“I was 32 when I started cooking; up until then, I just ate.” — Julia Child
I’ve been a busy member of Canada’s food media for many moons – more than 30 years of telling stories about my consuming passion, 18 of them as food editor/columnist for Canada’s largest newspaper, the Toronto Star.
My work sleuthing stories has been exciting, eclectic and, I hope, both educational and entertaining.
I’ve talked to cooks and diners behind the scenes and at the tables of homeless shelters.
I enjoyed an intimate three-hour Italian lunch for two while chatting about her cookbook with film legend Sophia Loren.
A few months after 9/11, I spoke with Michael Lomonaco, once the executive chef of Windows on the World and the man who escaped the Twin Towers devastation by a fortuitous fluke.
I chewed the fat on several occasions with former Mafia cook and cookbook author Joe “Dogs” Iannuzzi when he called me from parts unknown while under the witness protection plan.
Early in their stellar careers, I interviewed British food icons Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson – in the flesh.
But perhaps my fondest memories are of talking shop, chatting about life and breaking bread with my inspiring mentor and beloved friend: North America’s cuisine queen Julia Child.
Here’s how that all began.
In late 1990, I called Julia Child at her home in Cambridge, Mass., where she cheerfully answered the phone. I was writing a piece for my newspaper about what famous foodies cook for dinner parties. Her answer to that was sweet and simple: “Some oysters with champagne to start, then probably Boeuf Bourguignonne with Potatoes Anna maybe followed by some good cheese and a nice pear.”
Once business was over, it was her turn to ask me a question. In typical Julia fashion, she was curious. “What’s Toronto like?” she asked. “Haven’t you been here?” came my reply. “No,” said she. I asked why. “Well, nobody’s invited me.”
Minutes later, I was in the publisher’s office. A few months after that, in April, 1991, she arrived in Toronto as a guest of the Toronto Star for a one-day whirlwind visit to our city.
The friendship begun that day continued until her death at age 91 on August 13, 2004, when I wrote a full-page obituary for my newspaper’s A section.
A couple of weeks before she died, I received a touching missive: two recipes for Tarte Tatin – a dessert I was researching – clipped from local newspapers in Santa Barbara where she was living.
Julia Child was born Julia McWilliams in Pasadena, Calif., on August 15, 1912.
She graduated from Smith College in Northampton, Mass., in 1934 and thought “it would be fun to be a spy” when she joined the Office of Strategic Services.
What she became was “a lowly filing clerk who at least got to travel to places like Ceylon and China.” It was in China that she met Paul Child who was 10 years older and worked for the U.S. Information Service.
The couple went to live in Paris in the late 1940s. Here, Julia attended the Cordon Bleu academy and soon opened a cooking school with her two co-authors-to-be Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle.
A late bloomer, she found her calling as the woman who brought a love of good food, in particular French cooking, to North America. This happened in her late 30s during the period spent in France with her husband Paul when she had an epiphany while eating lunch of oysters and Sole Meuniere at a restaurant called La Couronne in Rouen.
From then on, she was unstoppable.
She was the original celebrity chef when, in 1961, she burst onto the culinary scene with her low-budget, one-woman television show on PBS called The French Chef. Almost immediately, it garnered a huge and loyal following. Her seminal book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, published in the same year, was 10 years in the making.
More cookbooks followed. She was a regular on TV. Most important, she became a beloved mentor to cooks of every age, shape and social status by sharing her infectious passion for preparing delicious food then cheerfully sharing it with others.
In 2009, the movie Julie and Julia starring Meryl Streep launched a whole new generation of fans.
What has made Julia Child such an icon? It all boils down to that intangible attribute: charisma.
She was larger than life – literally and figuratively. At 6 foot 3, she had a lovely moon face and an unmistakable, sing-song, plummy voice that may have seemed affected on anyone else.
She was genuinely outgoing and always wanted to know about you, her surroundings and, of course, all things culinary.
She didn’t fit any mould. She was a famous woman who didn’t act it. She was just plain lovable and, as they say in Yiddish, a real mensch.
Last but not least, she was a teacher who was serious about her mission: To impart the crucial elements of technique in cooking. Her humour and love of life made the other part effortless: To share a love of good food cooked well.
Since resigning from the Toronto Star in 2007, I have been a freelance food sleuth, writer, broadcaster and cook.
A collaboration with Toronto non-profit group FoodShare will yield a cookbook this fall. I have a memoir in the works. And this blog is ongoing.
But my first love these days is creating documentary-style audio podcasts.
Watch this space and social media (Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest) for an exciting series of audio docs I’m working on with producer Sean Rasmussen and social media guru Melissa Leithwood to celebrate Julia Child’s 100th birthday this August 15.
In fact, let’s consider this entire year a celebration while we raise a toast to Julia Child. As she liked to say: “Bon Appetit!”
There are versions of this sweet and simple dish – a Child trademark — in almost all of her many cookbooks including my favourite: The Way To Cook (Knopf). With a tossed salad and hunks of crusty baguette, it makes a lovely light lunch or supper. I didn’t bother making a collar for the baking dish, which makes for an elegant presentation as described by Child, but it looked and tasted great. You’ll need a 6-cup soufflé dish or straight-sided baking dish.
About 1 tbsp softened butter
2 tbsp finely, freshly grated parmesan cheese
2½ tbsp butter
3 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 cup hot milk
¼ tsp paprika
A pinch of grated nutmeg
½ tsp salt
Pinch of ground white pepper
4 egg yolks
5 egg whites
1 cup (about 4 oz/125 g) coarsely grated gruyere cheese
Preheat oven to 400F.
Grease bottom and sides of baking dish with softened butter. Sprinkle on grated parmesan, turning dish so cheese adheres to its sides and bottom.
In medium saucepan, melt 2½ tbsp butter over medium-low heat. Add flour and cook, whisking, until mixture foams, about 2 min. Remove from heat. Whisk in hot milk. Return to heat, bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer 1 to 2 min. or until thickened. Remove from heat; stir in paprika, nutmeg, salt and pepper, Stir in egg yolks, one at a time, until combined.
Using manual or hand-held electric mixer, in medium glass bowl, beat egg whites until stiff and glossy. Whisk about a quarter of them into sauce in saucepan, then delicately fold in remainder alternately with grated gruyere. Carefully turn mixture into prepared baking dish.
Reduce oven temperature to 375F. Bake soufflé 25 to 30 min. or until puffed and nicely browned. It will fall slightly as it cools. To serve, hold serving spoon and fork upright and back to back in middle of soufflé and pull it apart.
Makes 4 servings.