The French Chef Bids Adieu: Julia Child Dies at 91

The star of nine TV series and author of 10 cookbooks promoted wine as part of a healthful lifestyle.

Aug 13, 2004

Julia Child taught millions to cook and millions more to appreciate good food, her familiar fluty voice dashing away pretense and intimidation. She was the mother of America's food revolution, but she transcended the food world, becoming a national icon. Her kitchen is on exhibit at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

She died early today, asleep in an assisted living center in Montecito, Calif., two days shy of her 92nd birthday.

Child's groundbreaking TV show, The French Chef, debuted in 1963 and made her the medium's first true cooking star. In it, she tackled the classics of French cooking and -- while dropping pans, rescuing curdled sauces and patching up cracked cakes with a sense that "it's just us here in the kitchen" -- made home cooks believe they could do it too. The show won a Peabody Award in 1965 and an Emmy in 1966.

In all, Child starred in nine TV series, all on PBS. A generous collaborator, she made several shows with other chefs, most notably Jacques Pépin. She appeared regularly on the television program Good Morning America. She wrote 10 cookbooks, starting with the classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961. She was on the cover of Time magazine in 1967 and the cover of Wine Spectator twice, most recently in 1998 when she received the magazine's Distinguished Service Award.

It was an unlikely career for the 6-foot-2-inch tomboy daughter of a well-to-do real estate investor in Pasadena, Calif. When World War II started she joined the foreign service and met Paul Child, a career diplomat. They married in 1946 and remained together until his death in 1994. She learned to cook for their dinner parties, and when they moved to France in 1948, she took the professional course at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. Later she started an informal gourmet cooking school in France with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, who became her coauthors on Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

After her initial splash as "the French chef," Child dropped the emphasis on French cuisine, encouraging a renaissance in American cooking. At least two generations of American chefs freely admit they pursued careers in the field because Julia (never Mrs. Child) inspired them.

"I don't know if she even realizes the impact she has had on so many chefs' careers, including mine," Thomas Keller, chef of the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., said when Wine Spectator honored her in 1998. He added that Child and a handful of her contemporaries "opened up the possibilities, got us to understand what we could be eating."

Julia signed off every one of her television programs by lifting a glass of wine, wishing her viewers a cheery "Bon appétit!" On her TV appearances, in public and in private, she always had a glass of wine at hand, and she tirelessly promoted wine as part of a healthy lifestyle. The best testimony she could offer was her own long and active life.

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