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The French Chef in America

Julia Child's Second Act

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In this enchanting follow-up to My Life in France—Julia Child’s beloved and best-selling memoir—her co-author and grandnephew, Alex Prud’homme, chronicles Julia’s rise from home cook to the first celebrity chef. While at the beginning of her career Julia’s name was synonymous with French cooking, she fashioned a new identity in the 1970s, reinventing and Americanizing herself. Here we see her dealing with difficult colleagues and the challenges of fame, and ultimately using her newfound celebrity to create what would become a totally new type of food television. The story of a remarkable woman who found her true voice in middle age and profoundly shaped our relationship with food, The French Chef in America is a fascinating look at the second act of a unique culinary icon.

“Inspiring and engaging. . . . It’s impossible not to love Julia Child.” —Anita Lo, The Wall Street Journal

“Joyous . . . poignant. . . . There was no one quite like Julia Child, who changed the world with her wit and whisks.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Child’s voice comes through clearly in this affectionate account of the second half of her long career.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch
 
“[An] intricately and intriguingly detailed biography of [Prud’homme’s] delicious, good-naturedly opinionated great-aunt, Julia Child.” —Mimi Sheraton, The Daily Beast
 
“[The French Chef in America] highlights flavors and philosophies that fueled [Julia Child’s] style of cooking, the legacy of which would go on to change and shape the way we eat today.” —Nylon 

“A warm, nuanced celebration of ‘Our Lady of the Ladle’ . . . . [Prud’homme] delights with behind-the-scenes details of Child’s later life in the U.S. after years in France. Through extensive conversations with many who worked with Child and those she’s inspired, including Emeril Lagasse and Sara Moulton, Prud’homme explores [Child’s story]. . . . With Prud’hommes’s gentle hand, readers see the truth of Child behind her playful persona.” —Publishers Weekly
 
The French Chef in America shows us a newly famous Child, who at times struggles with her celebrity but manages nonetheless to define a new kind of food television and secure her own enduring legacy.” —Smithsonian magazine 
 
“Delightful. . . . Family photos of the personality-driven star add an intimate quality.” —Tasting Table
 
“Prud’homme deftly chronicles the years after Julia Child left France. . . . As Child’s grandnephew, Prud’homme is able to provide an intimate portrait of Child’s life by sharing photographs, excerpts of key letters and daily journals, and personal memories. He dishes up the story of Child’s life . . . in a manner as engaging as Julia Child herself and as delicious as one of her recipes.” —Booklist
Introduction
Julia’s Second Act
 
In mid-July 1976, Julia Child attended President Gerald R. Ford’s bicentennial celebration in Washington, D.C., where she provided commentary for public television, interviewed the White House chef, and met Queen Elizabeth II. Then, as the somewhat raucous party was still winding down, Julia slipped away to rejoin her husband, Paul, in the quiet anonymity of rural France.
 
Julia was near the height of her celebrity at the time. Performing as “The French Chef,” she had won an Emmy, a Peabody Award, and the French Ordre du Mérite Agricole; appeared on the cover of Time magazine; made documentary films; and co-authored two volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which had helped launch a food revolution in America. Flinging baguettes, slapping eggplants, flapping chicken wings, she had proven to be a natural on TV: a knowledgeable, unaffected culinary guide whose comic timing and idiosyncratic vocalizations were lauded and satirized across the country. In France, however, the French Chef was virtually unknown, which was just how the Childs liked it.
 
Every year, Paul and Julia would retreat to their small, simple house outside of Cannes for a few weeks at a time. They had named the house La Pitchoune—La Peetch, for short—which means “the little thing” in the Provençal dialect. It was the place they went to exhale and rejuvenate. Paul would write, paint, photograph, and tend the garden. Julia would sleep, visit restaurants, and cook with her “French sister,” Simone “Simca” Beck. It was a familiar pattern, only this time the Childs invited my family to join them.
 
We flew from New York to Nice, rented a small olive-green car, and drove along winding roads to the Childs’ house overlooking the hill town of Plascassier. That evening the Childs welcomed us with a succulent dinner of roasted lamb and ratatouille. Julia was ebullient. In the coming days, she toured us around the outdoor market in Cannes, where she spoke to nearly every vendor and bought heaps of fish for what she would deem “a great bouillabaisse.” Then she was off—visiting with M. F. K. Fisher, negotiating with the plumber, having her hair done, attending to desk work, and always tinkering with something delicious in her compact cuisine.
 
At La Peetch—as in their much larger home kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts—Paul had erected Peg-Board on the wall, from which he hung Julia’s batterie de cuisine. He outlined her copper pots and steel pans with black Magic Marker, so one would know exactly where each should be hung. Julia worked at a small gas stove vented by a window, a tall worktable, and with a row of knives arranged by size on a magnetic strip. It was an efficient space not much bigger than a ship’s galley, and it seemed to emit mouthwatering smells at all hours.
 
Though Julia and Paul never had children (they had tried but it “didn’t take,” Julia said), they welcomed my sisters and me as surrogate grandchildren. Paul was the twin brother of my maternal grandfather, Charles Child. We had been lucky to spend time with Julia and Paul in Cambridge, New York, and Maine, but this was our first visit to La Pitchoune. I was almost fifteen years old in the summer of 1976, with bushy blond hair down to my shoulders; my sisters were thirteen and nine. While my parents were lodged in a guest room, my sisters slept in an outbuilding, and I was relegated to a couch in the open living-dining room. We children had been warned to be on our best behavior, and made sure to walk slowly and keep our voices down around Paul, who was seventy-four and still recovering from a heart-bypass operation two years earlier.
 
Paul was an erudite man who was a decade older, and several inches shorter, than Julia. He was pleasant, if reserved, that July. He would appear at meals, but spent much of his time sequestered in the little cabanon (cabin) across the driveway, painting, writing, and organizing the bottles in his wine cave. He had grown thin, his face was often slack, and he seemed mentally present one minute but distant the next. He could be stern and liked to talk about Serious Things, like Politics, Economics, and Culture, which made him an intimidating presence. I would later learn that he was suffering from nightmares and insomnia at the time. Because Julia was a snorer and a thrasher, they slept apart; but when Paul awoke at 4 o’clock one morning, he slipped into her bed for comfort, and, he noted in his date book, they “‘sleep’ late.”
 
Our two weeks at La Pitchoune were an idyll. We bought flowers in Grasse, shopped for handblown glass in Biot, picnicked in sunny fields, wandered through Old Nice, lunched at the house of the expat American chef Richard Olney, and swam in the azure Mediterranean. Inspired by the Formula 1 cars that race in nearby Monaco, I ground the gears and spun the tires of our rental car in the bumpy field below La Peetch, teaching myself how to drive a stick shift. After terrorizing a herd of goats, putting a dent in the fender (stone wall), and feeling the adrenaline surge as I bounced through mud patches at warp speed, I declared myself fit for a driver’s license, not to mention hot laps around Monte Carlo.
 
As always, talk at the Childs’ house centered on the gastronomic and painterly arts, and these subjects came together for me in a new way on the afternoon that we drove up to Saint-Paul-de-Vence for lunch. It is a secluded medieval town nestled in the steep hills between Nice and the Alpes-Maritimes mountains. There, we ate at La Colombe d’Or, a seemingly modest auberge where a sign reads: “Ici on loge à cheval, à pied ou en peinture” (“Here we lodge those on horseback, on foot, or with paintings”). The inn was established in 1920 by Paul Roux, a local farmer, and is decorated with a remarkable collection of artwork by the oncestruggling painters and sculptors who traded their work for lodging: Picasso, Braque, Léger, Chagall, Calder, and others.
 
Perhaps it was the familial warmth, the food and wine, the proximity to such a collection of masterworks, or some other mysterious trigger, but Paul suddenly grew animated. His one good eye came into focus (the other had been blinded in childhood), he smiled for the first time in days, he regaled us with stories about the local villages-perchés—the fortified hill towns built to defend against raiding Saracen pirates—and encouraged me to try a glass of rosé. My grumpy granduncle was suddenly entertaining and interesting; it was as if Paul had reverted to his charming, pre-bypass self.
 
A couple of evenings later we gathered on the terrace at La Pitchoune for dinner. It was hot, the air was still, and we were tired. The sun faded behind the hills, and Julia hummed to herself as she cut up a whole chicken and steeped it in a fantastic marinade, then grilled it one sizzling piece at a time on a tiny hibachi in the corner. Paul ran a long extension cord from the house to a small black-and-white TV placed on a wobbly chair. He turned the TV on to the Summer Olympics, then under way in Montreal. As the graceful Cuban heavyweight boxer Teó- filo Stevenson battled Romania’s Mircea Şimon, Paul jabbed the air with his fist and translated the French announcer’s play-by-play into English with growing excitement. When Stevenson knocked out Şimon to win the gold, we stood to hoot and holler at the little screen. (It was Stevenson’s second gold medal, after triumphing in Munich. Winning again in 1980, he was the first boxer to win three Olympic gold medals in one weight class.) Paul was so animated, and Julia’s chicken was so delicious, that the evening lingers as memorable.
 
In ensuing years, Paul would fade into a state he ruefully called “the mental scrambles.” Never fully recovering from his operation, he suffered a series of strokes and other ailments that left him weary, confused, and irascible. In retrospect, those days at La Pitchoune in 1976 were the last glimpse I had of the intelligent, warm, and enthusiastic man he had been: the genuine Paul Child.
 
Julia, on the other hand, was in the midst of a dynamic new phase of her career, when she left behind classical French cuisine and the French Chef, to reinvent—and re-Americanize—herself as “Julia Child.”
© Michael Lionstar
ALEX PRUD’HOMME is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and other publications. He is the coauthor of Julia Child's memoir, My Life in France, and has authored or coauthored The French Chef in America, France is a Feast, Born Hungry, The Ripple Effect, Hydrofracking, The Cell Game, and Forewarned. He lives with his family in Brooklyn, New York.

alexprudhomme.com View titles by Alex Prud'homme

About

In this enchanting follow-up to My Life in France—Julia Child’s beloved and best-selling memoir—her co-author and grandnephew, Alex Prud’homme, chronicles Julia’s rise from home cook to the first celebrity chef. While at the beginning of her career Julia’s name was synonymous with French cooking, she fashioned a new identity in the 1970s, reinventing and Americanizing herself. Here we see her dealing with difficult colleagues and the challenges of fame, and ultimately using her newfound celebrity to create what would become a totally new type of food television. The story of a remarkable woman who found her true voice in middle age and profoundly shaped our relationship with food, The French Chef in America is a fascinating look at the second act of a unique culinary icon.

“Inspiring and engaging. . . . It’s impossible not to love Julia Child.” —Anita Lo, The Wall Street Journal

“Joyous . . . poignant. . . . There was no one quite like Julia Child, who changed the world with her wit and whisks.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Child’s voice comes through clearly in this affectionate account of the second half of her long career.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch
 
“[An] intricately and intriguingly detailed biography of [Prud’homme’s] delicious, good-naturedly opinionated great-aunt, Julia Child.” —Mimi Sheraton, The Daily Beast
 
“[The French Chef in America] highlights flavors and philosophies that fueled [Julia Child’s] style of cooking, the legacy of which would go on to change and shape the way we eat today.” —Nylon 

“A warm, nuanced celebration of ‘Our Lady of the Ladle’ . . . . [Prud’homme] delights with behind-the-scenes details of Child’s later life in the U.S. after years in France. Through extensive conversations with many who worked with Child and those she’s inspired, including Emeril Lagasse and Sara Moulton, Prud’homme explores [Child’s story]. . . . With Prud’hommes’s gentle hand, readers see the truth of Child behind her playful persona.” —Publishers Weekly
 
The French Chef in America shows us a newly famous Child, who at times struggles with her celebrity but manages nonetheless to define a new kind of food television and secure her own enduring legacy.” —Smithsonian magazine 
 
“Delightful. . . . Family photos of the personality-driven star add an intimate quality.” —Tasting Table
 
“Prud’homme deftly chronicles the years after Julia Child left France. . . . As Child’s grandnephew, Prud’homme is able to provide an intimate portrait of Child’s life by sharing photographs, excerpts of key letters and daily journals, and personal memories. He dishes up the story of Child’s life . . . in a manner as engaging as Julia Child herself and as delicious as one of her recipes.” —Booklist

Excerpt

Introduction
Julia’s Second Act
 
In mid-July 1976, Julia Child attended President Gerald R. Ford’s bicentennial celebration in Washington, D.C., where she provided commentary for public television, interviewed the White House chef, and met Queen Elizabeth II. Then, as the somewhat raucous party was still winding down, Julia slipped away to rejoin her husband, Paul, in the quiet anonymity of rural France.
 
Julia was near the height of her celebrity at the time. Performing as “The French Chef,” she had won an Emmy, a Peabody Award, and the French Ordre du Mérite Agricole; appeared on the cover of Time magazine; made documentary films; and co-authored two volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which had helped launch a food revolution in America. Flinging baguettes, slapping eggplants, flapping chicken wings, she had proven to be a natural on TV: a knowledgeable, unaffected culinary guide whose comic timing and idiosyncratic vocalizations were lauded and satirized across the country. In France, however, the French Chef was virtually unknown, which was just how the Childs liked it.
 
Every year, Paul and Julia would retreat to their small, simple house outside of Cannes for a few weeks at a time. They had named the house La Pitchoune—La Peetch, for short—which means “the little thing” in the Provençal dialect. It was the place they went to exhale and rejuvenate. Paul would write, paint, photograph, and tend the garden. Julia would sleep, visit restaurants, and cook with her “French sister,” Simone “Simca” Beck. It was a familiar pattern, only this time the Childs invited my family to join them.
 
We flew from New York to Nice, rented a small olive-green car, and drove along winding roads to the Childs’ house overlooking the hill town of Plascassier. That evening the Childs welcomed us with a succulent dinner of roasted lamb and ratatouille. Julia was ebullient. In the coming days, she toured us around the outdoor market in Cannes, where she spoke to nearly every vendor and bought heaps of fish for what she would deem “a great bouillabaisse.” Then she was off—visiting with M. F. K. Fisher, negotiating with the plumber, having her hair done, attending to desk work, and always tinkering with something delicious in her compact cuisine.
 
At La Peetch—as in their much larger home kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts—Paul had erected Peg-Board on the wall, from which he hung Julia’s batterie de cuisine. He outlined her copper pots and steel pans with black Magic Marker, so one would know exactly where each should be hung. Julia worked at a small gas stove vented by a window, a tall worktable, and with a row of knives arranged by size on a magnetic strip. It was an efficient space not much bigger than a ship’s galley, and it seemed to emit mouthwatering smells at all hours.
 
Though Julia and Paul never had children (they had tried but it “didn’t take,” Julia said), they welcomed my sisters and me as surrogate grandchildren. Paul was the twin brother of my maternal grandfather, Charles Child. We had been lucky to spend time with Julia and Paul in Cambridge, New York, and Maine, but this was our first visit to La Pitchoune. I was almost fifteen years old in the summer of 1976, with bushy blond hair down to my shoulders; my sisters were thirteen and nine. While my parents were lodged in a guest room, my sisters slept in an outbuilding, and I was relegated to a couch in the open living-dining room. We children had been warned to be on our best behavior, and made sure to walk slowly and keep our voices down around Paul, who was seventy-four and still recovering from a heart-bypass operation two years earlier.
 
Paul was an erudite man who was a decade older, and several inches shorter, than Julia. He was pleasant, if reserved, that July. He would appear at meals, but spent much of his time sequestered in the little cabanon (cabin) across the driveway, painting, writing, and organizing the bottles in his wine cave. He had grown thin, his face was often slack, and he seemed mentally present one minute but distant the next. He could be stern and liked to talk about Serious Things, like Politics, Economics, and Culture, which made him an intimidating presence. I would later learn that he was suffering from nightmares and insomnia at the time. Because Julia was a snorer and a thrasher, they slept apart; but when Paul awoke at 4 o’clock one morning, he slipped into her bed for comfort, and, he noted in his date book, they “‘sleep’ late.”
 
Our two weeks at La Pitchoune were an idyll. We bought flowers in Grasse, shopped for handblown glass in Biot, picnicked in sunny fields, wandered through Old Nice, lunched at the house of the expat American chef Richard Olney, and swam in the azure Mediterranean. Inspired by the Formula 1 cars that race in nearby Monaco, I ground the gears and spun the tires of our rental car in the bumpy field below La Peetch, teaching myself how to drive a stick shift. After terrorizing a herd of goats, putting a dent in the fender (stone wall), and feeling the adrenaline surge as I bounced through mud patches at warp speed, I declared myself fit for a driver’s license, not to mention hot laps around Monte Carlo.
 
As always, talk at the Childs’ house centered on the gastronomic and painterly arts, and these subjects came together for me in a new way on the afternoon that we drove up to Saint-Paul-de-Vence for lunch. It is a secluded medieval town nestled in the steep hills between Nice and the Alpes-Maritimes mountains. There, we ate at La Colombe d’Or, a seemingly modest auberge where a sign reads: “Ici on loge à cheval, à pied ou en peinture” (“Here we lodge those on horseback, on foot, or with paintings”). The inn was established in 1920 by Paul Roux, a local farmer, and is decorated with a remarkable collection of artwork by the oncestruggling painters and sculptors who traded their work for lodging: Picasso, Braque, Léger, Chagall, Calder, and others.
 
Perhaps it was the familial warmth, the food and wine, the proximity to such a collection of masterworks, or some other mysterious trigger, but Paul suddenly grew animated. His one good eye came into focus (the other had been blinded in childhood), he smiled for the first time in days, he regaled us with stories about the local villages-perchés—the fortified hill towns built to defend against raiding Saracen pirates—and encouraged me to try a glass of rosé. My grumpy granduncle was suddenly entertaining and interesting; it was as if Paul had reverted to his charming, pre-bypass self.
 
A couple of evenings later we gathered on the terrace at La Pitchoune for dinner. It was hot, the air was still, and we were tired. The sun faded behind the hills, and Julia hummed to herself as she cut up a whole chicken and steeped it in a fantastic marinade, then grilled it one sizzling piece at a time on a tiny hibachi in the corner. Paul ran a long extension cord from the house to a small black-and-white TV placed on a wobbly chair. He turned the TV on to the Summer Olympics, then under way in Montreal. As the graceful Cuban heavyweight boxer Teó- filo Stevenson battled Romania’s Mircea Şimon, Paul jabbed the air with his fist and translated the French announcer’s play-by-play into English with growing excitement. When Stevenson knocked out Şimon to win the gold, we stood to hoot and holler at the little screen. (It was Stevenson’s second gold medal, after triumphing in Munich. Winning again in 1980, he was the first boxer to win three Olympic gold medals in one weight class.) Paul was so animated, and Julia’s chicken was so delicious, that the evening lingers as memorable.
 
In ensuing years, Paul would fade into a state he ruefully called “the mental scrambles.” Never fully recovering from his operation, he suffered a series of strokes and other ailments that left him weary, confused, and irascible. In retrospect, those days at La Pitchoune in 1976 were the last glimpse I had of the intelligent, warm, and enthusiastic man he had been: the genuine Paul Child.
 
Julia, on the other hand, was in the midst of a dynamic new phase of her career, when she left behind classical French cuisine and the French Chef, to reinvent—and re-Americanize—herself as “Julia Child.”

Author

© Michael Lionstar
ALEX PRUD’HOMME is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and other publications. He is the coauthor of Julia Child's memoir, My Life in France, and has authored or coauthored The French Chef in America, France is a Feast, Born Hungry, The Ripple Effect, Hydrofracking, The Cell Game, and Forewarned. He lives with his family in Brooklyn, New York.

alexprudhomme.com View titles by Alex Prud'homme

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