Celebrating Julia Child’s Centennial: How “The French Chef” Became TV’s First Hit Cooking Show

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Julia Child on The French Chef making French Onion Soup
Julia Child on The French Chef making French Onion Soup

Julia Child would have been 100 years old this month. In her honor, KQED and PBS will be celebrating her centennial in the weeks leading up to her birthday on August 15. Thinking about Child’s many contributions to the way we eat, talk, and think about food, it’s instructive to go back to see how her original television show, The French Chef, became a hit. In its cookbook tie-in, The French Chef Cookbook, Child explains the unexpected way that her fifty-year career in television got its start.

All it took were twenty-seven letters sent to the studios of Boston’s public television station, WGBH-TV. At the time Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published, a Parisian friend of the Childs, Beatrice Braude, was working at the station. Braude suggested promoting the book with an appearance by Julia on one of the station’s book-review programs. Julia agreed, and hoping to “liven things up a little,” arrived for her interview bearing a dozen eggs and an eye-catchingly huge copper bowl. During the talk, Child pulled out a whisk, grabbed her enormous bowl, and showed how the right flick of the wrist could turn a few egg whites into a mountain of billowing froth. Much to everyone’s surprise, more than two dozen viewers wrote in, asking for more from the French chef with the flutey voice and American attitude.

Julia Child on The French Chef making French Tarts, Apple Style
Julia Child on The French Chef making French Tarts, Apple Style

This was the early 1960s. French chef Rene Verdon was cooking in the White House. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy spoke French to European heads of state while wearing Chanel and Givenchy. Jet travel was booming; suddenly, for those who could afford it, a trip to Europe meant a few hours on a plane, not a week on a ship. In the right place at the right time came Julia, an indomitable, sunny-faced Californian able to translate the elegant mysteries of French cuisine for television-watching, supermarket-shopping Americans. WGBH asked Julia if she’d like to try making three pilot shows, each thirty minutes, demonstrating the French way of cooking. Julia agreed, only to find out that the station’s studio had burned to the ground a few months before. They found makeshift accomodation in a display kitchen at the Boston Gas Company. Equipment was loaded into the Childs’ station wagon, unloaded in the gas company’s lobby, and with barely a rehearsal, the first show was taped. As Child wrote,

It was out of the question for us to film a live show since we had only two cameras attached by long cables to a mobile bus. Besides, with an absolutely amateur performer, it would have been far too risky. We decided, however, that it would be taped as though it were live. Unless the sky fell in, the camera failed or the lights went off, there would be no stops, and no corrections–just a straight thirty minutes from start to finish. This was a good fundamental decision, I think. I hate to stop. . . Besides, I would far prefer to have things happen as they naturally do, such as the mousse refusing to leave the mold, the potatoes sticking to the skillet, the apple charlotte slowly collapsing. One the secrets of cooking is to learn to correct something if you can, and bear with it if you cannot.”

Watching that first show, which aired on July 26, 1962, Child wrote,

There was this woman tossing French omelettes, splashing eggs about the place, brandishing big knives, panting heavily as she careened around the stove, and WGBH-TV lurched into educational TV’s first cooking program.”

Because the genre was so new, the station gave Child free rein to develop the show her own way, without focus groups or media training.The show found a semi-permanent home in the Cambridge Electric Company’s display kitchen, located in a spacious loft that, conveniently, had three entrances: a front stairway, a freight elevator, and a fire escape descending into the parking lot.

Nobody at WGBH had the slightest idea what we were cooking in our loft until the cameras were lugged up the outside fire escape at 10 o’clock on Wednesdays and Fridays to beging the tapings. . . [Assistant Producer] Ruth Lockwood and I had complete freedom to work up anything we wished and to present it in any manner we chose.”

Since this was educational television, however, Child wanted “to demonstrate that [French cooking] is not merely good cooking, but that it follows definite rules…I, myself, will not do anything unless I know why.” She didn’t just sauté and flambé, she explained the whys and hows for whipping egg whites, perfecting emulsions like mayonnaise or hollandaise sauce, or clarifying a stock, all as a means of “taking the bugaboo out of French cooking.”

The first 13 shows that Child shot are no longer available; at the time, “The French Chef” was limited only to local viewers watching WGBH on Channel 2 in New England. By the time other public television stations started requesting the show, the original tapes were worn out. Child didn’t regret their loss; instead, she revisited almost all of the same recipes later in the series, when she was more comfortable in front of the camera. Here you can see Child slicing onions like mad for Your Own French Onion Soup, one of the earliest shows.

Watch French Onion Soup on PBS. See more from The French Chef.

Shot in black and white, with pots and pans supplied from the Childs’ own kitchen, the show is remarkably lacking in nearly everything we’ve come to expect in the cooking shows that now run back-to-back for hours on TV. There’s no flash, no fast cutting, no sexing up the tomatoes. Hot sauce is nowhere to found. Nothing is barbecued or piled on top of a doughnut. Behind the scenes, instead of a squadron of interns chopping and washing in an unseen prep kitchen, there was Julia’s husband Paul, dishwasher, equipment-hauler, and general factotum. She talked off the cuff, and was more than willing to crack herself up being downright goofy, as this fabulously wacky clip (shot after the show had moved into color) about roast chicken proves.

And yet, viewers tuned in, week after week, and learned to make buttery pastry crusts, coq au vin, bouillabaisse, even “hamburgers à la française” dolled up with red-wine and bone-marrow sauce bordelaise. As she says in French Tarts, Apple Style below, “It’s not too difficult to do if you’ve seen it done.” That was what made her popular: she believed that anyone, anywhere, could learn to cook delicious French food. All you needed to do was pay attention and practice, just as she had.

Watch French Tarts, Apple Style on PBS. See more from The French Chef.

Happy birthday, Julia Child. Let’s warm up these foggy August nights with a bubbling-hot bowl of her classic, cheese-topped onion soup.

Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée (Onion Soup Gratinéed with Cheese)
Introducing this recipe in The French Chef Cookbook, Child writes, “Soupe à l’oignon, a large bowl of it bubbling under a brown crust of cheese, is practically a meal in itself. Serve it after a football game, at a Sunday night supper, or as a midnight snack. Its rich aroma, wonderful flavor and savor, have made French onion soup a word favorite.” Given that this was the early 60s, she also suggested that by adding wine, a bay leaf, and a pinch of thyme, readers could give a little French flair even to canned or dehydrated onion soup. And while encouraging readers to start with a homemade beef bouillon–”beef bones and shank meat simmered for several hours with the usual carrots, onions, celery, seasonings, and herbs”–she also acknowledged that canned bouillon could be used instead, “if your own bouillon is lacking.”

Adapted from The French Chef Cookbook by Julia Child.

Ingredients
3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
5-6 cups thinly sliced yellow onions (1 1/2 lbs)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons flour
2 quarts hot beef bouillon (if using canned bouillon, dilute with 2 cups of water)
1 cup red or white wine
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon sage
Salt and pepper to taste

For Croûtes and Cheese Topping:
1 sweet baguette
Olive oil or melted butter
1/4 cup cognac, optional
1 small (2-inch) onion or shallot, peeled
A 2-ounce piece Swiss cheese
1 1/2 cups grated Swiss and Parmesan cheese, mixed

    Preparation

  1. Melt the butter and oil in a large, deep saucepan; add the onions and stir to coat with the butter. Cover the pan and cook over moderately low heat for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until onions are tender and translucent.
  2. Uncover the pan, raise heat to medium high, and stir in the salt and sugar. (Sugar, by caramelizing, helps onions to brown.) Cook for about 30 minutes, stirring frequently, until onions have turned an even deep golden brown.
  3. Lower heat to medium, stir in flour, and add a bit more butter if flour does not absorb into a paste with the onions. Cook, stirring continually, for about 2 minutes to brown flour lightly.
  4. In a separate pot, heat bouillon. Pour about a cup of hot bouillon into onion mixture, whisking to combine. Add the rest of the bouillon and the wine, bay and sage, and bring to a simmer. Simmer slowly for 30-40 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  5. While soup is simmering, make the croûtes. Preheat oven to 325°F. Cut bread into slices 1 inch thick, paint lightly with oil or butter and arrange in one layer on a baking sheet. Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes, until beginning to brown lightly; turn slices and brown lightly for 15-20 minutes on the other side. Remove croûtes from oven. Turn oven up to 350°F.
  6. Add the optional cognac and grate in the onion. Pour the hot soup into a serving casserole, baking dish, or into individual oven-proof bowls. Shave the 2-ounce piece of cheese into fine slivers and strew over the soup.
  7. Place a closely packed layer of croûtes over the top of the soup and spread on the grated cheese, covering the croûtes completely. (If using individual bowls, top each bowl with one or two croutes as needed to cover the top of soup. Divide the cheese between the bowls.) Sprinkle a tablespoon of oil or butter over the cheese, and set soup on the middle rack of the oven. (If using individual bowls, place bowls on a baking sheet.) Bake for about 30 minutes, until soup is bubbling slowly and cheese has melted.
  8. Meanwhile, preheat your broiler. Just before serving, run the soup under the broiler for a moment to brown the cheese lightly. Pass the remaining croûtes in a bread tray along with the soup.

For more Julia Child recipes, videos, audio interviews, books and resources check out KQED’s Julia Child portal in KQED Food.

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About the Author ()

Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen is a longtime local food writer, author, and cook. Her books include The Art of Vintage Cocktails (Egg & Dart Press), World of Doughnuts (Egg & Dart Press); Kids in the Kitchen: Fun Food (Williams Sonoma); Honey from Flower to Table (Chronicle Books) and The Astrology Cookbook: A Cosmic Guide to Feasts of Love (Manic D Press). She has studied organic farming at UCSC and holds a certificate in Ecological Horticulture from the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. She does frequent cooking demonstrations at local farmers’ markets and has taught food writing at Media Alliance in San Francisco and the Continuing Education program at Stanford University. She has been the lead restaurant critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian as well as for San Francisco magazine. She has been an assistant chef at the Headlands Center for the Arts, an artists' residency program located in the Marin Headlands, and a production cook at the Marin Sun Farms Cafe in Pt Reyes Station. After some 20 years in San Francisco interspersed with stints in Oakland, Santa Cruz, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, she recently moved to Sonoma county but still writes in San Francisco several days a week.