A Chef's Take on Julie & Julia, by Susan Feniger
I'd like to say something right up front: I'm not a film critic, I'm not a writer, and I generally don't like movies about cooking. I often avoid them, but because I adored Julia Child, because she was one of the most generous, caring, astonishingly special chefs I've ever met, I decided to go (with trepidation) to the premiere of Julie & Julia, starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams. I was blown away. And I was moved by this movie!
Meryl Streep is eerily close to completely embodying the real Julia Child. Being that I worked with Julia back in the day, and being that she was my hero in my early years as a budding young chef, I feel highly protective about her legacy in a very personal way. But Nora Ephron's film not only didn't disappoint, it actually brought to light a lovely part of Julia's history: that of her time in Paris when she first learned to cook at the Cordon Bleu (as the only woman in the class), and her struggle to publish the master work: "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." The film really speaks to the quest for women to be taken seriously as chefs.
My own memories of Julia are deeply entangled with my early years at the Culinary Institute of America and cooking in France. I worked at a three star restaurant in the south (the only woman) where I had to work my butt off and try so much harder simply to earn the respect of all the younger men in the kitchen. I eventually did, and even won over one very stuffy chef, who visited me in LA years later, bringing me a pair of my favorite French high-top tennis shoes! I was so passionate about cooking (and still am) that all I wanted to ever read in those days were cookbooks.
The film was loaded with memories: my first cookbook, "Larousse Gastronomique," which I poured over as it introduced me to this strange new world of French cooking and technique; the endless making of beurres, Beurre Blanc, Beurre Rouge, Beurre Blanc with truffles over lobster salad; beurres with everything! Making soufflés for two years straight, breaking the "myth and mystique" of the souffle, and learning that it really wasn't that hard to make; walking the streets of Cannes, thirty-five years ago, surrounded by shoppers and food stalls of the freshest produce I'd ever known; and amazing cheese shops, with triple cream cheeses I'd never heard of.
The first time I met Julia was in the early '80s when my partner, Mary Sue Milliken, and I were preparing for a panel that Julia was to moderate. From my hotel room, I heard a banging sound and that unmistakable high voice yelling "Paul! Paul! " I looked out of my hotel window and there was Julia Child, towering over the car, banging on the roof to get her husband's attention inside.
A little while later, Julia popped in for a quick visit to our tiny first restaurant on Melrose, City Café. She crammed her 6'2" frame into our postage stamp-sized kitchen (banging her head on a hanging pan in the process) just to see what we were doing. She was always so full of curiosity and interest in new chefs, new recipes, and new styles of cooking. We cooked with Julia on her TV show, "Cooking with the Master Chefs," drank with Julia at her hotel, ate and drank some more with Julia at the Border Grill, and generally tried to keep up with her tireless energy, which we never could! She out-drank, out-cooked, and out-lasted all of us younger chefs, and was still able to show up on set bright and early at 5am, ready to go. Her eager mind was never bored, never idle, and even on breaks from filming the TV segments, she was constantly typing, making notes, or playing with the dog. The woman never stopped. She was kind, always wanting to know how you were, what you were doing, from the first time I met her 28 years ago to the last time I saw her a year before she passed away. I felt lucky to have known her and blessed to have cooked with her.
The performances in the film were inspired: the canard en croute, crisped to a golden perfection; the vanilla soufflé rose as if levitated by magic; and the apple tart tatin, the apples standing at attention like little soldiers, slid out of its pan right on cue. Oh, and the actors were pretty good too.
So I still don't like movies about cooking that much, but this movie was different. Yes, for sure it was about food and the food in this film is glorious and brought back all of the pain and excitement of learning the French kitchen a million years ago. But "Julie & Julia" did remind me of what I have always loved about cooking: the camaraderie, the sweat, the tears, all just to produce a fabulous, mouth-watering flavor that thrills the taste buds. And it reminded me of something else. Food is the glue in our lives, and that doesn't sound very appetizing, but it's true. Shared with friends and family over every occasion, happy or sad, food brings us together. And it brought Julia Child to all of us, where she wondered, dazzled, and became a national treasure.
Besides all of that, I got a kiss on the cheek from Ms. Streep herself at the premiere. All in all, a very good night!
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