Julia Child is most famous for her boisterous personality, incredible fearlessness, and ability to cook amazing French food. What most people don’t realize is that Julia didn’t earn her cooking fame until the 1960s. Before that, she worked in the Office of Strategic Services (now called the CIA) and in China during WWII.
So why is Julia Child one of my idols? She was a fearless and cheerful woman who became an international success due to her tenacity and love of food. And she did all of this in her early forties.
As a girl, Julia attended school at the elite San Francisco Katherine Branson School for Girls. Even as a teenager she made a name for herself as a 6-foot-tall prankster. If this weren’t enough to make a goody-goody like me envious, she went on to go to Smith College in Massachusetts with the intention of becoming a writer – unfortunately, none of her short plays were published. After college, she worked in advertising for the home furnishings company W&J Sloane, but after a transfer to the Los Angeles branch, she was fired for “gross insubordination.” (Apparently, her bosses just couldn’t handle the awesomeness that is Julia Child.)
This was when, in 1942, she volunteered as research assistant for the Office of Strategic Services. While she wasn’t technically a spy, but she played a key role in the communication of top-secret documents between U.S. government officials and their intelligence officers. She held posts in Washington D.C., China, Colombo, and Sri Lanka where she began a relationship with fellow OSS employee Paul Child, her future husband. They met, they fell in love, and they were married in 1946 after returning to America.
Then, in 1948, Paul was reassigned to work at the American Embassy in Paris, and the couple moved to France. It was here where she discovered her true passion, what she was going to do. She fell in love with French cuisine after tasting a meal that opened up her soul and spirit, she decided to go to culinary school because why the hell not?
She trained for six months at the world-famous Cordon Bleu cooking school where she met Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, who would later become cowriters for the famous work Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a book that would sell millions of copies and inspire many American cooks.
But she didn’t stop with just publishing a bestselling cookbook. In 1962, Julia would go on to star in her own television show, The French Chef, establishing her as a household name. She even won an Emmy in 1966 and appeared frequently on Good Morning, America throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
After years of stardom, Julia died in 2004 in her assisted-living home in Montecito, CA two days before her 92nd birthday, and according to those who knew her, she didn’t slow down even in her final days. Instead, she wrote an autobiography entitled My Life in France.
The legacy of this great woman lives on in not only her cookbook (which is still being sold and reproduced today as the go-to book for French cooking, and her memoir) but in the film Julie & Julia, inspired from a cooking blog by Julie Powell, a woman who was so taken by Julia Child that she devoted an entire year to cooking solely from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Julia Child is an inspiring, cheerful, and talented woman, and she will continue to live on in the hearts of chefs everywhere. Happy 100th birthday Julia, and, as always, bon appetite!