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Lessons from Julia Child

Lessons from Julia Child

Julia ChildThis week marks the centennial of the birth of Julia Child, and Julia stories abound. Here’s mine (a longer version appears in the IACP Frontburner).

I first met Julia in the spring of 1982, when I was a novice cooking school director. My job earned me the privilege of being a scullery assistant for Julia at the annual Los Angeles Planned Parenthood three-day Gourmet Gala extravaganza. Can you believe I still have the recipe booklets??

One day, as I cleared the cooking stage and Julia chatted with fans, she asked me to fetch some chuck stew meat and grind it for hamburgers for her own après-class meal. Here’s the thing: I was (still am) a self-taught, make-it-up-as-I-go type who had never before used a meat grinder. After I muddled through publicly, Julia asked me how I thought we should season the meat. We began to cook together, seasoning the meat with thyme (her gentle suggestion: they go so well together, don’t you think), and sautéing the burgers in butter.

Our serendipitous “private” class taught me a lot: how to make a decadent burger and a bit about the art of being a kind teacher.

Fast forward 21 years to Julia’s last public appearance, a benefit I co-chaired for the preservation of old cookbooks. Already frail but still passionate about the cause, Julia was determined to fulfill her honorary chair role if she could. At 3pm on the day of the event, the decision was made, and Julia and her assistant, Stephanie Hersh, barreled down Highway 101 at full speed in Stephanie’s compact from Montecito to the Beverly Hills Four Seasons Hotel. And headed right back up the coast after the event so Julia could sleep in her own bed. Today’s lesson: commitment.

Julia Child and Amelia Saltsman

The next day, Julia’s longtime friend, visiting culinary historian and event keynote speaker Barbara Haber, and Nancy Zaslavsky and I drove up to Montecito toting a moveable feast from Suzanne Goin. We spent an idyllic afternoon at Casa d’Orinda. Nancy and I were giddy at our good fortune to be able to listen to the two Cambridge friends have a good gossip. Ever gracious, Julia’s thank you note to me arrived in the mail a day or two later. Got it: no matter how big a one-name celeb you are, remember your friends and your manners!

The following summer, 2004, Julia’s great-nephew Alex Prud’homme and his family coincidentally came to housesit for my neighbors while he worked with Julia on My Life in France. Alex commuted up to Montecito regularly and would return with stories of his visits with Julia. The Prud’hommes were about to leave for Santa Barbara to attend Julia’s birthday celebration when the call came. Her last lesson to us all: stay productive until the end.


  1. Fran Osseo-Asare August 17, 2012 at 1:03 pm - Reply

    Thank you, Amelia. I never knew Julia personally (though at my first or second IACP conference, I timidly went up to her in a hallway and thanked her for her wonderful work, and shook her hand. She was as you said, unfailingly kind.)

    • Amelia Saltsman August 18, 2012 at 12:40 pm - Reply

      thank you for sharing this. I wonder how many thousands of times that little moment occurred for Julia. That’s a lot of nice!

  2. Cindy Ripley August 17, 2012 at 1:36 pm - Reply

    oh Millie, I love this Julia story and read every word. I was excited about getting to meet her at a Planned Parenthood event but she cancelled due to illness at the last minute. What a great lady! xo,cindy… and Luna Garcia!

    • Amelia Saltsman August 18, 2012 at 12:41 pm - Reply

      Hi Cindy,thanks for taking the time to post. here’s another thing worth mentioning–we are of like mind with Julia on a woman’s right to choose!

  3. Colleen Bates August 17, 2012 at 3:19 pm - Reply

    I love this story, too! I had just one interaction with Julia, in the early ’90s I believe, when I was supposed to interview her for a magazine story. I thought sure she’d never return my call, but she did, and she left the most wonderful trilling message on my tape-recorder answering machine (the standard in those days). I kept the tape as long as I could, but of course it’s long gone now.

    • Amelia Saltsman August 18, 2012 at 12:45 pm - Reply

      I know what you mean; she always seemed to have time for food writers. I kept all those postcards from her, put them in such a safe place that I couldn’t find them to share on the post! I can see them in my mind’s eye, but not where they are!

  4. Wendy Read August 17, 2012 at 7:23 pm - Reply

    Beautiful post about your experience with Julia, thank you so much for writing and sharing it with all of us.

  5. Annie Chalkley August 18, 2012 at 7:38 am - Reply

    A great piece. Thank you for sharing. I was taking a master’s class which Julia was heading up with Ann Villan. She was signing cookbooks for us and she asked who mine was for. I said “my children”. “Ohhhhhh, and how old?” ” 6 and 8″. “Good WOMAN, get them while their young!!”…and they are now, 27 and 29 and quite hooked on cooking and good food. Thank you, Julia. Annie

    • Amelia Saltsman August 18, 2012 at 1:06 pm - Reply

      Anne Willan and Julia were great friends. I’m lucky to count the founder of La Varenne among my mentors. I too have grown-up children who are now all great cooks. In fact, during that first Planned Parenthood experience in 1982, my son was 5 months old. My good friend lived 5 minutes from the venue; I went back and forth to her house so I could feed him!

  6. Felicia Friesema August 18, 2012 at 8:22 am - Reply

    What a wonderful set of moments to share with us. And thoughtfully applied lessons. Thank you.

  7. Ilene Spector August 18, 2012 at 11:54 am - Reply

    As a food writer, I was fortunate to meet Julia at many press events. However, I was even more fortunate to have attended her 80th birthday party on John Wayne’s former yacht in California. What a remarkable memory . . . an evening filled with delicious, creative food and so many “Julia-isms”. Luckily I have some photos that will of course, become family heirlooms for future generations. She was truly an unforgettable woman of valor!

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