'French Chef' moves her kitchen

Posted: Tuesday, November 27, 2001

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. -- For 40 years, Julia Child's home in Massachusetts has been the site of gastronomic perfection and experimentation, a place where the souffle always rises and the duck roasts at just the right temperature.

It was there that she wrote ''Mastering the Art of French Cooking,'' the 1961 book that landed her international acclaim and spawned the much-imitated PBS television series ''The French Chef.''

An American folk hero, the 89-year-old chef is giving up that five-bedroom home in Cambridge and moving to Santa Barbara, Calif., this month where she's escaped the past 20 New England winters.

But don't look for all the pots and pans she used to develop and perfect recipes to go west with her. ''It doesn't make any difference to me,'' she said. ''I have all the pots and pans I need at the California house.''

Others certainly see more nostalgia in those items than Child.

Most of the cookware will be moved to a display at the Smith-sonian Institution. A wall of copper pots will be on display at COPIA, a new food and wine museum in Napa, Calif. And nieces and nephews will receive a few kitchen heirlooms.

As for the house, Child is donating it to Smith College in Northampton, where she graduated in 1934 with a degree in history. The school plans to sell it.

''All I need to bring with me are a few books and photographs,'' said Child, a native of Pasadena, Calif.

What she leaves behind is much more than cookware. Friends and colleagues filled Child's social calendar for a month with farewell feasts.

''She's laid the groundwork for a culture of foodies,'' said Steve Rosen, chef and owner of Salts restaurant in Cambridge. ''She really brought cooking and the enjoyment of eating into Ameri-can homes.''

When World War II began, she joined the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA. She was sent off to do clerical chores in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where she met Paul Child, a career diplomat who later became a photographer and painter. They married in 1946 and two years later were sent to Paris.

Child enrolled in the famed Cordon Bleu cooking school, where she was captivated by the attention to detail demanded by French cooking. But her widespread appeal came from her ability to make it all look so easy.

''Making French bread is still wonderful fun,'' she said. ''It's always exciting to make, and you never know quite what's going to happen.''

''She just dealt with any little bumps that came up when she was cooking,'' said Brad Ozerdem, the executive chef for the Hyatt Regency in Cambridge. ''She made you realize that you're not blowing up a bridge when you make a mistake.''

No great trick, Child said.

''If you don't have the right hammer to pound something, use a frying pan,'' she said.

For a chef whose mantra is ''small helpings, no seconds, a little bit of everything and always have a good time,'' a meal doesn't always have to be fancy. In fact, Child admits being excited about the fast food pleasures promised by the West Coast's In-N-Out burger and fries chain.

Child and her husband, who died in 1994, bought the Cambridge house for $35,000 in the late 1960s. Over the years, Child became a fixture of the local restaurant scene, dining out several times a week and never demanding a fuss.

''She's not just a celebrity who happens to live here,'' Rosen said. ''She's part of the community.''

About 10 years ago, Child helped create three food programs at Boston University, including a liberal arts course in gastronomy.

Child's on-air cooking lessons were as entertaining as they were informative, and the shows spawned spoofs of the tall, exuberant, warbly voiced chef.

In a 1978 ''Saturday Night Live'' skit, comedian Dan Akroyd pitched his voice up an octave, donned an apron and put his Julia Child caricature through a kitchen disaster while extolling the virtues of chicken livers even after having ''cut the dickens out of my finger.''

The gag still makes her laugh.

''That was awfully funny,'' Child said. ''We turned on the TV one night and there it was -- someone looking like me yelling, 'Save the liver!'''

Today, Child steadies her stroll with a walker or the borrowed arm of a companion. But her grip still seems strong. And the energy that inspired legions of budding chefs to experiment in the kitchen shows no signs of letting up.

She plans to start writing a memoir of her years in France.

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