August 15th would be TV chef and author Julia Child’s 105th birthday. Her presence on TV and her love of teaching and educating the American public about quality food helped inspire generations of cooks – professional and home alike. “The French Chef” also showed TV producers and executives that there was a strong appetite for cooking shows on television, one which has continued unabated since.
Julia’s story began in 1948 – after moving to France with her husband Paul Child, Julia fell in love with French cuisine. Julia attended the Cordon Bleu cooking school, and soon after formed a cooking school with fellow classmates. The trio also worked on a two-volume cookbook, adapting French cuisine for a mainstream American audience. In 1961, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” was released, and has since become a standard cookbook to find in home kitchens everywhere.
To promote the cookbook, Julia was invited on to the book review show, “I’ve Been Reading” at WGBH, Boston’s public TV station, which was close to the Childs’ home in nearby Cambridge. Julia arrived to the station armed with a hot plate, a whisk, and eggs, to prepare an omelet on air. In the short segment, Julia’s trademark personality shone through – her forthright manner, her humor, and frankness. Audiences loved her. Twenty-seven viewers wrote the WGBH letters, and even more called, asking for more Julia.
In 1963, “The French Chef” launched on WGBH and by the end of 1965, the show was syndicated to 96 stations across the nation. Sales of her cookbook also picked up, 200,000 by 1965. Julia became a national sensation. In an era of Jell-O, RediWhip, and TV dinners, Julia was able to convince the nation to cook up quiche Lorraine, boeuf bourguignon, and souffles.
Part of Julia’s appeal was her informal and reassuring manner. The show was taped live and broadcast uncut and unedited. While Julia waited for the chicken to brown, viewers waited also, listening to Julia’s quirky stories and advice on cooking. Viewers truly felt like they were in the kitchen, cooking and learning besides The French Chef. Julia showed viewers that cooking could be fun, enjoyable, and easy – and it was okay to make mistakes.
Ask an American of a certain age, and chances are they will claim to remember the episode where Julia dropped a chicken on the floor and simply picked it up and went on. The legend lives on, but in reality, it wasn’t actually chicken – it was a potato pancake.
In the episode, Julia is making a plate-sized potato pancake, and she declares “When you flip anything, you just have to have the courage of your convictions.” Julia flips the thing and half of it falls onto the stove top. Undaunted, Julia scoops up the potato from the stove and patches the pancake back together. She pauses and says to the camera, “If you’re alone in the kitchen, who is going to see?” And with that phrase, she gave women and aspiring cooks everywhere the courage to fail in the kitchen (especially if no one is around).
In 1964, Julia received the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award: “Mrs. Child does more than show us how good cooking is achieved; by her delightful demonstrations, she has brought the pleasures of good living into many American homes.” Julia continued her upward trajectory – in 1966, she won an Emmy Award for “The French Chef.” Her popularity made her a frequent guest on talk shows, from “Good Morning America” to “Late Night with David Letterman.” She even made the TIME magazine cover in 1966.
Julia was a proud food educator, never straying from public television – she went on to star in a number of subsequent cooking shows, including “Julia Child & Company,” “Dinner at Julia’s,” “Julia Child Cooking with Master Chefs.” Even her final TV show in 1999 was a return to cooking basics with fellow celebrity TV chef and educator Jacques Pepin.