A Life Well Done
A century after her birth, Pasadena’s Julia Child still inspires top chefs
By Rebecca Kuzins 06/21/2012
In her earliest years living in Pasadena, Julia Carolyn McWilliams rarely cooked. But years later, the woman now known as Julia Child would forever change the way Americans thought about food.
Child was born in Pasadena on Aug. 15, 1912, the eldest child of Julia Carolyn (Caro) Weston, heir to a paper company fortune, and John McWilliams. A Princeton University graduate and the president of a land company, John was active in community affairs and typified the WASP Republicans who in the early 20th century were the backbone of the city. The McWilliams family lived in a large, Colonial-style house at 625 Magnolia Avenue.
“As a child, Julia McWilliams loved Pasadena, where she and her siblings [Dorothy and John] were raised in a beautiful house,” recalled her great-nephew, author Alex Prud’homme. “The family had a cook, so Julia hardly ever went into the kitchen, and her mother, Caro, rarely cooked.”
After attending the Westridge School and Polytechnic Institute in Pasadena, Child received her high school education at a boarding school in Marin County and went on to Smith College, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in 1934. She then moved back to Pasadena, living with her parents and devoting her time to parties, golf and the Junior League.
A year later, Child moved to New York but returned to Pasadena in 1937 to care for her ailing mother before she died of complications resulting from high blood pressure.
Child resumed her usual activities in Pasadena, but she was growing bored with her life. The outbreak of World War II offered a chance for her to start anew. In 1942, she briefly worked as a typist for the Office of Wartime Intelligence in Washington, DC, before landing a job as a clerk and later as a researcher with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency. The OSS sent her to Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, where she met another OSS employee, Paul Child, with whom she fell in love.
Returning to Pasadena after the war, Julia enrolled in a Beverly Hills cooking school so she could learn to cook for Paul after they were married. For the first time in her life, she began reading books and magazines about cooking. She and Paul married in 1946, and the couple moved to Washington, DC, where Paul was employed by the US State Department. Although she liked Pasadena, Julia frequently disagreed with her father’s conservative politics, including his support for anti-communist crusader US Sen. Joe McCarthy; for this reason, when Paul’s diplomatic career ended, the Childs settled in Cambridge, Mass., instead of Julia’s hometown.
Julia’s newly acquired interest in cooking intensified after Paul was stationed in France and the couple moved to Paris in 1948. “During this period in her life, Child began to understand that cooking could truly be a form of art, one that could be developed and refined through dedication and hard work,” according to Charles A. Baker-Clark, author of “Profiles from the Kitchen.” Child enrolled in the famed Le Cordon Bleu cooking school and diligently learned to prepare French cuisine.
Child was not a natural cook and had to work hard to achieve her desired results. But she was a passionate cook who loved handling food and took great joy in learning new techniques and preparing new dishes. She conveyed this joy to the people who read her cookbooks and watched her television programs. Her first show, “The French Chef,” premiered in 1962.
“Julia on television was Julia cooking; and to watch her cook was to see every dimension of herself fully engaged,” wrote her biographer, Laura Shapiro. “She cooked with mind, body and spirit,” the way dancers dance and musicians play their instruments.
That was not the way most Americans cooked in the 1950s and early 1960s, when preparing a meal was perceived more as unrewarding drudgery than an occasion for enjoyment and creativity. Home economists in these years emphasized scientific cooking, exact measurements, standard recipes and an array of gadgets to make cooking more convenient.
Child, however, believed cooking was an art, not a science, and her love for her work not only inspired her audience to prepare French meals, but also engendered their deep love and respect for the tall, sometimes awkward woman who taught them how to appreciate more sophisticated cuisine. “When Julia Child fell in love with French cooking, published her cookbooks and did her TV shows, she helped to change American culture for the better,” maintains Prud’homme. “One of her gifts was to encourage people to be optimistic, work hard and have fun, whether it was in the kitchen or anywhere else. I think her optimism, unpretentiousness, charisma and hard work were the key to her success.”
Lachlan Sands, executive chef at the Pasadena branch of Le Cordon Bleu, says the school’s best-known graduate “changed the way we look at food.” Before Child emerged on the scene, Sands explains, Americans had “a very limited palate” and used English-style cooking techniques, such as frying or boiling their food. Child introduced new ways to cook, such as roasting and using the proper sauces. She taught Americans to cook “real French food,” and not the cuisine that had traditionally been served in mediocre French restaurants.
Child, Sands added, was one of the first TV chefs, an occupation that has since proliferated with The Food Channel and reality shows like “Hell’s Kitchen,” “Top Chef” and “Cake Boss.” By broadening Americans’ palates and teaching them to cook more complicated dishes, Child also changed public perceptions about restaurants and about the chefs who are trained at Le Cordon Bleu and other professional cooking schools. “She introduced the capacity for home cooks to make professional foods,” says Sands. “This placed new expectations on the restaurant industry. ‘If I can make food better at home, why should I go out to eat?’ Now the public is so well educated about food, that the pressure is huge on the restaurant industry to live up to the public’s standards.”
Steven Lona, a graduate of the local Cordon Bleu and the chef at Bistro 45, a French restaurant in Pasadena, acknowledges the influence of Child on his occupation. “Most American chefs say she helped draw them to cooking,” Lona says. “Her approach to cooking was to draw an emotional connection to it. There had always been a lot of rigidity in French cooking. She found a middle ground between the refinement of traditional French cooking and more casual home cooking.”
Narciso Suarez, the chef at Cheval Blanc in Old Pasadena, said he learned how to prepare French food by studying with a French chef and reading Child’s cookbooks. He keeps one of her cookbooks in his restaurant’s kitchen and has used Child’s recipes to make white bean casserole, duck comfit and other dishes for customers.
“I would have liked to have talked to her about cooking,” Suarez says.
In 2000, with 17 cookbooks and more than a dozen television series to her credit, Child moved to a retirement community in Santa Barbara, where, according to Prud’homme, “she was lucky to be surrounded by some of her childhood friends from Pasadena.” Though she died of heart failure in Santa Barbara in 2004, two days before her 92nd birthday, Child’s legacy has left an indelible mark in Pasadena and the larger culinary world.