Julia Child was neither French nor a chef, but The French Chef made her a national icon and helped launch the Public Broadcasting System.
When The French Chef first aired on Feb. 11, 1963, Julia Child, 50, had written a cookbook had had almost no television experience. The previous summer she had cooked an omelet on a hotplate for a WGBH-TV program called People Are Reading.
That appearance went so well that WGBH producers decided to air a pilot program. Julia cooked an omelet and, on the next show, soufflés. At the end of the second show she sat down and ate her soufflé with a slug of white wine – something that hadn’t been done before on American live television.
Her fondness for wine would become one of the many leitmotifs of Julia Child’s cooking shows, which for 62 years taught Americans to make mousses, quiches and crepes.
“Drama is very important in life,” she once said. “You have to come on with a bang.”
Julia Child was the daughter of a wealthy Pasadena banker. She was educated at Smith College and served in the Office of Special Services during World War II. She met Paul Child in Ceylon, they married and lived in Europe, where Julia finally learned to cook at the age of 32. While living in Paris, she began writing her blockbuster cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Julia and Paul moved to Cambridge, Mass., in 1961. Despite her California upbringing, Julia had deep roots in Massachusetts. Her maternal grandmother was a direct descendant of William Bradford. Her maternal grandfather, Byron Weston, also had roots in Plymouth Colony, served as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts and started the Weston Paper Company, which rivaled the Crane Paper Company.
Paul and Julia Child watched that first pilot program on their black-and-white television in Cambridge, where their neighbors included Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and John Kenneth Galbraith.
Julia was horrified. She said she looked like Mrs. Steam Engine, careening across the screen, panting heavily. “There I was in black and white, a large woman sloshing eggs too quickly here, too slowly there, she said”
But she was real, she was easygoing and she didn’t talk down to her audience. She was also a character at 6’2” with a warbly voice and a wicked sense of humor. WGBH decided knew they had a hit.
The French Chef Premiers With a Shock
They produced the show in a demonstration kitchen at the Cambridge Electric Light Company. The stove, unfortunately, was electric. Every time Julia touched it, the stove gave her a mild shock. If she perspired heavily, the shock was not so mild. Careful viewers could see her twitch when a shock caught her by surprise.
Feb. 11, 1963, was the night of the Beanpot game between Harvard and Boston College. Fortunately for Julia, it didn’t start until 9 p.m. The French Chef debuted at 8 p.m.
Julia made beef bourguignon, ‘a perfectly delicious dish,’ she called it. She had written the script, bought the ingredients and brought kitchen equipment and props such as tablecloths, dishes, candlesticks and wine glasses. Volunteers were recruited to wash dishes.
Paul diagrammed the entire kitchen, down to the bottles on the shelves. When Julia had to reach for the olive oil, she could just glance at his notes that said, ‘shelf #1, left-hand side, glass bottle.’
The show went without a hitch. The second one, not so much. She was busily chatting with her audience through the camera when the onion soup burned. She didn’t acknowledge the mistake. “That’s a wonderful smell,” she said, as she inhaled the smoking mess.
Many mishaps followed. She burned the butter, dropped the food, spilled the sauce and wiped her fingers on her apron. An urban myth spread that she had once dropped a chicken on the floor, picked it up and dusted it off.
It never happened, though she once dropped a potato pancake onto the stove. “Oh, that didn’t go very well,” she said. “But you can always pick it up. If you are alone in the kitchen, who is going to see?”
She used kitchen utensils for comic effect, once throwing a rolling pin over her shoulder because she didn’t like it. She staunchly defended cream and butter, dismissing margarine as ‘that other spread.’ She scoffed at dieting, saying it was what you did while waiting for the steak to cook.
On an episode about cooking chicken, she introduced a row of raw poultry as the chicken sisters, slapping them as she called them by name: Miss Broiler, Miss Fryer, Miss Roaster, Miss Capon, Miss Stewer and old Madame Hen!’
Love At First Sight
The public loved her. One viewer wrote to the station, “Loved watching her catch the frying pan as it almost went off the counter.”
“Loved her looking for the cover of the casserole,” wrote another. They also sent contributions, mentioning Julia Child. Perhaps what got her the show was her moneyed Cambridge neighbors, who served her dishes at parties and talked about how funny and entertaining she was.
Her timing was good, too. French cooking had been considered expensive restaurant fare. But America had entered a new phase of prosperity and American cooks were ready to leave behind molded Jell-O salads and tuna casseroles. The immensely popular First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, had hired a real French chef, Rene Verdon, to cook for the White House.
The French Chef made Julia Child famous. “Celebrity has its uses,” she said. “I can always get a seat in any restaurant.”
The French Chef Syndicated
WGBH was a shoestring operation at the time, a station that evolved from the 19th-century Lowell Lecture Series. Sometimes The French Chef had to cover expenses by auctioning off the dishes to the audience at the end of the show.
But The French Chef was so popular it quickly syndicated to 20 other educational stations across the country at a time when all educational programming was local.
It became the backbone of the fledgling educational television network we now know as PBS.
In 1964, The French Chef received a Peabody Award. Julia was credited with doing "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." On Nov. 25, 1966, Julia Child appeared on the cover of Time magazine as “Our Lady of the Ladle.”
Today, Julia Child’s kitchen, used to stage subsequent cooking programs, can be visited at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
PBS has a website devoted to her, which includes her advice:
This is my invariable advice to people: Learn how to cook -- try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun.
With thanks to Dearie, The Remarkable Life of Julia Child by Bob Spitz.
Photos: ‘Julia Child's kitchen,’ by Matthew Bisanz. " Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons. ‘Julia Child at KUHT,’ by KUHT. Licensed under Creative Commons Zero, Public Domain Dedication via Wikimedia Commons. This story about The French Chef was updated in 2018.