[Book Review] Alex Prud’homme’s The French Chef in America profiles the revolutionary Julia Child’s second act

The French Chef in America, Alex Prud’homme’s biography of Julia Child – post-Mastering the Art of French Cooking – wastes no time in reminding us of Child’s charm. The book opens in 1967 when Child filmed a behind-the-scenes look at the White House kitchen. “Welcome to Washington,” Child said to the camera, before delivering her trademark linguistic tic – that sing-songy, preternaturally inviting emphasis on the first person. “I’m Julia Child.”
Prud’homme (Child’s grandnephew: the son of Child’s husband’s brother’s daughter) has assembled a tidy look at Child’s later life in The French Chef in America, exploring the period after her quick ascension to the status of America’s first celebrity chef that followed the publication of her first book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961.
All successful authors face pressure from the publisher to knock out a sophomore effort, but Child’s need to do so was tempered by the success of her TV show, The French Chef, which premiered in 1963. As Prud’homme notes, it wasn’t the first cooking show, but she was certainly the first celebrity chef. Child became an authority, called upon for interviews and cooking segments on late-night talk shows, sought after for her cultural commentary and authoritative expertise. She visited the White House twice: in 1967 and then nine years later to film a special commemorating the American bicentennial. Mastering the Art of French Cooking’s second instalment came out in early 1970. It wasn’t a sophomore slump, but by the early 1970s, appetites had changed – largely thanks to Child herself – and so it didn’t quite have the game-changing effect of its predecessor.
Child was meticulous in her research. She was delighted, Prud’homme writes, to discover that the word “chowder” has Canadian origins: it comes from chaudieres, the word used by French Canadian fisherman for the pot in which they cooked their catches. Unfortunately, that particular bit of research came in preparation for the ill-fated Thirteen Feasts mini-series, which was meant to be a look at the traditional cooking methods of the thirteen colonies, filmed and released to coincide with the U.S. bicentenary.
Co-host James Beard’s onscreen persona – dull, unengaging – combined with Child’s husband’s ongoing health issues and the struggle PBS faced in getting the series green-lit to result in its khiboshing. But it’s hard not to think now that Thirteen Feasts was ahead of its time: in 2016, anthropology and cookery go hand-in-hand; that combination – if Netflix’s most successful food documentaries are to be believed – is now an easy sell.
Calling Child herself ahead of her time, however, as Prud’homme’s book illustrates, is to do her the disservice of understatement. She was at once a revolutionary and a pragmatist. Child was no fan of nouvelle cuisine, concerned that its fussiness and rejection of the classics was unhealthy.
In the 1970s, when Mastering’s second volume was released and Child found herself out of step with the world – her charm and potato pancake-dropping laissez-faire was no match for sex, drugs and rock n’ roll – she switched gears, Americanizing her recipes (which is not to say adopting any shortcuts or frozen-food cut corners – Child hated that type of thing) in From Julia Child’s Kitchen, which she wrote somewhat reluctantly in the first person.

Though perhaps not a match for her first, Child’s second act also has its influence. This month will also see the release of a new book from Anthony Bourdain, whose 1999 memoir, Kitchen Confidential, propelled the chain-smoking, hard-drinking cook to international stardom. The timing was right: there had been nothing quite like it, and in the intervening years, chefs – Bourdain among them – have become the new rock stars.
But Bourdain, now a devoted father in his 60s, is settling in to his own second act, and responding – as Child did in 1975 – to the prevailing trend in the gastronomic zeitgeist: eating no-fuss, back-to-basics good food. Bourdain’s latest, his first cookbook in more than a decade, is called Appetites. Child, who prioritized culinary experimentation, encouraged getting your hands dirty and was never wholly comfortable with the idea of celebrity chefdom, would no doubt approve.
This review was originally posted on The National Post