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Julia Child! The French Chef

Distributed by WGBH Boston, 125 Western Avenue, Boston, MA 02134; 617-300-2000
Produced by Marilyn Mellowes (Disc 1) and Russell Morash or Ruth Lockwood (Discs 2 & 3)
Director n/a
DVD, color and b&, 348 min. on 3 discs
Sr. High - Adult
Biography, Cookery

Reviewed by Betty Glass, Main Library, University of Nevada, Reno

Highly Recommended  Highly Recommended   
Date Entered: 2/2/2007

When Julia Child moved to France with her husband in 1948, she had something in common with Bridget Jones of diary fame. She could not cook. The first disc of this 3-DVD set is Julia Child! America’s Favorite Chef, the 2004 biography produced for the American Masters series aired on Public Television. Filmmaker Marilyn Mellowes created a wonderful black & white and color montage of family photographs and film clips of interview reminiscences by Julia, her niece, editors of her cookbooks, fellow chefs, restaurateurs, and the director/producer of her first television program, The French Chef.

From her first meal in France -- at the oldest restaurant in France -- Julia was captivated by the pervasive culture of French gastronomy and cuisine. She became so intrigued by the quality of the meals served and the genuine interest in food demonstrated by all French people that she became determined to learn how to cook that way herself. She enrolled in le Cordon Bleu’s professional chef course and was awarded her certificate in classical French cuisine in 1951. With that foundation of technique in place, she was ready for a new opportunity when, soon thereafter, she met Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, two French cooks who had been co-writing a cookbook with an American audience in mind. Beck and Bertholle had met a roadblock. They had been advised to find an American collaborator to make French recipes and cooking techniques more accessible for Americans. The trio established their own cooking school and spent the next decade testing recipes, editing instructions for American housewives, and reworking the manuscript. Julia then despaired when several American and European publishers rejected the manuscript, not believing that anyone would be interested in tackling a 700+ page book of such challenging recipes.

Judith Jones, the editor of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, describes how Volume 1 of the now-classic cookbook finally came to be published by Knopf in 1961. The book set a precedent for cookbooks with its emphasis on explaining food preparation techniques, identifying equivalent American ingredients to produce the taste and texture of unavailable French ingredients; and suggesting appropriate accompanying wines, etc. for the recipes. Mastering the Art of French Cooking has now sold over one million copies.

In 1962, to promote sales of the book, Julia approached Public Broadcasting station WGBH in Boston, requesting a slot on a book review program. During her segment, she demonstrated how to make an omelet using the French tossed technique. The response by the viewing audience was so favorable that the station worked with Julia to launch The French Chef with Julia Child program in early 1963. By 1965, nearly 100 PBS stations were carrying the program. Julia’s unpretentiousness, sense of humor, and common sense approach to cooking demystified seemingly complex recipes for American housewives and gave them the courage to try more challenging and sophisticated meals themselves. Variety gave the fledgling program a good review. It won a Peabody Award in 1965 and an Emmy Award in 1966. Julia Child was the first star of educational television.

The chefs and food critics interviewed in the biography note that Julia achieved more than creating the first how-to-cook television program. She revolutionized home cooking in America and the way Americans eat. The reception to her program and follow-up book, The French Chef Cookbook (1967) changed the way food and cooking was marketed to American women.

This American Masters program is more than a retelling of the life of a privileged Smith College graduate who didn’t find her life calling or soul mate until she was in her thirties. Julia Child! America’s Favorite Chef is a loving tribute to a unique, gifted woman who entered so many homes through her cooking programs to share her enthusiasm for cooking while assuring her audience that if she could do it, we could, too.

Disc 1 is close-captioned and available for sale separately for $19.95.

Discs 2 and 3 contain eight black & white and four color episodes of The French Chef program that aired between1963-1971. There is a balanced selection of recipes: bread (brioche), appetizers, entrees (poultry, beef, fish, and seafood), quiche Lorraine, and a variety of desserts. Each 30-minute program usually presents one recipe, although several variations may also be demonstrated. Julia always demonstrates food preparation techniques and provides explanations about why certain steps are necessary for the success of a recipe. French culinary terms are translated, and readily available American cookware is identified to substitute for specialized French cookware. She notes which recipes can be doubled or tripled, how many people a basic recipe will serve, and at what stage a recipe can be prepared in advance or frozen for later use.

The 30-minute length of each recipe program is very convenient for classroom use. The American Masters biography DVD is 60 minutes in length. Teachers would need to plan class time accordingly.

The "Special Features" on discs 2 and 3 include a bibliography of Julia's cookbooks and printable recipes for two main courses: a fish soup and one dessert. The other recipes from this DVD set are available in either Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1, or The French Chef Cookbook.

There is some visual static interference during the black & white “Brioches” episode on Disc 2. The quality of the audio is a bit uneven during the black & white “Introducing Charlotte Malakoff” episode on disc 2. However, as producer Russell Morash mentioned in the biography, The French Chef was filmed live during the infancy of public television on a crude set and with often hazardous camera arrangements to capture close-ups of the techniques Julia wanted the audience to see.

For those who want to read more about Julia Child’s experiences in France, she collaborated on a memoir with her husband’s grandnephew, Alex Prud’Homme, based on letters the couple wrote to their family and from conversations Prud’Homme had with Child during the last year of her life. My Life in France was published by Knopf in 2006.

Laura Shapiro’s biography, Julia Child, is scheduled for publication by Viking in April 2007.

Julia Child! The French Chef is the third in the French Chef series of 3-DVD sets to be released by WGBH Boston. The first two contain 18 other television episodes each of recipes. Each 3-DVD set is available for $39.95.