From the timesaving tools and French techniques she loved to a famously dropped dinner, Julia Child left a lasting impression on a generation of cooks.
In the biographical movie, “Julie & Julia,” Meryl Streep channels America’s first celebrity chef. As the movie opens, chefs and food magazine editors remember the real Child’s vast contributions to American home cooking — a scholarly yet accessible approach to recipes, an enthusiasm for efficiency and above all, a spirited sense of fun.
At the most basic level, Child introduced home cooks to their stoves, knives, pots and pans, said chef Jacques Pepin, Child’s longtime friend and collaborator.
“We’re in a country where we have to cook very, very fast with the microwave or very, very slow with Crock Pot cooking. Then you have the regular stove that’s lost in the middle,” he said.
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He said he most remembers Child’s great love for life and the great pleasure she took in cooking as well as eating.
“You often see people cook and never taste. For her, it was cook, taste, cook, taste, cook, taste. With a little sip of wine on the side,” he said.
Chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse said Child emphasized that cooking was important but need not be serious business.
“I think of her sense of humor, her joie de vivre about cooking and really about her interest in gastronomy — her academic insistence on writing the recipe right,” said Waters. “It was curiosity and exploration and learning all folded together to make food an art. That’s what she did.”
And she gave novices the confidence to try, added Art Smith, former personal chef to Oprah Winfrey. He made a whole meal out of blanched asparagus for his first girlfriend after watching Child on TV.
“Julia Child was not only an amazing cook but taught America that it could learn to cook,” said Smith. “That spirit continues to this day, and this why we have great cooking shows.”
Tina Ujlaki, executive food editor at Food & Wine magazine, said she often thinks of Child when she has kitchen mishaps.
“I don’t think, ‘What would Julia do?’ I just do what she would do: Keep on going,” she said. “That was a really big part of the Julia liberation. Not only did she teach the techniques … she said, ‘It’s OK. Relax. It doesn’t have to be perfect.”
That said, there are certain processes or gadgets that Ujlaki associates with Child. “I can’t cut up a chicken without thinking of her and how lovingly she would cut it up,” she said.
And Child did not shy away from modern appliances or tools if they made cooking easier, she said. She put her blender to work on a variety of classic soups and once told Ujlaki that she even used a stand mixer to make mashed potatoes for a crowd instead of the food mill she favored for smaller amounts.
“She probably used more gadgets than they used in typical French cooking,” she said. “She was always very quick to embrace anything that made sense, but I don’t think she had silly gadgets or gizmos. She didn’t like clutter.”
Her kitchen tools reflected her utter lack of pretense, said John Willoughby, executive editor of Gourmet magazine.
“If something worked well, for example, she really couldn’t care less if it was traditional or not; efficiency in the kitchen was always to be embraced,” he said.
The food processor is a perfect example, he said.
“When it was first introduced, I remember thinking that I probably should just ignore it, since chopping things by machine rather than by hand couldn’t possibly be right. Then Julia endorsed it, and like hundreds of thousands of other American cooks, that convinced me to give it a try. Think of the millions of hours of chopping that she has saved by her openness to new ideas.”
Child had a sure, unpretentious confidence in knowing who she was and what she loved, said Christopher Kimball, publisher of Cook’s Illustrated magazine.
“She wasn’t hopping around like so many food magazines doing the hot, latest thing,” he said, recalling how he joined Child to watch the 2000 election returns on a small TV in an alcove off her kitchen. “It was just about the food and the company,” he said.
It’s all about the whisk for Lucinda Scala Quinn, editorial director of food at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.
Quinn cooked her way through Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” as a teenager, discovering the many uses for whipped egg whites and cream, from meringue to Swiss buttercream to butter.
“The alchemy of it all and the magical transformational possibilities of that one tool, the whisk, ... has never ceased to amaze me,” she said.
Tanya Steel became a fan of Child’s at an even younger age, after declaring at age 8 that she would not spend the rest of her life eating her mother’s awful cooking.
“I literally learned every single thing from Julia Child,” said Steel, editor-in-chief of epicurious.com, the online home for Gourmet and Bon Appetit magazines.
Like others, Steel cites Child’s ability to make cooking accessible and fun as her chief contribution to the culinary world. But in terms of technique, she counts roasting as the one that has meant the most to her over the years. She’s passed the technique on to her own children, who tackled their first roast in honor of Mother’s Day earlier this year.
“The one technique that became my infallible, go-to technique is roasting because the most basic thing turns out the most delicious dinner,” she said. “I roasted a chicken about 10 different times based on watching her on the ‘French Chef’ until I felt like I had gotten it right.”
Eve Felder, associate dean for culinary arts at the Culinary Institute of America, said Child’s legacy lies in taking the mystique out of fine cooking techniques that up until her time were not available to home cooks.
“I can’t tell you the number of friends I have who self-taught themselves by going through her books,” she said.
Felder, a former chef at Chez Panisse, remembers feeling in awe as Child toured the restaurant’s kitchen.
“She just had such a spirit. Not only her physical size, but her emotional size, and the fact that she just embraced life.”