With zest and good humor, TV chef taught a generation

`French chef' taught a generation the fun of food with zest and ease

Julia Child : 1912-2004

August 14, 2004|By Sara Engram and Elizabeth Large | Sara Engram and Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

Julia Child, the beloved "French Chef" whose pioneering cookbooks, instructional television shows and culinary joie de vivre changed the way America cooked, died Thursday at her home in Southern California, three days before her 92nd birthday.

Mrs. Child had been suffering from kidney failure and died at her home in Santa Barbara, Calif., according to a niece, Philadelphia Cousins.

In a career that spanned more than four decades and made her a culinary legend, the immensely talented but down-to-earth Child inspired generations of chefs and taught a nation obsessed with convenience that making good food could be fun.

FOR THE RECORD - A Saturday front-page article on the death of Julia Child and an appreciation in the Today section incorrectly reported when Child died. It was early Friday morning, according to family members.
The Sun regrets the errors.

"She stands front and center of the American culinary revolution," said renowned wine critic Robert Parker. "She was there in the beginning."

A 6-foot-2 American folk hero, she was known to fans as Julia. Her cooking lessons on her landmark public television shows ended with a set table and her signature sign-off, "Bon appetit."

In an A-line skirt and blouse, and an apron with a dish towel tucked into the waist, Mrs. Child grew familiar enough to be parodied, including by Dan Aykroyd on NBC's Saturday Night Live. But she always seemed to accept the jokes - and the imitations of her instantly recognizable voice - with her own good sense of humor.

Decades of popularity prompted President Bush last year to give her a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

Alice Waters, executive chef and owner of Chez Panisse, the celebrated restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., said Ms. Child paved the way for the championing of fresh, locally grown ingredients in Ms. Waters' own food movement in the 1960s.

But while Ms. Waters saw food in part as a vehicle for social change, Mrs. Child focused on it as pleasure.

She remembers being "completely embarrassed" by Mrs. Child at a forum early on in her career when she was first interested in organic ingredients.

"I was ranting and raving about the purity of a chicken, and it was more important to her how to cook the chicken. I was up on my soap box, and she didn't want that to get in the way of people's enjoyment of cooking - or eating. I came to respect that."

Before Mrs. Child burst on the public scene in the early 1960s, American food was suffering from an overdose of concern for convenience and too little attention to flavor, freshness and taste.

"She brought a new level of culinary consciousness to Americans," said Diane Feffer Neas, a Kingsville restaurant consultant who knew Mrs. Child and cooked for her a number of times. A few years ago, when Mrs. Child was in town for a meeting of the American Institute of Food and Wine, which she helped found, Ms. Neas introduced her to steamed Maryland crabs.

Simplicity first

With mallet in hand, Old Bay on her fingers and advice from companions, she attacked her crustaceans with gusto. "They're absolutely marvelous. I hope to have them again," she said then.

Ms. Neas said that when she cooked for Mrs. Child, she always tried to make simple fare, like crab cakes. "As long as I used good, fresh and simple ingredients, she loved it," Ms. Neas said.

In the introduction to her seventh book, The Way to Cook, Mrs. Child shared her philosophy about entertaining: "Dining with one's friends and beloved family is certainly one of life's primal and most innocent delights, one that is both soul-satisfying and eternal. ... In spite of food fads, fitness programs, and health concerns, we must never lose sight of a beautifully conceived meal."

John Shields, chef and owner of Gertrude's restaurant at the Baltimore Museum of Art, remembers working as a chef in a French restaurant in the 1980s in Berkeley, Calif., and simply using Mrs. Child's books and recipes. Years later, they met and she helped him promote his television show.

"It was a joyous event for her to be around food," he said.

In this era of celebrity chefs, Child was refreshingly unpretentious.

"We would be in a meeting, and when we went around the room and everyone would introduce themselves, she would always say, `I'm Julia Child, and I'm a teacher.' She would never say, `I'm a chef,'" Ms. Neas recalled.

"We'd go to the market, and she'd buy Wonder Bread," said celebrity chef Jacques Pepin, who had been friends with Mrs. Child since 1960 and starred with her in several television shows. "She had no snobbism about food whatsoever. She loved iceberg lettuce."

He remembered the first time he went to her house for dinner with his wife. She led him back to the kitchen and together they prepared oysters, pork chops and potatoes. "There was never a time I had breakfast, lunch or dinner at her house that I didn't cook. It was very casual. She liked to get everyone involved."

Her easygoing personality was evident in her cookbooks, said Cynthia Kammann, 54, from Linthicum Heights, who was shopping at Williams-Sonoma in Cross Keys yesterday. "You couldn't read one of her cookbooks without chortling or smiling."

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