 2-foot wide aluminum tube snaked through a living room window to the kitchen door to provide air-conditioning on the "set."
The basement was set up as a prep area. While one chef was shooting a program upstairs, another would be downstairs getting ready to shoot the next day.
"This is very definitely a teaching show," Ms. Child said. "My role in the show is to be representing the audience -- 'Turn it this way so I can see it better,' 'Was that 350 degrees?' -- asking the questions presumably that you would want to know if you were watching."
The show is possible because America has finally taken its place in gastronomy, Ms. Child said. "I've had as good meals here as anywhere."
That that gastronomic pleasure is not embraced everywhere is one of her laments. She's especially critical of people who expand a caution about a particular food into a ban on it: Apple juice (after the alar scare), popcorn, deli sandwiches and Italian food (after attacks by the Center for Science in the Public Interest). She considers such all-or-nothing attitudes "immature thinking.
"I think it's a shame now that we have all these wonderful chefs, and we have tremendous produce and world-class wines, and a segment of our population is afraid to eat it. It's stupid -- not taking an adult point of view. Why should they be so afraid of food, when they have all the information that's there" -- such as federal dietary guidelines that suggest people eat moderate helpings of a great variety of foods, concentrating on grains and legumes, fruits and vegetables, with other foods in moderation as the best route to a healthy life.
The food phobics, she said, "have left out, 'Have a good time.' "
None of this deters Ms. Child, 82, in her pursuit of American culinary excellence. She's already planning her next series, which will be about baking.
"We're going to do a real French bread, brioche, croissants, puff pastry, health bread -- which is not one of my favorites, it tastes like baked hay, too often -- and we're also going to do the bread machine."
And after that? "I'd like very much to do [a show] with Jacques Pepin," she said. "He's a marvelous technician and he has a wonderful sense of taste, and I'd like to see him do something leisurely, maybe just one dish. But I don't have any definite plans."