Julia Child The French Chef
Julia Child in her kitchen as photographed by Lynn Gilbert, 1978, Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Editor’s Note: In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re sharing profiles of influential women in food. 

Perhaps one of the most famous cookbooks to ever be published, The Art of French Cooking by Julia Child transformed America’s relationship with French cuisine. When the seminal tome landed in bookstores in 1961, Americans weren’t necessarily whipping up coq au vin or cassoulets for dinner. But 42 years after publication, the amateur cook Julie Powell, who methodically worked her way through Child’s behemoth 524 recipes for her blog the Julie/Julia Project, would tell The New York Times, ”Julia Child taught America to cook, and to eat.” That people still use The Art of French Cooking today demonstrates its significance, while the many French-themed cookbooks that have followed since are evidence of how deeply Child’s work impacted American home cooks and initiated a hunger for more. 

Child was not, however, born a foodie. She grew up in Pasadena, California, in the 1910s and 1920s, when her mother’s entire culinary repertoire consisted of baking-powder biscuits and Welsh rarebit (cheese on toast). Child’s culinary love affair would not begin until she was in her 30s.

In 1948, Child and her husband, Paul, moved to France when he was posted with​ the United States Information Service. The couple had met in Sri Lanka during the final year of World War II, when they had both been stationed there with the Office of Strategic Services – the precursor to the CIA – and were familiar with overseas living. But of all the foreign meals Child had surely tasted up to this moment, it was a dish of sole meuniere upon arriving in France that transformed her life. She would later write of the experience, 

“I closed my eyes and inhaled the rising perfume. Then I lifted a forkful of fish to my mouth and took a bite, and chewed slowly. The flesh of the sole was delicate, with a light but distinct taste of the ocean that blended marvelously with the browned butter…it was a morsel of perfection.”

And with that bite of fish, the trajectory of her life was forever changed. “How magnificent to find my life’s calling, at long last!” Child wrote after enrolling at legendary culinary school Le Cordon Bleu a few months later. Her desire to pursue the study of French food would ultimately result in 1961’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It was a project that would take nearly 12 years to complete with two little-known co-authors, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, both native French women Child met in Paris. Once Americans tasted the flavors that had inspired Child herself, they were hooked. 

Child became a fixture in American kitchens when her cooking show, The French Chef, premiered on television in 1963. Child stood at an impressive six feet and two inches, and her voice warbled breathlessly from high to low. She cut a distinct figure and spoke to her viewers in a manner so personal that fans often remarked it was as if they knew her. She encouraged them to be fearless, to learn and to be unapologetic about mistakes they might make. In an episode of The French Chef, Child explained how to make a delicate caramel sauce, exclaiming,

“This is one of those awful American syndromes, fear of failure…you’ve got to have what the French call ‘Je m’en foutisement’ or, ‘I don’t care what happens!’ I’m gonna learn! I shall overcome!”

Child’s unique way of speaking to her audience, endeavoring to empower the home cook through the television screen, coupled with her confidence of being unapologetically herself, made her an icon. There simply had never been anyone quite like her before. Here was a woman who in the 1960s dared to be more than a housewife. She pursued her passion for French cuisine without knowing exactly where it would take her, and pushed ahead into writing and television, carving a path for all the many women in food who would follow her. 

Today, cookbook writers, food bloggers, television chefs and even the hosts of food- and travel-themed content owe a massive debt to Julia Child. Because of her, classic French dishes became familiar to Americans and the idea of setting out in one’s kitchen to try something new and foreign became a little bit less intimidating. ◼