When I start with a new class, I like to ask each student what inspired them to come to ICE. Many talk about a love of cooking (and eating), a career change or gaining more skills to go further in their career. Many students also cite inspiration from watching food shows and chefs on TV.
From Top Chef to Rachael Ray, students have grown up watching chefs on television and see them as entertaining and educational. While some people cooking on TV are more personality with a pan than professional chef and some shows are more about drama than dinner, these shows have undeniably helped raise the status of chefs. The popularity of chefs is greater now than at any time and their influence has gone beyond just how to cook dinner. They inspire people to cook, eat and try new foods.
The concept is not new. Since its inception, people have been cooking and talking about food on TV. James Beard, Jacques Pepin and Dione Lucas were all early TV personalities. The one that influenced and inspired me is Julia Child.
On August 15th, Julia Child would have celebrated her 100th birthday. This iconic woman who brought sophisticated French cuisine to mainstream America still enjoys undimmed popularity eight years after her death in 2004. She not only made complicated recipes seem easy and approachable but she was not afraid to make mistakes. Her enthusiasm, no matter what happened in the kitchen, made cooking fun. She made people want to cook.
I was lucky enough to meet Julia Child several times. The last was at a charity benefit in the Hamptons, where she was the guest of honor. She was in her late eighties and while her 6’2″ frame seemed a bit more stooped and frail, her characteristic warmth and cheerfulness were unchanged.
Enjoying a glass of wine and foie gras, she tirelessly greeted a stream of star-struck party goers, including me. She posed for a photo and we spoke for a few minutes. I’ve had the opportunity to meet and work with many great chefs, but meeting Julia Child was one of the highlights of my career.
In honor of her birthday, the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. briefly reopened an exhibit about Julia Child that features the kitchen from her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Donated to the Smithsonian by Child in 2002, it was the site of three of her television series.
While you can’t step inside, visitors can view Child’s kitchen from all different sides. I love the popular exhibit so when I was in D.C. last month I ducked into the museum for a visit. As always, it was filled with scores of people admiring the kitchen and the accompanying Child’s memorabilia.
Her Grand Diplome from Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris and her Legion D’Honneur, awarded by the French Government stand next to one of her Emmys. A television screen plays clips from her many shows, reminding everyone of the charismatic blend of skill, fearlessness and humor that helped make her a success. The kitchen feels like hers: warm and comfortable but well organized with a touch of a professional. A Garland stove and hood stands alongside a homey wooden table covered with a simple yellow tablecloth. Bright blue walls are covered with neatly hung copper pans and equipment. An impressive selection of kitchen utensils and gadgets line the counters that were custom made to accommodate her height.
I was excited to discover that soon Child’s kitchen will become the centerpiece of a new, larger exhibition. In November, the Smithsonian will open Food: Transforming the American Table, 1950 – 2000. It will examine how the changing American culture and new technologies changed the way we eat. I’m sure it will feature lots of exhibits about current celebrity chefs and how much has changed in food and television since Julia Child. I can’t wait to see it!