It should come as little surprise that fans across the country are celebrating Julia Child’s 105th birthday on Aug. 15.
Thirteen years after her death, her culinary reputation is alive and well, thanks to the the enduring legacy of her two-volume “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” and other cookbooks – as well as “The French Chef,” the first national cooking show and her subsequent programs.
Not only is Child widely credited for introducing French cuisine to most American diners but also for inspiring countless chefs and home cooks to follow their passion and enjoy the process of cooking. She also inspired demand for locally grown produce and tirelessly supported the California wine industry.
Her distinctive manner of speech and sense of humor endeared her to additional fans. Some learned about Child through Dan Akroyd’s famous 1978 parody on “Saturday Night Live,” which a delighted Child often played for guests. Others cherish her famous bon mots, such as, “The only time to eat diet food is while you’re waiting for the steak to cook.”
While most of us admire her from afar, several culinary leaders in the Triangle had the pleasure of direct connections with Child. Others enjoyed a sort of six degrees of separation, the notion that any two people can be connected in a maximum of six steps.
It’s easy to accomplish this with Bill Neal, the late Chapel Hill chef who never met Child, though she inspired him to quit grad school and set him on a path to become a leader in regional Southern cooking. In fact, Neal had several significant connections to Child.
Long before Bill Neal became one of the South’s iconic chefs through his groundbreaking work at Chapel Hill’s Crook’s Corner and his debut cookbook, “Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking,” he planned to be an English teacher.
In 1972-74, Neal spent his days taking graduate school classes at UNC. In the evening, he was a stay-at-home dad with son Matt while his wife, Moreton Neal, worked with Chef Jacques Condoret at Hope Valley Country Club, Durham’s first Continental dining room.
Neal was inspired by Condoret and intrigued by the intense detail of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” He decided to teach himself how to cook in his spare time. It’s not so different from how Child, herself, learned to cook as a way to constructively pass time while her husband was stationed in the foreign service.
“Way before ‘Julie & Julia,’ he actually cooked through the book,” Moreton Neal says. She was referring to the bestseller and film based on both Child’s life in France (played by Meryl Streep) and an American writer’s effort to cook her way through Child’s recipes (played by Amy Adams).
His first job was at Villa Teo with Chef Henry Schliff, who studied with French chef and cookbook writer Madeleine Kamman. Owned by the Danziger family, who operated a number of popular eateries along East Franklin Street, Villa Teo was the most elegant, offering diners a taste of classic French fare.
Bill Neal traveled to France to learn more about regional French cooking. In 1976, he and Moreton opened La Residence in a Pittsboro space that would later become Fearrington House. By 1978, La Res relocated to its current location in Chapel Hill. In both kitchens, Neal kept Child’s books within arm’s reach.
Evidence of his learning curve can be seen in his book collection, which Matt – who runs Neal’s Deli in Carrboro with his wife, Sheila – keeps in the home his father left him. Bill Neal’s handwritten notes are on many pages, including tweaks on such classic “mother sauces” as Child’s béchamel.
Bill Neal and Julia Child have another connection: Her legendary book editor, Judith Jones, who died Aug. 2 at age 93, also was the editor of his “Biscuits, Spoon Bread, and Sweet Potato Pie,” published a year before his death in 1991.
While Moreton Neal’s ex-husband never met Child, she interviewed Child several times between 1979 and 1984 when she was co-host of “Better Living” on WDNC in Durham. The Wednesday program was called “Food Forum.”
“Julia was hilarious and fun to talk to,” recalls Neal, who prefers Child’s later, less complicated books, notably “The Way to Cook.”
For all of Child’s fame, Neal says she had no ego.
“She felt like she lucked into this thing and enjoyed it,” Moreton Neal says. “And she made good use of it for people other than herself.”
Sharon Van Vechten
In 1976, while Bill and Moreton Neal were busy opening La Residence, Sharon Van Vechten found herself in a muddle. She was a leading hospitality publicist and had hired Julia Child’s favorite New York City photographer to cover a client’s event at the James Beard House while Child expected the photographer the same night at her birthday party at the famed Rainbow Room.
“We ended up sharing him,” chuckles Van Vechten, who lives in Chapel Hill. “How could I possibly say no to Julia?”
The photographer ran from one event to the other and managed to get shots from Van Vechten’s event developed and printed in time to meet a challenging newspaper deadline. “It wouldn’t be a big deal today,” she says, “but those were the wonderful pre-digital and cellphone days of shoe leather marketing.”
Van Vechten has fond recollections of “strolling with Julia in Aspen at the Food & Wine Classic, wine glass in hand.”
“Julia was a real force of nature and had a great laugh,” she says. “Her passion for food was contagious, and of course her ‘Bon appetit!’ signature PBS sign-off was legendary. She was solid oak, with no veneer and one of the most authentic and joyous persons I have ever met.”
Serge Falcoz-vigne was born in Grenoble, France, in 1968, seven years after the release of Child’s first book. He completed culinary school and was running his own restaurant in Paris before he ever heard her name.
The film came out in 2009, the same year Falcoz-vigne met a pretty tourist and followed her to North Carolina.
“You know how Americans are. She gave me her phone number,” he quips, referring to his wife, Samantha. “I came to America for a vacation with her and decided to stay.”
Child proved less easy to ignore in the United States. Falcoz-vigne today credits Child for inspiring a “big revolution” in American cooking, one that led to a decline of stuffy formality in fine dining.
“She offered to people another way to eat and enjoy the moments around the table,” he says. “She learned that in France, where no one eats just to eat. She wanted to offer that to anybody, anywhere – including their own kitchen.”
Child’s liberal use of butter and cream in early recipes does not align with Falcoz-vigne’s contemporary French cooking. “But they are a witness to time, yes? That makes her books a great piece of culinary history.”
While a later admirer, the chef appreciates Child’s lasting appeal. He is presenting a Child-inspired wine dinner on Aug. 24 and two cooking classes on Aug. 29 and Sept. 5. Information is posted on the Saint Jacques website, or call 919-862-2770 for details.
While most of Kim Calaway’s childhood friends were watching “The Electric Company” after school in the 1970s, she dialed in to see what Child was cooking.
“I also watched Justin Wilson and Graham Kerr, but Julia had the real showmanship,” says Calaway, manager of the cooking school at Southern Season. “She made the ‘chore’ of cooking look exciting with her gusto and exaggerated movements.”
Calaway has taught countless students to cook everything from Southern basics to complicated French fare. Her son Lane cooks at so.ca in Raleigh’s Cameron Village and teaches cooking classes, and daughter Mackenzie is attending pastry school in Colorado.
“I grew up in a casserole-and-Campbell-soup household, so Julia’s food seemed so extravagant and foreign to me,” Calaway says. “I would say that Julia was the start of my food journey and a touchpoint for my memories throughout the decades.”
Not long after the release of Barbara Ensrud’s 1984 book “Wine With Food,” she gave a talk in Monterey, Calif. A serious wine scholar, she focused playfully on “the outrageous things” less informed oenophiles say when they attempt to describe wine.
“Julia Child came up and introduced herself afterwards, which I thought was so sweet,” recalls Ensrud from her Durham home. “She loved wine and said she enjoyed the topic.”
Child was a key proponent of California wines and a founder, along with Robert Mondavi, of the American Institute of Wine & Food. The nonprofit was founded “on the premise that gastronomy is essential to the quality of human existence.”
When Ensrud was in Boston for a wine event in 1999, she took a chance and called Child at her home. “I thought maybe we could meet for lunch, but she invited me to dinner,” she says. “That was too much to resist.”
Ensrud was welcomed to bring a friend and, knowing that Child was preparing duck, they arrived with several bottles of Burgundy.
“She greeted us in that famous kitchen, which is re-created in the Smithsonian,” Ensrud says. “We ate in that little dining nook. It was a delicious dinner and a lovely evening.”
But it didn’t end with dinner. Child invited Ensrud to spend the night, which of course meant another meal with her gracious host the following morning.
“She was such a generous spirit and full of enthusiasm,” says Ensrud, who is working on a new wine book and updating her website, Wine Wise. “I wish I had photos, but I’ll never forget it. She really was a joy to be around.”
Much like Falcoz-vigne, La Farm Bakery owner Lionel Vatinet knew little about Child when he was training to become a master baker in his native France.
But he trained with the legendary Raymond Calvel, who taught Child and her collaborator, Simone Beck. Calvel’s influence is evident in the bread chapter of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 2.”
In 1996, when “Baking with Julia” was published, Child celebrated its release with a series of promotional events, including one at the San Francisco Baking Institute. Calvel was there, along with his star student, Vatinet, who had become the school’s first bread instructor.
Vatinet had met Child once before when he was teaching at a national bread show in Chicago.
“The funny thing is, the first time I met Julia also is the first time I met Missy, my wife,” Vatinet says. Missy was a participant in his class and now co-owns with Lionel the two La Farm locations and a food truck.
“It was a very good day,” Lionel says.
Vatinet said he admires the way Child inspired so many American chefs and home cooks.
“For me, she was not about wanting to be the best chef in the world,” he says. “She wanted to share her passion and make you want to try new things. What a great example to show on TV, right? She showed everyone you could cook and enjoy yourself.”
Jill Warren Lucas is a freelance writer in Raleigh. She can be reached at email@example.com or Twitter via @jwlucasnc.