To Julia: “We Miss You. Merci.”
Top chefs help MET celebrate Child centenary
In the four decades that she made her home in Cambridge, Julia Child liked to lunch at choice local restaurants, striding in, as one chef put it, “like Moses parting the Red Sea.” There was no greater honor than a visit from the famously demanding, but irresistibly jovial Child, says Lumiere chef Michael Leviton, who will never forget a dressing down by his towering, falsetto-voiced idol. “Why do you have just chicken breast on your menu?” Child wanted to know. “The legs and thighs are the best part.” Since then, Lumiere has served the entire bird.
Leviton was one of 13 renowned chefs who created dishes for the second of two fundraising dinners offered by the Metropolitan College culinary arts and gastronomy programs in honor of the centenary of the birth of the woman who brought French cooking into American homes with her classic cookbooks and her pioneering public television cooking shows, which were filmed at Boston’s WGBH. A troop of culinary arts students served as sous chefs and servers for the meticulously crafted feast, with offerings ranging from molasses-cured salmon to quail with foie gras–stuffed figs to a whole deboned fried and herb-stuffed flounder from a century-old French recipe. The meal, at the culinary program’s demonstration room on November 7, was a labor of love in more ways than one, reflecting both the chefs’ reverence for Child and Child’s love of teaching.
Along with her good friend and colleague Jacques Pepin (Hon.’11), Child (Hon.’76) was cofounder of MET’s Certificate Program in the Culinary Arts and Master of Liberal Arts in Gastronomy, and in 1991 she established a scholarship to help students recognized for outstanding academic work. Each ticket to last week’s event, and a similar one on October 2, included a $50 contribution to the Julia Child Scholarship Fund in honor of Child, who would have turned 100 on August 15.
Greeted by a small dory filled with Duxbury oysters and fist-sized Indian shrimp, the approximately 80 attendees dined in view of a photo gallery, courtesy of WBGH, of food photographer Jim Scherer’s images of Child in her iconic Cambridge kitchen, which was deconstructed and re-created in the Smithsonian Institution after Child moved to California in 2001, where she died three years later.
“I met Julia in 1960—that’s 6-0, not 16,” said Pepin, who has taught at BU for 31 years. “I was told, she’s a real big woman with a terrible voice.” That voice joined in a lively duet with Pepin’s French-accented English in a series of cooking shows, including the wildly popular Emmy Award–winning PBS show Julia and Jacques: Cooking at Home. “We fought a lot, and we ate a lot,” Pepin said of Child, with whom he spoke mainly French off-camera. “We drank a lot,” he added.
Pepin’s contribution to the menu was a salmon gravlax that was cured and tended by MET’s culinary students for 48 hours. “They did a great job,” Pepin said. Presenting his mushroom gratinee flammekeuche, an Alsatian tart with a simple flour-and-water crust, Sandrine’s chef Raymond Ost shared memories of dinners at Child’s Cambridge home. Child didn’t refuse offers of help with cleanup, Ost said, but she was emphatic that “everything you use has to go back on the wall” exactly where it came from. The flammekeuche also stirred a memory for Rebecca Alssid, MET director of lifelong learning and organizer of the Child centenary event, who would sometimes take in a movie with Child and then the two would stop at Ost’s restaurant for a tart and a beer.
As the family-style platters of four first courses and four second courses were introduced, with the chefs’ anecdotes about Child, a picture emerged of an affectionate, generous mentor who was endlessly opinionated, always hungry, and full of mischief. Bill Russell, winemaker at Westport Rivers Winery, recalled finding himself young, starstruck, and close enough to Child at a dinner to remark that a particular sauterne was “the best thing you can do with your mouth.” Child cooed in reply, “Oooh, I can think of a few better things.”
“She was so full of life,” said Russell.
Jimmy Burke, of Orta, former owner of the Tuscan Grill and Allegro Restaurant, cooked for Child when he was a young chef at Harvest. “She loved risotto,” said Burke, whose contribution to the evening was a pumpkin risotto with duck ragu and fried sage. Child once told him after a meal that “everything was marvelous, but the green beans were a bit undercooked,” Burke said. “I was completely crushed.” But like the other chefs paying tribute to Child, Burke recalled that she was a champion of many local restaurants and always expressed an interest in how business was going.
At the event’s conclusion, a procession of students entered the room, conga-line-style, holding aloft pistachio-crème-filled sponge cakes crowned in white frosting and birthday candles, courtesy of Mary Ann Esposito, host of the PBS show Ciao Italia, who’d coached the students to sing “Buon Compleanno, Cara Julia!” Along with the birthday cake, dessert offerings included a chocolate ganache flan prepared by John Vyhanek, a core instructor in the culinary arts certificate program, who as a kid was permitted to occasionally cut classes to watch Child on TV. As the guests lifted their glasses, Vyhanek seemed to speak for everyone when he toasted Child with the words, “Julia, we miss you. But we learned so much. Merci.”+ Comments