The French Chef, "Julia Child: bon appétit", Julia Child & Company, Dinner at Julia's, Cooking with Master Chefs, In Julia's Kitchen with Master Chefs, Baking with Julia, Julia Child & Jacques Pépin Cooking at Home
Child was born Julia Carolyn McWilliams in Pasadena, California, the daughter of John McWilliams, Jr., a Princeton University graduate and prominent land manager, and his wife, the former Julia Carolyn ("Caro") Weston, a paper-company heiress whose father, Byron Curtis Weston, served as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. The eldest of three children, she had a brother, John III (1914–2002), and a sister, Dorothy Dean (1917–2006).
Child attended Westridge School, Polytechnic School from fourth grade to ninth grade, then the Katherine Branson School in Ross, California, which was at the time a boarding school. At six feet, two inches (1.88 m) tall, Child played tennis, golf, and basketball as a child and continued to play sports while attending Smith College, from which she graduated in 1934 with a major in English. A press release issued by Smith in 2004 states that her major was history.
Following her graduation from college, Child moved to New York City, where she worked as a copywriter for the advertising department of upscale home-furnishing firm W. & J. Sloane. Returning to California in 1937, she spent the next four years writing for local publications, working in advertising, and volunteering with the Junior League of Pasadena.
Child joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) after finding that she was too tall to enlist in the Women's Army Corps (WACs) or in the U.S. Navy's WAVES. She began her OSS career as a typist at its headquarters in Washington, but because of her education and experience soon was given a more responsible position as a top secret researcher working directly for the head of OSS, General William J. Donovan. As a research assistant in the Secret Intelligence division, she typed 10,000 names on white note cards to keep track of officers. For a year, she worked at the OSS Emergency Rescue Equipment Section (ERES) in Washington, D.C. as a file clerk and then as an assistant to developers of a shark repellent needed to ensure that sharks would not explode ordnance targeting German U-boats. In 1944 she was posted to Kandy, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where her responsibilities included "registering, cataloging and channeling a great volume of highly classified communications" for the OSS's clandestine stations in Asia. She was later posted to China, where she received the Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service as head of the Registry of the OSS Secretariat. For her service, Child received an award that cited her many virtues, including her "drive and inherent cheerfulness." As with other OSS records, Child's file was declassified in 2008, and, unlike other files, her complete file is available online.
Child repeatedly recalled her first meal in Rouen as a culinary revelation; once, she described the meal of oysters, sole meunière, and fine wine to The New York Times as "an opening up of the soul and spirit for me." In Paris, she attended the famous Le Cordon Bleu cooking school and later studied privately with Max Bugnard and other master chefs. She joined the women's cooking club Cercle des Gourmettes, through which she met Simone Beck, who was writing a French cookbook for Americans with her friend Louisette Bertholle. Beck proposed that Child work with them, to make the book appeal to Americans.
In 1951, Child, Beck, and Bertholle began to teach cooking to American women in Child's Paris kitchen, calling their informal school L'école des trois gourmandes (The School of the Three Food Lovers). For the next decade, as the Childs moved around Europe and finally to Cambridge, Massachusetts, the three researched and repeatedly tested recipes. Child translated the French into English, making the recipes detailed, interesting, and practical.
In 1963, the Childs built a home near the Provence town of Plascassier in the hills above Cannes on property belonging to co-author Simone Beck and her husband, Jean Fischbacher. The Childs named it "La Pitchoune", a Provençal word meaning "the little one" but over time the property was often affectionately referred to simply as "La Peetch".
The three would-be authors initially signed a contract with publisher Houghton Mifflin, which later rejected the manuscript for seeming too much like an encyclopedia. Finally, when it was first published in 1961 by Alfred A. Knopf, the 734-page Mastering the Art of French Cooking was a best-seller and received critical acclaim that derived in part from the American interest in French culture in the early 1960s. Lauded for its helpful illustrations and precise attention to detail, and for making fine cuisine accessible, the book is still in print and is considered a seminal culinary work. Following this success, Child wrote magazine articles and a regular column for The Boston Globe newspaper. She would go on to publish nearly twenty titles under her name and with others. Many, though not all, were related to her television shows. Her last book was the autobiographical My Life in France, published posthumously in 2006 and written with her nephew, Alex Prud'homme. The book recounts Child's life with her husband, Paul Child, in post-World War II France.
A 1962 appearance on a book review show on the National Educational Television (NET) station of Boston, WGBH, led to the inception of her first television cooking show after viewers enjoyed her demonstration of how to cook an omelette. The French Chef had its debut on February 11, 1963, on WGBH and was immediately successful. The show ran nationally for ten years and won Peabody and Emmy Awards, including the first Emmy award for an educational program. Though she was not the first television cook, Child was the most widely seen. She attracted the broadest audience with her cheery enthusiasm, distinctively charming warbly voice, and unpatronizing and unaffected manner. In 1972, The French Chef became the first television program to be captioned for the deaf, albeit in the preliminary technology of open captioning.
Child's second book, The French Chef Cookbook, was a collection of the recipes she had demonstrated on the show. It was soon followed in 1971 by Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume Two, again in collaboration with Simone Beck, but not with Louisette Bertholle, with whom the professional relationship had ended. Child's fourth book, From Julia Child's Kitchen, was illustrated with her husband's photographs and documented the color series of The French Chef, as well as providing an extensive library of kitchen notes compiled by Child during the course of the show.
In the 1970s and 1980s, she was the star of numerous television programs, including Julia Child & Company, Julia Child & More Company and Dinner at Julia's. For the 1979 book Julia Child and More Company she won a National Book Award in category Current Interest. In 1981 she founded The American Institute of Wine & Food, with vintners Robert Mondavi and Richard Graff, and others, to "advance the understanding, appreciation and quality of wine and food," a pursuit she had already begun with her books and television appearances. In 1989, she published what she considered her magnum opus, a book and instructional video series collectively entitled The Way To Cook.
Child starred in four more series in the 1990s that featured guest chefs: Cooking with Master Chefs,In Julia's Kitchen with Master Chefs,Baking With Julia, and Julia Child & Jacques Pépin Cooking at Home. She collaborated with Jacques Pépin many times for television programs and cookbooks. All of Child's books during this time stemmed from the television series of the same names.
Child's use of ingredients like butter and cream has been questioned by food critics and modern-day nutritionists. She addressed these criticisms throughout her career, predicting that a "fanatical fear of food" would take over the country's dining habits, and that focusing too much on nutrition takes the pleasure from enjoying food. In a 1990 interview, Child said, "Everybody is overreacting. If fear of food continues, it will be the death of gastronomy in the United States. Fortunately, the French don't suffer from the same hysteria we do. We should enjoy food and have fun. It is one of the simplest and nicest pleasures in life."
Julia Child's kitchen, designed by her husband, was the setting for three of her television shows. It is now on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Beginning with In Julia's Kitchen with Master Chefs, the Childs' home kitchen in Cambridge was fully transformed into a functional set, with TV-quality lighting, three cameras positioned to catch all angles in the room, and a massive center island with a gas stovetop on one side and an electric stovetop on the other, but leaving the rest of the Childs' appliances alone, including "my wall oven with its squeaking door." This kitchen backdrop hosted nearly all of Child's 1990s television series.
After the death of her beloved friend Simone Beck, Child relinquished La Pitchoune after a month long stay in June 1992 with her family, her niece, Phila, and close friend and biographer, Noël Riley Fitch. Julia turned the keys over to Jean Fischbacher's sister, just as she and Paul had promised nearly 30 years earlier. Also, in 1992, she spent a month touring Italy. American journalist Bob Spitz spent some time with Julia during that period while he was researching and writing his then working title "History of Eating and Cooking in America." Spitz took notes and made many recordings of his conversations with Child and these later formed the basis of a secondary biography on Julia Child published August 7, 2012 (Knopf) one week before Child's 100th birthday. Paul, who was ten years older, died in 1994 after living in a nursing home for five years following a series of strokes in 1989.
On August 13, 2004, Julia Child died of kidney failure at her retirement community home, Casa Dorinda, in Montecito, two days before her 92nd birthday. Child ended her last book, My Life in France, with "... thinking back on it now reminds that the pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite – toujours bon appétit!"
Child was a favorite of audiences from the moment of her television début on public television in 1963, and she was a familiar part of American culture and the subject of numerous references, including numerous parodies in television and radio programs and skits.
Her great success on air may have been tied to her refreshingly pragmatic approach to the genre, "I think you have to decide who your audience is. If you don’t pick your audience, you’re lost because you’re not really talking to anybody. My audience is people who like to cook, who want to really learn how to do it."
In 1996, Julia Child was ranked #46 on TV Guide's 50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time.
In a 1978 Saturday Night Live sketch (episode 74), she was parodied by Dan Aykroyd, who—as Julia Child—continued with a cooking show despite ludicrously profuse bleeding from a cut to his thumb, and eventually expired while advising, "Save the liver". Child reportedly loved this sketch so much she showed it to friends at parties.
She was parodied on The Cosby Show in the 1984 episode "Bon Jour Sondra" by characters Cliff and Theo Huxtable.
She appeared in an episode of This Old House as designer of the kitchen. This Old House was launched in 1979 by Russell Morash, who helped create The French Chef with Julia Child.
In 2002, Child was the inspiration for "The Julie/Julia Project", a popular cooking blog by Julie Powell that was the basis of Powell's 2005 bestselling book, Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, the paperback version of which was retitled Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously.
The blog and book, along with Child's own memoir, in turn inspired the 2009 feature film Julie & Julia (Meryl Streep portrayed Child in half the narrative). Child is reported to have been unimpressed by Powell's blog, believing Powell's determination to cook every recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year to be a stunt. Child's editor, Judith Jones, said in an interview: "Flinging around four-letter words when cooking isn't attractive, to me or Julia. She didn't want to endorse it. What came through on the blog was somebody who was doing it almost for the sake of a stunt. She would never really describe the end results, how delicious it was, and what she learned. Julia didn’t like what she called 'the flimsies.' She didn't suffer fools, if you know what I mean."
Produced by WGBH, a one-hour feature documentary, Julia Child! America's Favorite Chef, was aired as the first episode of the 18th season of the PBS series American Masters (2004). The film combined archive footage of Child with current footage from those who influenced and were influenced by her life and work.
Keep On Cooking - Julia Child Remixed: A video produced for PBS by John D. Boswell (aka melodysheep) as part of the PBS Icons Remixed series in commemoration of Child's 100th birthday. Child's voice is auto-tuned to a melody derived from vocal samples, with synchronized video clips from Child's various TV series.