Julia Child Celebrates 90th Birthday at Copia

Top chefs turn out to honor "America's cook."
Aug 6, 2002

With culinary stars like Alice Waters, Thomas Keller and Jacques Pepin there to help blow out the candles, Julia Child celebrated her 90th birthday over the weekend in Napa Valley at Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts. Among all the tributes paid and tales told, Boston chef Lydia Shire best summed up Child's influence on American culture.

With a crowd of 200 on hand Friday night, Shire held up a clipping from, of all things, The National Enquirer, and then read the headline: "Most Guys Would Rather Marry Julia Child Than Sexy Pamela Lee." No one laughed harder than Child herself, but the moment held deeper meaning. In a world obsessed with celebrity, and at a time when chefs are as famous as movie stars, Child stands as the icon, the grande dame, or as one admirer put it: "She is America's cook."

The Copia event -- a three-day gala complete with a black-tie party, panel discussions and, of course, cooking demonstrations --was one of several celebrations honoring Child this year. (Her birthday is actually Aug. 15.)

Although time has slowed her pace -- she uses a walker and her familiar voice sounds as crinkled as parchment paper -- Child maintains a surprisingly active calendar of appearances. Last year, she finally gave up her home in Boston, the locale of her "French Chef" TV series that originated in 1962, and semiretired to Santa Barbara. While Child donated most of her kitchen to the Smithsonian Institute, she gave her famed pegboard wall of pots and pans to Copia, which put them on display over the weekend.

"I'm very happy they should be here. They couldn't be in a better place," said Child, an honorary Copia trustee who broke with tradition and lent her name to the center's restaurant: Julia's Kitchen.

Keller, whose French Laundry restaurant is among the top in the country, was the first to speak at Friday's event. As a young chef, he wrote a letter to Child, and she responded with a hand-written note of encouragement. "You've been such an important part of our lives," Keller said. "You've been a true mentor to a generation of cooks, and I'm lucky enough to be one of them."

Pepin, who starred with Child in a series of PBS cooking shows, said, "Even me, an old stubborn French chef, I've learned from Julia. She has the ability to meander through the whole fad and fashion of food and go right to the truth."

Many recalled how Child rallied against "the food police" who tried to banish butter, cream, paté and the like. Her secret to a long life, she has often said, is "red meat and gin."

Anne Willan, founder of La Varenne cooking school in Paris, recalled a recent dinner with Child and a group of friends. Child shocked the table when she ordered the menu's low-fat meal of steamed fish and vegetables. A hush fell over the table, Willan said, until Child added, "And with it I will have some Hollandaise."

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