The Moment that Julia Child Became an American icon

Excerpts by Alex Prud’homme via The Boston Globe

Though she did not own a TV set, Julia had been bitten by the television bug from the moment she set foot on a studio set. She and her coauthor and best friend, Simone “Simca” Beck, had appeared on NBC’s Today show to promote Mastering , and afterward Julia wrote: “TV was certainly an impressive new medium.” (She would soon buy her first television with the proceeds from book sales.) By then, she had been teaching cooking for nine years and was on a mission to spread the gospel of “le gout francais” — the very essence of French taste — which she fervently believed could be reproduced by American cooks in their home kitchens. All that was needed, Julia said, were a set of clear instructions, the right tools and ingredients, and a little encouragement..

Child and members of WGBH’s production staff goof around on set. Photo by Paul Child. Credit line: Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.
Child and members of WGBH’s production staff goof around on set. Photo by Paul Child. Credit: Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

In April 1962, shortly after appearing on I’ve Been Reading, Julia typed a memo to WGBH in which she laid out a vision for “an interesting, adult series of half-hour TV programs on French cooking addressed to an intelligent, reasonably sophisticated audience which likes good food and cooking.”

Each program, Julia suggested, should focus on just a few recipes, and her cooking demonstration — “informal, easy, conversational, yet timed to the minute” — should lead to a discussion of broader culinary matters, such as “a significant book on cooking or wine, an interesting piece of equipment, or a special product.” Julia suggested that other experts, such as a pastry chef or a sommelier, appear as guests, and that well-known chefs — such as James Beard or Joseph Donon (a master French cuisinier) — cook side by side with her on the show.

WGBH had never produced a cooking program, had a small audience, was largely run by volunteers, and operated on a shoestring budget. But encouraged by the public’s strong response to Julia on I’ve Been Reading, the station arranged for her to shoot three trial episodes of a televised cookery show.

On June 18, 1962, the Childs arrived at a borrowed “studio” in downtown Boston — actually, the demonstration kitchen of the Boston Gas Co. — to shoot the initial pilot episode, “The French Omelette.” (Julia preferred the French spelling of that word.) Julia brought her own frying pan, spatula, butter, and eggs. The lights flicked on, and the show’s producer, 28-year-old Russell “Russ” Morash, directed two stationary cameras. Because videotape was so dear, the show was essentially shot “live” in one continuous half-hour take. “I careened around the stove for the allotted twenty-eight minutes, flashing whisks and bowls and pans, and panting a bit under the hot lights,” she recalled. “The omelette came out just fine. And with that, WGBH-TV had lurched into educational television’s first cooking program.”

The second and third pilot episodes, “Coq au Vin” and “Souffles,” were both shot on June 25. This time, Julia had rehearsed the shows at home. Paul built a replica of the set in their kitchen, labeled utensils, made sure the ingredients were measured beforehand, and coached Julia with a stopwatch. Though she continued to gasp and misplace things, she grew more self-assured with each performance.

Julia’s special sauce — her ability to blend deep knowledge, broad experience, precise technique, self-deprecating humor, and infectious enthusiasm — won the public’s heart. There was simply no one quite like her on TV. Julia loved this “high-wire act,” but admitted that she was “a complete amateur” and had no idea how she came across on TV. The answer was simple: The camera, and the audience, loved her.

In response to the “Coq au Vin” show, a viewer named Irene McHogue wrote: “Not only did I get a wonderfully refreshing new approach to the preparation and cooking of said poultry, but really and truly one of the most surprisingly entertaining half hours I have ever spent before the TV in many a moon. I love the way she projected over the camera directly to me the watcher. Loved watching her catch the frying pan as it almost went off the counter; loved her looking for the cover of the casserole.”

Encouraged, WGBH signed Julia up for a 26-episode series. Ruth Lockwood, the assistant producer, scrounged up a track of bouncy French theme music. Unable to decide on a name for the program, Julia called it The French Chef — though she was neither French nor a professional chef (she called herself “a cook”) — until she could invent a better title.

In the first episode, a slightly nervous, fresh-faced Julia demonstrated how to make boeuf bourguignon, the venerable beef stew that would run as a leitmotif through her career. At the end of the show, she tucked a dish towel into her apron, and spontaneously said: “This is Julia Child. Bon appetit!”

When The French Chef hit the Boston airwaves in 1963, WGBH shared copies of the tapes with sister stations, allowing viewers in New Hampshire, Maine, Pennsylvania, and parts of New York to watch Julia a week after she aired in Boston. It would start being distributed nationally the next year.

The audience responded viscerally. You are a delight! wrote housewives, hippies, taxi drivers, MIT scientists, and Wall Streeters. The French Chef was “educational TV’s answer to underground movie and pop/op cults,” Joan Barthel wrote in The New York Times Magazine. “The program can be campier than ‘Batman,’ farther-out than ‘Lost in Space,’ and more penetrating than ‘Meet the Press’ as it probes the question: Can a Society be Great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?”

A big part of Julia’s allure was her natural ease on TV. Her combination of grace and awkwardness built a sense of trust and intimacy with the audience, which was reinforced by her deep knowledge and sure technique. She used humor to keep her viewers engaged, but because she was so technically adept, she (usually) managed to triumph over adversity.

She would start making a quiche, misplace her glasses or lose her train of thought, find them again, and carry on. She would rapidly and expertly dice a pile of mushrooms, fillet a trout, and demonstrate how to encase poached eggs in a delicate consomme gelatin (oeufs en gelee). But in the next instant, a spoon would go flying off-screen, an Apple Charlotte would collapse and she’d mash it back together with her fingers (“It will taste even better this way”), or she’d incinerate the croutons atop a French onion soup into charcoal briquettes (“That’s beautiful! There you are. I think that possibly that browned a little bit too much. But I don’t know. It gives a very good effect.”)

Confronted by a mishap, Julia would look momentarily befuddled and cuss under her breath or just tilt her head back and laugh….

Julia liked to point the TV camera straight down into a pot of softly bubbling boeuf bourguignon to show what it should look like as it cooked. It was instructive, but it also activated your taste buds and tempted you to dive right through the screen to dig into a heaping bowl of that succulent comfort food. “To do that is not easy,” observed the chef Jacques Pepin. “She had a very rare quality.”…

Though she disliked “tooting my own horn,” Julia had a messianic zeal for spreading culinary knowledge. In championing the pleasure of shopping, cooking, eating, and even of cleaning the dishes, she became a role model for people of all genders, races, ages, and creeds. For her, kitchen work was not “domestic drudgery,” it was “such fun!” With the battle cry “Bon appetit!” she reinvented what it meant to be a television chef and brought a growing audience of American home cooks along for the ride.

Postal Service Releases Julia Child and Joyce Chen Stamps

From Boston Magazine – September 25, 2014

‘Celebrity Chefs Forever’ stamp features two Cambridge culinary icons

This Friday (September 26), in a ceremony in Chicago, the United States Postal Service will release its “Celebrity Chefs Forever” series featuring James Beard, Edna Lewis, Felipe Rojas-Lombardi, and two Cambridge culinary icons: Julia Child and Joyce Chen.

Child’s and Chen’s portraits were provided to the Postal Service by the Julia Child Foundation and the Chen family. The stamps were designed by art director Greg Breeding and feature digital illustrations by Jason Seiler, depicting the chefs in a style intended to resemble oil paintings.

CelebrityChefs-Forever-strip5-singles-BGv1-06Julia Child

Child is best known for demystifying French cuisine for an American audience through her two-volume book set, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and extremely popular television shows, The French Chef, Dinner at Julia’s, and the Emmy-winning In Julia’s Kitchen with Master Chefs.

Child filmed episodes of The French Chef through 1966, which earned a Peabody Award and a 1966 Primetime Emmy. In 1981, she co-founded the American Institute of Wine and Food, and a decade later she and Jacques Pépin worked with Boston University to help create a graduate program in gastronomy. In 1996, TV Guide named Child one of the 50 greatest TV stars of all time.

CelebrityChefs-Forever-strip5-singles-BGv1-04Joyce Chen

Joyce Chen might not receive the same attention as Child, but was just as influential, promoting northern-style Chinese cuisine at a time when soy sauce was considered exotic. From her landmark Joyce Chen Restaurant, which opened on Concord Avenue in Cambridge in 1958, to her cookbooks and trailblazing PBS television show, Chen introduced unfamiliar dishes such as Peking duck, moo shu pork, and hot-and-sour soup.

At her restaurant, Chen popularized the now ubiquitous buffet-style dinner service. Through her popular cooking classes and her Joyce Chen Cook Book, she taught hundreds of recipes and as well as tips on proper chopstick usage, the importance of tea, and the preparation of perfect rice. In the decade following, Chen’s cookbook sold more than 70,000 copies.

WGBH eventually asked Chen to host her own show, Joyce Chen Cooks. Filmed in the late 1960s, the show is credited with greatly expanding America’s interest in and knowledge of Chinese food and culture. Chen died of Alzheimer’s disease in Lexington in 1994 and was posthumously included in the James Beard Foundation Hall of Fame.

 

Morash to receive Lifetime Achievement Emmy

Russ MorashFrom NATAS via BuzzworthyRadioCast.com

The National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (NATAS) announced that Russ Morash, the producer and director of the historic, “The French Chef,” with Julia Child and the creator of “This Old House” and many other iconic public television programs will be honored at the 41st Annual Daytime Creative Arts Emmy® Awards with the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award.

“Fifty-four years of combined programming, 13 Emmy® Awards, and one groundbreaking career later, the father of how-to TV most emphatically deserves a lifetime achievement award,” said Malachy Wienges, Chairman, NATAS. “I am thrilled that Russ has been chosen as this year’s Lifetime Achievement honoree,” said David Michaels, Senior Executive Producer of the Daytime Emmy® Awards. “This is part of our conscious effort to acknowledge the career contribution of those people who work in the Creative Arts. We couldn’t be happier for him and we’re very excited to be presenting this honor at the Daytime Creative Arts Emmy® Award gala surrounded by all his peers!

“When I first moved from New Zealand to the US almost 30 years ago, the Daytime TV shows that caught my attention were created by Russ Morash,” said Brent Stanton, Executive Director, Daytime Emmy® Awards. “His innovation of using specialists in the role of hosts on such shows as “This Old House,” “The Victory Garden” and “The New Yankee Workshop” helped to pave the way for the proliferation of the Lifestyle genres on television and the internet.”

“As a brilliant creator/producer/director, Russ Morash used his personal passion and love for well prepared food, gardening, home improvement/repair and woodworking to develop a whole new genre of television programs,” said Norm Abram, Master Carpenter, This Old House and Host, The New Yankee Workshop. “Russ always wanted to learn more himself, but more importantly he wanted to share knowledge with others. The experts and craftsmen he featured on the shows he created did just 2 that. Generations have been and will continue learning “how to” thanks to Russ who started it all over 50 years ago with Julia Child.”

Russ Morash

Russ Morash was fresh out of college when he entered the young world of television in 1957. At the time, his employer, Boston’s WGBH, had been on the air for only two years. He immediately put the theater training he’d received at Boston University to work mounting productions and dealing with talent. He knew talent when he saw it, and when he began working with a “strange woman with this strange accent” named, Julia Child, “The French Chef” — and “how-to television” — were born. Over time, Russ’s personal enthusiasms — cooking, gardening, home repair, woodworking — would become, through his choice of talent, tone, and content, America’s first foray into “reality television.”

In 1975, he dragged two huge studio cameras outside to record the first episode of “Crockett’s Victory Garden” in raised beds set up in the station’s parking lot. Three years later, he convinced his bosses to buy a dilapidated Victorian home so that he could document its rehabilitation under the hammer of Norm Abram and the showmanship of Bob Vila. “This Old House” has been running for 35 years and counting!

Part of Russ’s “mad genius,” according to his Emmy® Award-winning cameraman Dick Holden, was to free the TV-making process from as many technical encumbrances as possible, pushing portable cameras and wireless microphones into new areas. “For electronic field camera use, everything we were used to seeing before changed with those shows,” says Holden, “and most of what we see today began then.”

His remarkable success continued with the launch of “The New Yankee Workshop” in 1989 and “Ask This Old House” in 2002. All of Russ’s programs are all based on a simple and revolutionary idea: authentic information, presently clearly by experts themselves. Often, through sheer force of will, he brought these programs into being. He taught and inspired a generation of TV producers who follow in his footsteps. Ultimately, his legacy is generations of TV viewers who value the expertise, work ethic, and skill of craftsmen and women and who know the true value of a job well done.

Narrated slide show: Julia Child in France (1970)

In the late 1960s, after great success with her cooking show, The French Chef, Julia Child returned to France to work on a second volume of her cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

She became concerned with what she saw as the disappearance of hand-crafted foods during that progressive era of mechanization, and in 1970 she made arrangements for WGBH’s television crew to visit France and shoot The French Chef on location.

She wanted to not only show Americans the origins of her cooking techniques, but to document a vanishing way of life.

David Atwood was director of the WGBH crew who worked with Julia.

They made their way from Provence to Normandy, stopping to film the making of pâté pantin with a butcher in Plascassier, to feast on pressed duck in Rouen and suffer the heat along with properly made French bread inside a medieval bakery in Paris.

Atwood describes Child as the ringmaster of all the moving parts that went into filming the mini-documentaries and what a joy it was to work with her.