In 1963, a charismatic woman with a passion for French cuisine and an inimitable voice stepped in front of the cameras at WGBH and introduced Americans to the art of French cooking. Now, five years after her death, Julia Child continues to captivate the public's imagination. With Nora Ephron's film Julie & Julia opening Aug. 7, WGBH is proud to look back at her accomplishments and how we helped make her a household name.
She was born Julia McWilliams in Pasadena, California, on Aug. 15, 1912. She married her husband, Paul Child, in 1946. Paul joined the United States Information Agency and was assigned to the US Embassy in Paris in 1949.
While in Paris with her husband, Julia enrolled at le Cordon Bleu, where she attended French cooking classes. She helped two French friends, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, write Mastering the Art of French Cooking, published in 1961, which aimed to make French cooking accessible to Americans. The three women also ran a cooking school in Paris, l’Ecole des Trois Gourmands (the school of the three hearty eaters). That same year, the Childs returned to the US, settling in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
It was on a 1961 promotional tour for Mastering the Art of French Cooking that Julia made her first contact with public television. She was a guest on a WGBH book review show called I’ve Been Reading. She arrived with a hot plate, giant whisk, and eggs and made an omelette on the set. Dozens of viewers wrote to WGBH, wanting to see more. WGBH writer/producer Russ Morash asked her to tape three pilot cooking shows, which she did in 1962. WGBH put The French Chef on the air on Feb. 11, 1963, and Julia Child became public television’s first and most enduring star. Audiences fell in love with her wavering voice, fondness for wine and butter, eagerness to hack away with a knife, and customary closing phrase, "Bon appétit." The series ran for 10 years.
Among the other breakthroughs for which the series can be credited, it was on The French Chef that WGBH first introduced captions for viewers who are deaf or hard of hearing. (WGBH has built on that 1972 milestone with many other media access advances for the 36 Americans with hearing or vision loss.)
Julia's subsequent cooking shows for public television, which include Julia Child & Company, Julia Child & More Company, Dinner at Julia’s, and Julia Child Cooking with Master Chefs, have been aired and repeated without interruption ever since. In 1998, at age 85, she returned to demonstrating cooking basics in her own kitchen with her final series, Julia Child & Jacques Pépin: Cooking at Home. PBS has also aired two programs about Julia: an American Masters biography and the newly released Julia Child Memories: Bon Appétit, a retrospective of some of the most memorable episodes of The French Chef.
Television insiders credit her with giving birth to the how-to genre and carving a path for a cadre of successful TV chefs – and indeed, an entire cable channel devoted to cooking.