I just recently finished reading a memoir written by the great-nephew of M.F.K. Fisher based on journals and letter correspondence that she had with her friends at the time: the Childs (Julia and Paul); James Beard, Richard Olney, and their publisher Judith Jones. Oh to have friends like that!
It reminded me just how much France, influenced this tight-knit circle of the most famous American cookbooks-writers. Of course, through my admiration for Julia Child, I had discovered her early history as it relates to her time in Paris and with the upcoming series coming to HBOMax and also a separate documentary, I thought it would be fun to share!
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Ask any foodie for their favorite things to do in Paris, and they will immediately tell you about bustling fruit markets and quirky boulangeries that bake fresh bread all day long. Images of charcuterie boards paired with delicious wines, Michelin stars, gourmet platters, and traditional baguettes paint a drool-worthy picture of the food culture in Paris.
But it would be wrong to miss out on iconic chefs who changed the culinary space worldwide. One of the most important is Julia Child.
But who is Julia Child? And what are her ties to Paris?
[Note from Andi: finding open-source or creative commons images for Julia Child is NOT easy! Thankfully Sony Pictures had some wonderful photos from the Julie and Julia movie that feature Meryl Streep as Julia. I used them in lieu of pictures of the “actual” Julia Child! There are some pretty amazing photos of Julia’s life in France is a Feast: The Photographic Journey of Paul and Julia Child from Paul Child’s great-nephew, Alex Prud’homme.]
You don’t need to be a Le Cordon-Bleu connoisseur to admire the treasure that is Julia Child. For many Americans, there is no French cuisine without Julia Child. The bonne vivante introduced the delights of French cuisine to American homes (or rather taught them to appreciate it just a little bit more).
Paris has always been kind to travelers with curious appetites. Julia spent her formative cooking years in the city and as such, Paris was her entrée to the culinary world.
The Most Exciting Meal
France influenced Julia Child the moment she stepped foot in Le Havre in 1948. When Paul and Julia drove down to Rouen, Julia ate her first French meal in the then oldest restaurant in France, La Couronne. Founded in 1345, the acclaimed restaurant is still open today in Rouen’s old market square. She later went on to describe it as “the most exciting meal of my life”.
Her feast in France is when her love affair with French cuisine began. With every discovery, from briny oysters with rye bread to simple green salads with a glass of wine, Julia was all in. Eventually, she enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in the 7th Arrondissement (now relocated to the 15th Arrondissement) where she studied French cuisine under master chef Max Bugnard.
Soon, Julia knew her Bordeaux and her Burgundies and was acing the art of French cooking.
Julia Child Before Paris
Although Julia Child became a household in the American kitchens after her move to France, she lived the interesting life of a writer in the States. Born in 1912 as Julia Carolyn McWilliams in Pasadena, California, she was the eldest of three children. A history major from Smith College, Julia graduated in 1934 with a flair for creative writing and a little bit of theatre.
In 1935, Julia moved to New York to pursue writing. Two years later, Julia moved back to California to support her ailing mother but continued to write for local publications and advertising firms.
In 1942, Julia worked as a typist for the U.S. Information Agency in Washington D.C. to help the country during World War II. She was transferred to the Office of Strategic Services where she was the first researcher in the Secret Intelligence division. She was also a researcher helping to develop shark repellents to prevent the untimely set off of explosives meant for German U-boats.
Julia was posted to Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon) in 1944. This is when she met the love of her life and gourmet, Paul Child. Born in 1902 in Montclair, New Jersey, Paul taught photography, French, and English in the United States, France, and Italy before joining the OSS during World War II.
He often wrote about his international experiences to his twin, Charles. Paul met Julia while stationed in Kandy, Ceylon, and instantly took a liking to her crazy sense of humor.
Paul and Julia eventually married in 1946 in Pennsylvania and then moved to Washington D.C. for a year. After joining the US Foreign Service, Paul was posted overseas to Paris as a part of the US Information Service. With a fine palate and a taste for sophisticated food, Paul introduced Julia to a whole new world of cooking. This move to Paris was the starting point of the wonderful culinary adventure that was soon to become their life.
Julia Child’s Paris
Introducing her to the fundamentals of French cuisine and the delights of savoring life to its fullest, it’s hardly a secret that Paris was Julia Child’s origin story. Retracing the steps of America’s French Chef, it’s satisfying to search for traces of Julia Child in Paris.
Although much of post-World War II Paris that Julia fell in love with has long since disappeared, some of her favorite destinations still stand strong today. For any traveler with an appetite and an unending curiosity for food, these classics are a must-visit to truly live the Julia-Child experience.
When Julia and her husband Paul first stepped on Parisian soil in November 1948, the couple stayed at Hôtel Pont Royal (5 Rue de Montalembert, in the 7th arrondissement), a boutique hotel in Saint Germain des Prés with a lobby that was a refuge to some of the celebrated writers like Sartre, Miller, and de Beauvoir.
One of the most well-known streets in Julia’s story is 81, Rue de l’Université, or Roo de Loo as she so lovingly called it. Housing her former residence in the 7th Arrondissement, it was also home to L’École des Trois Gourmandes, the informal cooking school that she created in 1952 with her friends, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. Held in Julia’s kitchen, the three women taught American students the joy of cooking and exploring French cuisine.
As the couple started building a life in Paris, Julia would hunt down housing essentials and home decor at Le BHV Marais (52 Rue de Rivoli, in the 4th Arrondissement). Previously known as Le Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville, this trusted departmental store was a one-stop-shop of most bricolage needs. Julia also marched down to flea markets, such as Les Puces de Saint-Ouen, to look for kitchen, living room, or wardrobe essentials.
The bustling street market of Rue Cler was where Julia often frequented to stock up her pantry with meats and cheeses. While studying at Le Cordon Bleu, Julia and her classmates also visited the inner city markets of Les Halles in search of ingredients. Sadly, the markets were demolished in 1971 for the commercial centers.
In the Latin Quarter, Rue Mouffetard held a bustling outdoor food market that was known to be another favorite of Julia. She also spent her time amidst the shelves of Shakespeare and Company (37 Rue de la Bûcherie, in the 5th Arrondissement), located on Paris’ Left Bank, reading and absorbing French culture and cuisine from a variety of sources.
While Julia and Paul were fans of mid-priced bistros and brasseries, they also loved to splurge on fancy places every once in a while.
One of the classic brasseries that survived the Les Halles inner-city market demolition, Au Pied de Cochon (6, Rue Coquillière in the 1st Arrondissement – I LOVE this spot too!) was Julia’s all-time preferred location. This is where she often ordered the traditional French onion soup, an aromatic broth of mild onions and bits of garlic. The soup can still be ordered today, any time of the day or night.
Les Deux Magots (6 Pl. Saint-Germain des Prés, in the 6th Arrondissement) was the iconic location where Paul and Julia had their typical French breakfast on their first Saturday in Paris. She often visited the place for their delicious Chocolat des Deux Magots à l’ancienne, the sweetened Parisian Hot Chocolate. Brasserie Lipp (151 Bd Saint-Germain, in the 6th), capturing the Paris of yesteryear, was one of their favorite dessert spots.
Another cafe the couple enjoyed was Café de Flore (172 Bd Saint-Germain, in the 6th), where Paul and Julia dined amongst rising and celebrated artists. One of the oldest coffee houses on the charming Boulevard Saint Germain, Café de Flore remains a popular hangout for celebrities and tourists even today.
Paul and Julia were regular monthly diners at La Tour d’Argent (15-17 Quai de la Tournelle, in the 5th) and Le Grand Véfour (17 Rue de Beaujolais, in the 1st). Even though the Childs were attracted to 2 Michelin-starred restaurants, they wined and dined all over Paris. For Julia’s 40th birthday, the couple celebrated at Lapérouse (51 Quai des Grands Augustins, in the 6th), a belle époque restaurant with private rooms, reserved for special night-outs.
French Cooking and Culture
When Julia began her culinary journey by enrolling in Le Cordon Bleu, she honed her skills at home by recreating the recipes taught in school. Like any other chef, Julia carefully selected her cookware for maximizing not only the cooking experience but also the tastes and flavors of her dishes. With various stores stocking up on cooking essentials, Julia’s ideal store was the E. Dehillerin (18-20 Rue Coquillière, in the 1st).
Essentially unchanged from the bygone eras of Paris, this cookware store stocks up on all kinds of professional quality cooking equipment and cutlery.
A darling of gourmand Parisians, À l’Olivier was the go-to high-end oil store. The ‘Olive-Oilery’, as Julia named it, is an admired store for its aromatic selection of extra virgin oils.
As Julia learned more about French food, she aimed to share this rich cuisine with others around her. By noting her cooking attempts with a variety of recipes, Julia, along with her friends Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, co-authored her first legendary cookbook. “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”, a two-volume cookbook published for the American market, contained the fundamentals of French cuisine.
The book was initially rejected for publication due to its resemblance to an encyclopedia but was picked up by Judith Jones at Alfred A Knopf in 1961. The trio presented a sequence of classic recipes that form the backbone of French food. The books aimed to present the essential cooking of France, the classic dishes as well as regional specialties, made with American ingredients and in American kitchens.
My Life in France, a book containing Julia’s memoirs, is a bestselling story capturing her childhood and phenomenal years in France and Europe. Written in collaboration with photojournalist Alex Prud’homme, her great-nephew, and published posthumously in 2006, it brilliantly captures the wonderful spirit of one of America’s beloved master chefs.
The book that became the film Julie & Julia starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams- also revolved around Julia’s early life in France, and a young blogger, Julie Powell, trying to recreate Julia’s recipes.
Julia Child After Paris
In 1961, Paul and Julia returned to the States after Paul retired from the civil services. Julia had come a long way from someone with no idea about fine tastes to a master chef with blossoming culinary expertise. While Paris gave her an entry into the culinary world, the world was her oyster.
With the motto of experiencing the pure enjoyment of simple eating, Julia was about to take up all the opportunities that life had to offer. Julia wanted the average home-cook to learn the nuances of fine cuisine and make them better cooks.
After much success of her cookbook, Julia’s first television cooking show, The French Chef, debuted in 1963. The show was well received by the American audience and ran for 10 years. Along the way, it also picked up Peabody and Emmy awards (including the first Emmy award for an educational program). With her cheery attitude and enthusiasm to bring out the best of French cuisine, Julia won over the American households.
Julia’s second book, The French Chef Cookbook, is a paper version of the celebrated 70s PBS series. From novice chefs to experienced ones, this cookbook introduced essential cooking techniques for all levels of culinary experts.
Due to the technological constraints of the 60s, The French Chef was aired unedited, which meant that the mistakes that Julia made while cooking were seen in the final version. This lent her an air of authenticity as she taught how to adapt quickly. She worried more about satisfying the taste buds rather than focusing on the looks of the recipes.
Her cheery attitude sent a message across American kitchens that it was quite ok to make mistakes and learn from them as you go along. In the 70s and 80s, Julia was a household name with numerous television shows such as Julia Child & Company, Julia Child & More Company, and Dinner at Julia’s.
With a group of culinary experts, Julia founded the American Institute of Wine & Food in 1981. Dedicated to food culture and gastronomy, the institute aims to further “the understanding, appreciation, and quality of wine and food through fun educational experiences.” In the 90s, Julia was the star of a few more television programs and often collaborated with Jacques Pépin.
While her critically acclaimed television programs won awards, Julia was busy pocketing merits of her own. She was awarded the L’Ordre du Mérite Agricole in 1967 and the L’Ordre de Mérite Nationale in 1976 by the French government. She also received honorary degrees from various universities including Boston University, Brown University, Smith College, and Harvard University.
Julia was the first woman to be inducted into The Culinary Institute of America’s Hall of Fame in 1993. In the year 2000, Julia was presented with the highest French order merit, La Légion d’Honneur by none other than Jacques Pépin.
While Julia made cooking fun and inspired millions to appreciate the simple joys of food, she aimed to further her impact as a mentor even after her death. In 1995, she established a charitable foundation, The Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and Culinary Arts, to further the development and support of the professional food world.
The Foundation makes grants to other nonprofits, and protects Juli Child’s legacy, holding rights to her images and excerpts of her work. Today, the Foundation strives to stay relevant with a regular podcast that introduces a host of chefs and restaurateurs with a variety of skills.
Paul and Julia Child
Julia and Paul had a fascinating marriage; they were a strong team, each better with the other. While Julia was driven and ambitious, Paul was happy to be an observer in the background. In The French Chef Cookbook, Julia wonderfully describes Paul as someone who is essential to her success: “Paul Child, the man who is always there: porter, dishwasher, official photographer, mushroom dicer and onion chopper, editor, fish illustrator, manager, taster, idea man, resident poet, and husband.”
Paul had a sophisticated eye and often helped Julia style her sets or dining tables. His photographs captured the essence of Julia’s unabashed love for cooking. The photos were turned into a book, France is a Feast: The Photographic Journey of Paul and Julia Child, that documents Julia’s discovery of French food. The digital files of the photographs are available even today in the archives of the Schlesinger Library.
Paul even designed her kitchen set in Cambridge, which is now on exhibit in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Keeping in mind her love for order and her tall stature, Paul ensured the kitchen had a perfect place for every pot, pan, and knife, and that the counters were raised so Julia wouldn’t have to stoop while cooking.
After he retired to Cambridge, Paul shared Julia’s enthusiasm and was confident in his wife’s success. Being her inspiration and mentor, he was the solid pillar she could rely on to be her toughest critic right until the end when Paul Child passed away at the ripe age of 92 in 1994.
Julia went on to become a television personality for many programs and wrote a few more books about her wisdom in the kitchen and her forty years of culinary experience. Julia lived a long life and made sure to enjoy every last moment of it. Julia died in 2004, two days before her 92nd birthday in Montecito, California due to kidney failure.
Known as the grande dame of cooking, Julia was successful in bringing more folks to the kitchen who thought they never could. So the next time you’re in Paris, don’t forget to retrace the steps of Julia Child as you find your culinary adventure. Until then, as Julia said, “the pleasures of table, and of life, are infinite–Toujours bon appétit!”
- I did the Context Travel Baguette to Bistro tour in Paris which covered part of Julia’s shopping streets and enoyed it a lot!
- I have seen this other great tours as well: Walk in the footsteps of Julia Child
- I wrote an article a long time ago about another aspect of Julia Child and France…
- I wrote an article about 5 Things/Life lessons I learned watching Julie & Julia!
- I am a BIG fan of the Jessie Kanelos Weiner and her book Paris in Stride, she did a great series of illustrations celebrating Julia on her blog FrancoFly!
- You can STAY in Paul and Julia’s beloved La Pitchoune in Provence (in the south of France). It is actually listed on Airbnb! And you can cook in their kitchen!
There are SO many great books by and about Julia Child, here are a few of my favorites:
- From Julia: Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom: Essential Techniques and Recipes from a Lifetime of Cooking / Julia’s Delicious Little Dinners / People Who Love to Eat Are Always the Best People And Other Wisdom
- Julia Child Rules: Lessons On Savoring Life from Karen Karbo
- Bon Appetit! The Delicious Life of Julia Child from Jessie Hartland
- Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child from Bob Spitz
- For the Kids! > Julia Child
How about you? Are you a fan of Julia Child? Did you know much about her life? Have you visited any of her Paris haunts? Are you planning on watching the new series and documentary film? Do tell!
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