Merci Julia! In honor of Julia Child's 100th Birthday
Help us celebrate what would have been popular TV chef and author Julia Child's 100th birthday. After she developed a penchant for French cuisine, Child became a standard guide for the culinary community and a television icon with her popular cooking shows such as "The French Chef."
In the book "The Chef's Wife: A Guy, A Girl and Their Food, The Classic Menage a Torte," writers Bonnie Jones, Phil Anderson and Denise Koek chronicle the honor of attending the most famous chef in the world's 80th birthday party in 1984 in Los Angeles.
Putting On The Ritz
My grandfather was a coal miner in West Virginia. I had a very warm, loving family, but we didn’t exactly conform to Emily Post’s standards of etiquette. In fact, I fondly recall my Aunt Eileen*, at the dinner table, earnestly competing to generate the most powerful toxic gas emissions outside of Chernobyl (*names have been changed to protect the flatulent).
Phil’s father supported his family of eight on a cop’s salary. The kids squeezed into their bedrooms with a shoe-horn and always lived close enough to the railroad tracks to hear the whistle of each passing train.
Clearly, neither one of us was born in the lap of luxury.
So, the night that we attended Julia Child’s 80th birthday party at the Ritz Carlton in Marina Del Rey was a momentous occasion. The brightly lit hotel sparkled like a column of diamonds atop the midnight blue ocean. A driving rain fell as the valet took our car. As we entered the sumptuous, glittering ballroom, we found ourselves adrift in a sea of red, white, blue and black tuxedos. The reed-thin women were resplendent in Oscar-worthy gowns. I had guiltily indulged in a gown of my own—a gorgeous frock that made me feel like the Scarlett O’Hara of the Los
Angeles Basin. Phil had rented a tux and looked every inch like Rhett Butler by the bay.
We took a deep breath and dove into a pool of extravagance. Heavy, crystal chandeliers illuminated the highly polished furnishings and cast a dream-like luster on the proceedings.
The whole event had been orchestrated by Michel Richard, who has since become Washington DC’s contemporary culinary treasure. The celebrated chef was renowned for his rare combination of brilliance and whimsy. Michel’s talents were clearly reflected in the evening’s soiree for Julia.
There was more money in that room than in the vault at Wells Fargo. There was more silicone in that assemblage than in the entire Microsoft line. And we heard more exotic names in one night than Khofi Annan hears in a month at the UN. There was Mary spelled “Mharee” and David spelled “Dayfid” and Susan spelled “Sooozin” and Mike spelled “Myk”. On that fateful night, the world must have suffered a global shortage of wealthy, top-heavy, fish-lipped, spelling-bee dropouts, because every last one seemed to be at our party.
Out of the thirty events across the country which celebrated Julia Child’s 80th Birthday, only ours featured Three-Michelin-Star chefs. One of those was Phil’s idol—Paul Bocuse. Paul Bocuse is to food as Mick Jagger is to
Rock and Roll. Chef Bocuse created “Nouvelle Cuisine”, the lighter style of French eating. However the night of that party, none of us indulged in any dish that could be described as “light”. Our night at “Merci Julia” was like bathing in a tub of culinary indulgence. Among the featured foods were Abalone soaked in butter sauce and prunes marinated for two weeks in Armagnec and then stuffed with foie gras. Over eight pounds of caviar was served. (Keep in mind—only one pound serves 100 people.) A delectable Mariniere de Coquille St. Jacques was the third course. It was pure pleasure to partake of such stellar cuisine. And it was an honor to simply be in the same room as Paul Bocuse.
Moet Chandon flowed from a champagne fountain. Everywhere we looked, mounds of caviar, chicken, shrimp, and lamb spilled from fabulous ice sculptures. When we sat down to the table, we noticed there were several utensils at each place setting, beside nine wine glasses—some for reds, some whites, all for oenophiles. Our table-mates seemed routinely stylish and clever. We were seated between a charming couple whose names I cannot recall and one of the most prominent restaurateurs in downtown NYC, Drew Nieporente. (His Tribeca Grill is a local landmark with a 1,700 bottle wine list.)
We enjoyed a very light, friendly conversation with all of those around us. Every word was punctuated by a new, mouth-watering course and every course was punctuated by a new tribute to Ms. Child.
A lovely audio/visual presentation served as a retrospective of the great woman’s life and underscored her profound impact on the American psyche. BJ (Before Julia), soufflé dishes, copper pans and even whisks were novelties brought home from France by pretentious tourists. French cooking was considered an effete art form. AJ (After Julia), French-style cuisine was well within the reach of any homemaker. Our own Ms. Child elevated the nation’s culinary standards and taught us to enjoy food and wine as a way of appreciating life’s bounty. Her joie de vivre, her ability to simplify explanations of technique and her Alfred-E-Newman-like “What, Me Worry?” attitude provided the vibrant food coloring to a whole new generation of connoisseurs.
A string of tribute speeches followed in quick succession. Disappointingly, we didn’t really see Julia Child that night. We were seated far from the podium and she didn’t arise until well after we had left for our long journey home.
However, we were changed forever by a simple gesture we witnessed in the midst of this fairy-tale event. At the end of our soup course, Drew Nieporente—who had impeccable, Prince-Charles-worthy manners—nibbled his last black olive quinnel and then picked up his bowl and drank the last few drops of his delectable artichoke fennel soup.
Common soup-slurping at the affair of the season?!?!? It sounded so wrong, but it felt so right. The visual stuck with us, the rest of the night, as we excused ourselves and retrieved our bulging gift bag, stuffed with expensive cookery, new-fangled gadgets and even a piece of Wedgewood China. On our hour-and-a-half drive home, Phil and I pondered what we’d seen and heard, mingling with the “upper crust”. And we just kept coming back to the sight of Drew drinking from his soup bowl. There and then we resolved to follow his good example and live by the following credo: Enjoy your food with gusto.
Since that night, we try to eat our food as we live our lives—to the utmost. Whether it’s the last crumb of a veggie burger or our final, palate-cleansing sorbet, we try to breathe it all in.
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