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Julia at 100: The Ageless Prodigy Named Child
August 14, 2012  | By Tom Brinkmoeller  | 9 comments

[Editor’s Note: Look for a variety of tributes on television and the web in celebration of Julia Child’s 100th birthday, including these public television offerings, and enjoy a special video tribute by Geoffrey Drummond.]

Jacques Pepin, considered by many to be the dean of America's chefs, was far from that peak in 1959 when he arrived in the United States from France. About six months later, he met another future paragon of cooking through a mutual friend. The woman he was to meet, he was told, had a manuscript he might find interesting.

"My friend told me, 'She's a very big woman with a terrible voice,'" Pepin said in phone interview earlier this year. "And that, of course, was Julia and the manuscript was Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She was unknown then."

That Julia Child-Jacques Pepin meeting led to a friendship that would last decades. Though she died in 2004, it's clear when he speaks of her that the bonding as friends is as strong as ever.

Julia Child's 100th birthday would have been Aug. 15, 2012. Pepin co-hosted the iconic Julia and Jacques: Cooking at Home series from her famous Cambridge, Massachusetts home kitchen values the time they spent together as friends and professionals.

As does Geoffrey Drummond, who produced that and several other Child-hosted TV series. His stories of the friendship that grew from their first meeting through the time he visited her in California, shortly before her death, carry a tone and fondness that is unmistakably real.

In a recent phone interview, Drummond (pictured above, left, with Child and Pepin) told how Pepin played the key role in bringing him and Child together. It was the late '80s, he said, and he was working on an idea for a series in which a prominent professional chef would be featured in each episode. The idea wasn't a sure thing. Culinary adulation was still to come in America and chefs didn't yet enjoy the celebrity status they do today.

"The food world was very small then," Pepin explained. "It was quite different from now."

Drummond was looking for the right host for the show: "I remember talking to Jacques about (the idea) and he said, 'You ought to talk to Julia.' I told him I thought she had retired (The French Chef series had finished production in the early '70s). He said, 'I really think she's interested in working.'"

Pepin arranged an introduction and Drummond told her his idea for the series, which at the time had the working title Masterpiece Cooking. Her response, on hearing that title, was immediate and delivered with the humor he says characterized so much of what she did: "Good. I will be the Alistair Cookie!"

That turned out to be their first project together. Under the new title Cooking with Master Chefs, Child traveled to the chefs' cities where they taped relatively unknowns such as Pepin, Emeril Lagasse and Lidia Bastianich while they cooked in personal kitchens. It was a popular series, but the travel wore on Child, he said. Still, there were more chefs they wanted to feature, so they came up with the idea of shooting the episodes in Child's Cambridge kitchen — the same kitchen that later was moved to the Smithsonian Institution and exactly reassembled for public viewing.

Those invited to be on the new In Julia's Kitchen with Master Chefs didn't balk at the travel because they held her in such esteem, Drummond said: "It was kind of like they were coming to Mecca."

It was a pre-Internet world, and viewers of both of these series wrote letters to request recipes for preparations they had seen. The episode in which master baker Nancy Silverton prepared artisanal breads prompted the most recipe requests. It inspired a third series, Baking with Julia, also shot in the same home kitchen.

It would take a few more years until her kitchen would would become the set on which Child and Pepin would host their series, which still successfully runs on public TV stations across America.

Extraordinary as Julia and Jacques: Cooking at Home is, it easily might not have happened at all.

The seed started to grow in the mid-'90s after Pepin told Drummond he and Julia were going to present a cooking class at Boston University. The university allowed the event to be taped. The 600-seat auditorium was filled and the audience watched what turned out to be as much chemistry as culinary.

The two chefs meshed from the beginning, Drummond said. He called the way they played off each other, that day and over the years, "a little bit husband and wife, a little bit brother and sister."

The resulting program was shown for several years as Cooking in Concert on many public stations as special pledge programming, he said. When all involved saw how successful it was and how much fun they had doing it, planning began to recapture the magic for a TV series. The resulting programs appear to be timeless: Two good friends and talented chefs sharing a kitchen while the audience both learns and shares the fun. Pepin said there was no prepared script, just as there wouldn't be if they were alone in a different kitchen. They ad-libbed lines and ingredients, teased each other, became the other's sous chef seamlessly, as needed, never left the viewers out of the action and prepared meals people watching the series today still wish they had shared.

"It was fun because we could do whatever we wanted," Pepin said.

At times, Pepin's love of teaching started to turn things more serious than the norm. Julia's wit often corrected the course, Drummond said: "You can almost see her waiting to use Jacques as the straight man so she could come back with her own punch lines."

Added Pepin, who taught for 25 years at the French Culinary Institute: "I like to teach. … I get a jolt, I get a shot in the arm when I'm with the young people and they want to learn.

"But even Julia, when we were cooking together, often she told me. 'You have to lighten up,' and she was probably right."

"They were a great duo," said Drummond. "It would have been impossible to do it with anyone else. His affection was quite obvious for her."

The author of a new Child biography claims affection shared the stage at times with friction. Bob Spitz, whose biography of Child Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child will be published by Knopf Aug. 7, surmises:

"Many people thought that Julia was past her sell-through date when Geof and Jacques put her back on TV. But it was apparent from the get-go that Julia was prepared to take them on — meaning that she wasn't about to be a push-over and serve the men's needs. She went head-to-head with Jacques and Geof on- and off-camera, which often infuriated both men, even though they knew it made for wonderful TV. In the end, it provided Julia with a wonderful 'final curtain' to her illustrious TV career."

Drummond politely countered: "I assume Bob Spitz was referring to Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home, rather than the three prior series I produced with Julia. Sure, she was old, but still totally vital, and instrumental in introducing a for the first time on television, through Master Chefs and Baking, what really became America's first generation of celebrity chefs — from Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower and Nancy Silverton to Daniel Boulud and Charlie Palmer, Joy Adams and Charlie Trotter, and of course, Emeril Lagasse.

"Julia and her programs were awarded four Emmys prior to Julia and Jacques, and even more James Beard Awards. So to say 'Julia was past her sell-through date' is a bit harsh. … I was never infuriated by Julia. I had more fun — I think we all did — working together, really collaborating creatively and culinarily on that series than we did on any of our others. Great cooking, delicious food, loving camaraderie on and off camera."

Though Pepin chose not to answer the claim of occasional acrimony, what he said in the earlier interview about cooking, be it with Child, at home or in front of students, seems to rebut the claim:

"Cooking is always a gift. … This may sound corny, but it's the purest expression of love, because you always work for the other. It's very rare that people will do a whole meal and sit down and eat it by yourself. I find that depressing."

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The episode in which master baker Nancy Silverton prepared artisanal breads prompted the most recipe requests. It inspired a third series, Baking with Julia, also shot in the same home kitchen.
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Chris Sale
What a delightful article. I loved Graham Kerr's shows, not realizing at the time that the wine he was drinking controlled his life for a time until he overcame alcoholism. And he lovingly changed his way of cooking to nurture his wife, whom he adored and who was battling cancer along with others in his audience. Graham Kerr, I salute you.
Oct 5, 2016   |  Reply
Greg Kibitz
As a former professional chef, and now very active and far more advanced home gourmet, Jacques & Julia are, and have been, two of my earliest and strongest influences, aside from Me Mum plus James Beard and Graham Kerr, all years before there ever was a Food Network or even an Internet. To this day I make pilgrimage to watch many of the old shows, use their cookbooks (the ones I have) and I still follow Jacques latest culinary forays in the Kitchen on PBS Create. They were already real groundbreakers back in my 1970's youth when my mom (like Julie) was cooking her way through France. And even to this day, they have never lost their shine.
Jul 25, 2012   |  Reply
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