L»R: Julia Child, Nathalie Dupree, and a young Virginia Willis

Meeting Julia Child

The first time I actually met Julia I was completely awestruck. My mentor Nathalie Dupree and I were attending a media breakfast event at Food Network. (The very, very first time doesn’t count. It was a booksigning and I was struck dumb and mute. I had to be nudged to take my newly signed book from her and then was escorted away. It was kind of embarrassing.) Anyway, after the breakfast I was in a pre-production meeting for Nathalie in the test kitchen and Julia poked her head in to say what a good job everyone had done on the breakfast and thanked all the cooks. I was so impressed at her gratitude. By that time I was working behind the scenes with quite a few other celebrity chefs and believe me, some of them were not that kind or gracious. Her polite kindness and professionalism really stuck with me.

After working for Nathalie, I left to apprentice with Anne Willan at LaVarenne in Burgundy, France. As if living and working in a 17th century French chateau weren’t life-changing enough – eating new foods, tasting new flavors, learning new cooking techniques – Julia Child would come to visit Anne for several weeks each summer. Seriously. Those were bizarre, surreal times. One moment I would casually say to her, “Ma’am, could you please pass the salad” or “Would you care for cream” as we stood in the kitchen drinking coffee. It was as normal as normal could be. The next moment I would be overcome by screams in my head of “OH MY GOSH, THAT’S JULIA CHILD!!!”

She was always kind, always polite, always interested in what we stagiares were doing. She always said thank you for the meal and our work. She would thank the caretaker, Monsieur Milbert, when they crossed paths in the morning as he dropped off the vegetables from the potager. (I am sure she wasn’t always a saint, but my high esteem for her had a great deal to do with why  I got sooo ticked off about the movie and wound up on the phone with ABC news.)

We cooked together several times over the weeks she was there, and that was one of the more rewarding experiences of my whole, entire life. After all, the primary reason I was in France to begin with was greatly the result of her books and influences on my mother, which deeply affected my thoughts and feelings on food and cooking, as well. LaVarenne, itself, was created at the encouragement of Julia Child. To say she was a “huge influence” on me does not remotely express the fullness and depth of it. And, she affected many, many lives. For all practical purposes, she started food television and was one of the biggest influencers of food and cooking of the 20th century. It was a true honor and pleasure to cook with her.

LaVarenne at the Greenbrier

Summer ended, my apprenticeship at LaVarenne led to a job and in winter I travelled stateside when Anne would go to the US for “LaVarenne at the Greenbrier.” One cold March I drove over from DC to West Virginia along winding mountain roads in freezing rain and snow to arrive long after dark. I was staying with Anne and her husband Mark in their cottage, yet when I entered, I {somewhat gleefully} realized they were still out at dinner. I was very tired and thought what luck! Anne and I can catch up on reviewing my work and recipe testing tomorrow morning. I quickly dozed off and shortly thereafter, I heard a loud “knock-knock” at my bedroom door.

Anne’s crisp English accent called out, “Virginia, are you there?”

I rubbed my eyes and {less gleefully} quickly changed from my pajamas for our meeting. Clearly, Anne didn’t want to wait as I did to discuss the recipe testing results of the previous week. Sigh. We sat around the coffee table and discussed the work. After our meeting, she began to hem and haw. It seemed she wanted to ask me something.

I was a bit grumpy at our late-night meeting and began to be concerned. Anne Willan is not one too hesitate, hem, or haw.

Finally, she slowly, carefully said, “Stephanie is going back to Boston and I’m wondering if you would mind staying with Julia?”

She asked me like it was a favor.

I nearly passed out, but somehow I kept it together and sputtered out a “Yes, ma’am.” The next moments are blurry and I’m not at all certain I slept that night. I wanted to do cartwheels down the mountain. I do know the next morning the bellman came and moved my belongings to a suite with wallpaper festooned with loud, garish pink rhododendrons the size of a dinner plate in typical Greenbrier fashion.

I was rooming with Julia Child.

I treated her just as I did my grandmother. I helped her get from point A to point B. I carried her books and papers, made sure she didn’t forget her cane. Late at night I escorted her back after the long fireside chats. It was incredible. She was always very nice, kind, polite, and very thankful for my assistance.

I don’t think my toes touched the ground for days.

In the next year or so we’d see each other at professional events and conferences. She was always mobbed with people. She was an absolute rock star, yet I never heard a cross word about her or her behavior. One event was a professional dinner in NYC while I was working for Epicurious. It was years after her guest appearance during my stint as Kitchen Director at Martha Stewart, even longer after LaVarenne and sharing a suite at the Greenbrier. My friend suggested I go over to her and say hello like all the others. I declined, I really just wanted her to be able to eat her dinner in peace. Finally, there was a bit of a lull in the adoration so I got up the gumption to go say hello. (Yes, I was still positively awestruck.)

Honestly, I didn’t know if she’d remember me. She met so many young doe-eyed girls just like me who somehow felt that she had saved their lives. I decided I might need to give her a hint, a point of reference. I walked over and re-introduced myself, “Julia, it’s “Anne Willan’s apprentice, Virginia, I am so sorry to bother you…”

In her great, warbly voice she interrupted me, “Yes, I know who you are, I was wondering why you hadn’t come over to say hello.” She then patted the seat beside her and I sat down to catch up. Once again, she was kind, interested, and polite.

Julia Child has long been an inspiration and will long continue to be for me and many others. It was an honor and pleasure to have made her acquaintance. I always endeavor to keep her professionalism and gratitude in my mind and heart.

In honor of the anniversary of her 100th birthday I’m sharing a recipe from Basic to Brilliant, Y’all for a traditional French vegetable salad, Salade Macedoine with my own Southern twist.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
VA

PS For those of you in New England, I’m at Odyssey Bookshop this Thursday August 16th with a demo, tasty samples, and signing.

Southern Salade Macédoine
Serves 4

Corn, butter beans, and green beans are summer staples in the south. Macédoine refers to a mixture of cut fruits or vegetables of different colors. The key in this salad is everything is cut about the same size. In classic French cooking, the use of an artichoke bottom as a garniture is termed châtelaine, also a term for the mistress of a château, indicating something very elegant. If you wanted to simplify, you could simply put the salade macedoine in a cored and scooped out tomato.

4 artichokes
4 cups water
2 lemons, halved
2 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf, preferably fresh
2 ears fresh sweet corn, shucked and silk removed
1 cup freshly shelled butter beans (about 12 ounces unshelled) or thawed frozen butter beans or edamame
6 ounces green beans, ends trimmed and cut into 1/4-inch lengths (about 1 cup)
2 carrots, diced (about 1 cup)
½ cup mayonnaise
¼ cup chopped mixed fresh herbs (such as tarragon, flat-leaf parsley, and basil)
Coarse salt and freshly cracked black pepper
8 ounces mesclun salad greens

Using a sharp kitchen knife, trim all but an inch of the stem from 4 artichokes. Cut off the top two-thirds, leaving about 1½ inches at the base. Hold the artichoke upside down and pare away the leaves, leaving just the pale green center. Rub the cut surface with lemon juice to prevent discoloration. Holding the bottom in the palm of one hand, scoop out the fuzzy choke with a spoon. Place in a bowl of water with the juice of a lemon to reduce oxidation and browning until you are ready to cook.

To cook the hearts, heat 4 cups salted water in a heavy pot over medium-high heat to a gentle boil. Add 1 halved lemon, thyme, an bay leaf, and the prepared artichoke bottoms. Cover with a smaller lid or heatproof plate to weigh down and keep the bottoms submerged. Cook over medium heat until the hearts are tender when pierced with knife, about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare an ice-water bath by filling a large bowl with ice and water. Line a plate with paper towels. Remove with a slotted spoon to the bowl of ice water to cool.

To cook the corn, bring 2nd pot of salted water to a rolling boil over high heat. Add the corn and cook until tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove with tongs to the ice water to cool and then transfer to the towel-lined plate to drain. (Do not drain the water from the pot, you will use it to cook the other vegetables.)

To cook the butter beans, add them to the simmering water and simmer until tender but not mushy, about 20 minutes. (Taste one and see how tender it is; the cooking time will depend on their freshness.) About 15 minutes into the cooking, add the green beans and carrots. Meanwhile, cut the corn kernels from the cobs and place in a large bowl.

Drain the vegetables well in a colander, and then set the colander with the vegetables in the ice-water bath (to set the color and stop the cooking), making sure the vegetables are submerged. Lift out of the water, shake well to remove the excess water, then transfer the vegetables to the bowl with the corn. Add the mayonnaise and herbs. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.

Once the artichokes are cooled, remove and pat dry. Drizzle with pure olive oil and season with coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper. Place artichoke hearts on chilled serving plates, trimming if necessary so they sit flat. Top with the greens and a spoonful of the chilled vegetable mixture. Season with finishing salt and freshly ground pepper. Serve immediately.

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Photo credit Salade Macedoine: Helene Dujardin
Recipe adapted from Basic to Brilliant, Y’all

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. Feel free to excerpt and link, just give credit where credit is due and send folks to my website, virginiawillis.com. Thanks so much.

Copyright © 2012 Virginia Willis Culinary Productions, LLC.

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