With the release of the film Julie and Julia based on Julia Child’s experiences in France and then as author of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and food blogger Julie Powell’s experiences as a blogger cooking her way through Julia’s cookbook over the course of one year, I thought it would be fitting to recount one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
My husband and I became involved in Julia’s 80th birthday celebration – Merci Julia.
The program cover
A young Michel Richard and his message
Julia’s thank you
What made this event unique is first the number of great chefs that were involved. Secondly, not only did they work “the line” for the actual meal (we had 2 huge screens in the dining room so we could watch the action in the kitchen), but we started the evening with a French market place. Each chef was given a market place booth and they had appetizers or amuses or hors d’oeuvres for us to taste.
The chefs – remember this was 1993.
From the New York Times, Marian Burros write up of the event.
For Julia Child, an Intimate Dinner for 500
By MARIAN BURROS
Published: Wednesday, February 10, 1993
LOS ANGELES, Feb. 8
Such a simple idea. Have a bunch of friends get together and say thank you to Julia Child. A love-in with nine multi-starred chefs from France and another 60-or-so Americans who cook French food. A celebration of the woman who 30 years ago this month burst onto the television screen and into millions of kitchens, armed with a stout rolling pin and a distinctive high-pitched voice that has been imitated by everyone from Jean Stapleton to “Saturday Night Live.” Before Mrs. Child was finished she had taught several generations of Americans the difference between brioche and croissants.
The dinner for 500 on Sunday night at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Marina del Rey, near Los Angeles, was the 30th public celebration of Mrs. Child’s 80th birthday. The others parties were held to raise money for the American Institute of Wine and Food, which Mrs. Child founded.
This one, the “Merci, Julia” dinner, had an additional purpose. It brought out three-star French chefs like Roger Verge, the owner of Moulin de Mougins, and Paul Bocuse, whose restaurant near Lyons, France, bears his name, as well Daniel Boulud, late of Le Cirque and soon of Restaurant Daniel in New York; David Bouley of Bouley in New York, and Jean-Louis Palladin of Jean-Louis in Washington.
All of them owe Mrs. Child a lot. Her television series made Francophiles of millions and sent them rushing to France to eat the food she prepared on her shows. And it opened up opportunities for the best French chefs worldwide. Mr. Bocuse and Mr. Verge, along with Gaston Lenotre, who was scheduled to be at the celebration but canceled, are unlikely to have collaborated on a wildly successful restaurant, Chefs de France, at Epcot Center if Mrs. Child hadn’t made French food so desirable. Many of America’s self-taught chefs learned their profession from Mrs. Child’s books. And for years, the restaurants in this country were French.
But something changed in the last decade or so. About a year ago, Michel Richard, the French chef in Los Angeles who organized the dinner, decided that he was fighting a losing battle. The fickle public had turned against the mother cuisine in favor of A.B.F., Anything But French, particularly Italian. Mr. Richard gathered the chefs at this dinner to celebrate Mrs. Child, with the hope it would also remind Americans that French cooking at its best is at the pinnacle of cuisines and that its techniques are the foundation of all good cooking. The Chinese might disagree.
The dinner turned out to be a joyous celebration but not without a lot of hand-wringing about the state of French food in this country, as well as a controversy about the paucity of women invited to cook at the event.
To many, like Faith Willinger, an American food writer who has lived in Italy for many years, the fix the French find themselves in now is America’s revenge. The French, she said, “always made everyone feel they were not up to the experience of dining in their restaurants.”
Much as it pains French chefs cooking in the United States and Americans cooking French food to admit it, they know Ms. Willinger is right. The “Merci, Julia” celebration was confession time. The temples of haute cuisine are an anachronism in this country.
“Michel is using the dinner to sell and promote French food,” said Jan Weimer, a food consultant in Los Angeles. “It’s not exactly on top of the world, and this is an opportunity to remind people about French food. They really do need some marketing. Just being mentioned in associaton with Julia Child and the three-star French chefs is very good publicity.”
Mrs. Child, happy to be part of the promotion, said, “People are afraid of French food because they think it’s all butter and cream.” But that’s only part of it. “It can be rich,” she said, “but it can be simple, too.”
She abhors the kind of cooking she sees in the United States that is not based on sound French principles.
“Kiddy food,” she calls it. “Grilled. Half of it is burned, and half of it is raw. If we ate the way nutritionists want us to eat, our hair would be falling out, our teeth would be falling out, and our skin would be drying up.”
For Mr. Richard, “the problem with French food is that it was too stuffy,” he said, continuing: “The decor in restaurants was Louis XV. The style of restaurants has changed. And chefs from France have to adapt cooking to where they are. Now there is democratization of food.”
“We’ve been lucky for many, many years,” Mr. Richard had said earlier. “You have to do something to be loved again. We want to be loved again.”
No one has done a better job of making French food accessible than Mr. Richard, whose restaurant, Citrus, combines the techniques of French cooking with an American sensibility: light food with intense flavors and virtually no butter or cream.
“Julia may have brought French food here,” said Ken Frank, the chef and owner of La Toque in Los Angeles. “We all owe her, but Michel is saving it because he’s hellbent on making it fun.”
Michael Hutchings, the chef and an owner of Michael’s Waterside in Santa Barbara, Calif., said, “We’ve all adapted a lot,” as he prepared one of the hors d’oeuvres to be served before the Sunday night dinner.
“And that’s why we’re doing butter sauce with the abalone,” said his assistant, James Sly. Everyone standing around laughed.
Sixty chefs from across the country produced a modern six-course French meal and hors d’oeuvres by the dozen for the 500 guests, most of whom paid $350 for a chance to gawk, rub shoulders, photograph and ask for autographs from their culinary heroes — and Mrs. Child, of course.
Some of the preparation was done on Saturday, but work began in earnest on Sunday morning. For many of the chefs, that meant only two or three hours sleep. Their weekend began on Friday night with a Champagne reception aboard a yacht once owned by John Wayne, with eight pounds of caviar and unlimited bottles of Moet & Chandon Champagne. Moet helped to underwrite the weekend to the tune of $100,000, said John Haskell, a marketing consultant who helped to put the event together. In all, it cost $350,000 to $450,000 in cash and in-kind donations, Mr. Haskell said. The dinner raised at least $35,000 for one of Mrs. Child’s favorite charities, the American Institute of Wine and Food Educational Foundation.
After the reception, gaggles of chefs went off to different restaurants. On Saturday, Mr. Richard treated them and 200 friends from the restaurant world to lunch at Citrus, where they ate smoked lobster and avocado terrine, Pacific red snapper Provencal and a chocolate-orange dessert and listened to a mariachi band. French food and Mexican music. How very L.A.
The festivities continued through dinners at the restaurants of assorted friends and a late-night Champagne reception.
No wonder Mr. Bocuse was described by a partygoer as “poaching himself” in the hotel swimming pool Sunday morning.
Meanwhile, the worker bees were squeezed into odd corners of the hotel, little groups stuffing eggshells with a glorious mixture of scrambled eggs and vegetable vinaigrette; forcing foie gras into prunes that had been soaked in Armagnac for two weeks; cutting 500 scallops into 3,500 slices for the third dinner course of mariniere de coquilles St.-Jacques, and poaching 500 black-olive quenelles for the artichoke and fennel soup.
What might have struck any observer in the kitchen, even the least observant, was the ratio of men to women, about 15 to 1. Which is why Mr. Richard’s love-in for Mrs. Child hit a few sour notes.
The lack of women had caused some quiet grumbling in the culinary community, but it burst out into the open when Madeleine Kamman, a Frenchwoman who has been a chef and cooking teacher for decades in this country, told The Los Angeles Times that she had not been invited to the dinner. Mr. Richard disputes this, but in the meantime Mrs. Kamman’s remarks were making the pot boil over. Mrs. Kamman was quoted in The Los Angeles Times as saying: “Good old Julia is going to be with all these male chauvinists. The mere fact that I haven’t been invited is absolutely grotesque.”
In a telephone conversation last week, Mrs. Kamman said she had nothing to add. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she said, “but I know I made an impact, and I’m glad.”
Others wondered why Mrs. Kamman, who has been saying unkind words about Mrs. Child for years, would want to be invited.
In fact, only two or three women had been invited to cook, but because of the feud, facts are hard to pin down. Ariane Daguin, an owner of D’Artagnan, a specialty-food purveyor in Jersey City, said she was invited a year ago, but the only women listed on the program were Maguy Le Coze, who owns Le Bernardin in New York with her brother, Gilbert, but is not a chef, and Carrie Nahabedian, the executive chef at the Four Seasons in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Others were added belatedly: Catherine Alexandrou, who owns Chez Catherine in Westfield, N.J.; Debra Ponzek of Montrachet in New York, and Bernadette Millet, the owner of Cafe Bernadette in Santa Barbara. But their names were not listed in the program.
When Ms. Millet spoke to Mrs. Child about the paucity of women at the dinner in the fall, she said Mrs. Child told her it was out of her hands because she wasn’t making the arrangements.
Mr. Richard, generally a free spirit who loves a good party, was feeling put upon. “I should never do anything more in my life,” he said two days before the dinner. “I try to do something and look. My idea was to have a bunch of friends together.”
Was Alice Waters, who owns Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., invited, he was asked. “Alice Waters is not a French chef,” he said, an opinion that surprised more than a few, including Clark Wolf, a food and restaurant consultant in New York.
“Alice Waters is not a French chef?” he asked. “I don’t believe Michel said that.”
Mrs. Child was fed up with the whole business. “This has nothing to do with women at all,” she said. “It’s about French food and about friends. I think women are getting tiresome.”
My comment – that is Julia at her best. She loved Gin, she was not afraid to speak her mind and she thought the idea of cooking without butter absurd. It was an incredible party.
Collage of Julia
Amuses served by the chefs at their market booths
Menu served at the gala