Julia Child

Paula Lerner
Julia Child

America learned about great food and skilled cooking not from a professional chef, but from a tall, self-confident woman with a warbly voice who never seriously cooked anything until age 32. Julia Child taught and inspired generations of chefs and home cooks with her love of food and joy for living. Through her cookbooks and her multiple television shows, she took the fear and pretentiousness out of fine dining. She also made it clear that wine shouldn't be intimidating, either—it should be a good meal's companion.

Julia Carolyn McWilliams was born in Pasadena, Calif., in 1912. Bright and athletic, she studied at Smith College and then worked as an ad copywriter. When World War II broke out, she tried to enlist in women's corps for the Army and Navy, but was told that at 6' 2" she was too tall. She joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the CIA's predecessor, and was quickly promoted from typist to research assistant. While serving in China, she met Paul Child. They married after the war.

Paul worked for the State Department post-war and was assigned to Paris in 1948. Struck by French wine and food, and because her husband was a gourmand, Julia took a cooking class at Le Cordon Bleu. She met Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, who were working on a French cookbook for Americans and asked for her help translating. Child brought a practical approach to their writing. The trio opened a small cooking school for American women visiting Paris. The book would take Child and her friends more than a decade to complete, but in 1961, Mastering the Art of French Cooking appeared and became a best-seller for its approachable style and detailed recipes. It would be the first of numerous books by Child.

Promoting the book on a Boston PBS station in 1962, Child, who had moved to nearby Cambridge with Paul, cooked an omelette. She made such an impression that the station offered her a show. The French Chef, followed by several other shows over the next four decades, introduced Child to millions. Her love of good food, coupled with her relaxed approach in the kitchen, inspired people. She also made sure to pair good wines with the meals she prepared, raising a glass and toasting her viewers at the close of each episode. On her later series, she brought on promising chefs to show her how they cooked, introducing upcoming culinary stars to her audience.

A mentor to many, beloved by all, Child earned Wine Spectator's Distinguished Service Award in 1998. She died in 2004.

Watch this tribute to Julia Child