French chef?

The film Julie & Julia is being released today, and once again the media abound with references to the late Julia Child as a chef (even Wikipedia calls her that). Of course Julia Child hosted a TV show called The French Chef, but she was no more a chef than she was French. As Tom Colicchio, a television host who really has been a chef, pointed out more than a year ago, “Julia Child was a great TV personality, but when you say the word ‘chef,’ it means ‘boss,’ and I don’t know what she was boss of, but it wasn’t the kitchen. Not to take anything away from Julia; she was brilliant. But she wasn’t a chef.”

The reviews of the film that I have read so far seem to focus on Meryl Streep’s uncanny “channeling” of Julia Child. Good for Meryl Streep; I don’t really care. I never particularly liked Julia Child’s shtick, which, as I understood it, was demystifying something that was never mystical to begin with, namely, the “art of French cooking.”

Her book Mastering the Art of French Cooking came out in 1961, just after I had spent a year as a postdoc in Paris. Back in New York, I reveled in the rich variety of non-French food that was available there, tired of the blandness of steack [sic] pommes frites and the heaviness of bœuf bourguignon and cassoulet, not to mention the invariably overcooked vegetables. (When in 1969 the French discovered – probably by accident, as with the invention of champagne – that vegetables did not have to be overcooked, they promptly called the discovery nouvelle cuisine.)

The relative dullness of French cooking had already struck me during my first trip to Western Europe in 1958, when I traveled through France between Spain and Italy. In both of these countries I was amazed by the variety of the food, if only by the dozens of different kinds of tortillas in the one and of pastas in the other. In France I had to seek refuge from the monotony in North African and Vietnamese restaurants, and briefly thought that maybe colonialism wasn’t all that bad.

I believe that the mystification of French cuisine in the US is due to the very scant immigration of French people to this country, which meant that there was no need for real French restaurants, the kind that ordinary French people go to, to be established. This gave enterprising French cooks an excuse to serve (or to have served by intentionally surly waiters), at exorbitant prices, something that they called haute cuisine.

Julia Child’s aim, to make this kind of cooking accessible to everyone at home, may have been laudable. But it seems to have led to the sad spectacle of the Julie/Julia Project (the basis of the film), where a young woman spends a little over a year cooking every recipe in Child’s book, and ends up (in her words) “old, crazy, and worn-out.”

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One Response to “French chef?”

  1. Cusine de France « Coby Lubliner’s Blog Says:

    […] Coby Lubliner’s Blog Just another WordPress.com weblog « French chef? […]

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