16 Oct 2021

New film celebrates unlikely kitchen icon Julia Child

From Saturday Morning, 11:10 am on 16 October 2021

With her hugely popular show The French Chef, Julia Child changed the way Americans thought about food, women and even television.

A new documentary from Betsy West and Julie Cohen, Julia, uses unseen footage of Child along with chef interviews and mouth-watering cinematography to tell the story of her surprising rise to champion of French cuisine.

Cohen and West are also the directorial duo behind the 2018 Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary, RBG.

The lawyer and the cook were both ground-breaking American women, Cohen tells Kim Hill.

"At first glance, these might appear to be very separate people.

"However, Julia Child and RBG both really changed American society in very different ways, they both took a path that wasn't expected for women of their era and they both were deeply aided by a terrific feminist marriage.

"In each case, they had a husband that was so supportive of their work that the husband was willing to play second fiddle to an enormously successful kind of shooting star of a wife."

In fact, it was her diplomat husband, Paul Child, who introduced Julia to the culinary culture and guided her to discover her passion for French food while they were in Paris for his work, she says.

"She decided that she loved French food and French culture so much that she wanted to delve in further and that's what led her to start taking cooking classes at the Cordon Bleu."

As her interest grew, she came to meet co-author Simone Beck who was writing a cookbook and suggested Julia jump onboard, and so Julia helped translate the book to appeal to Americans.

But the first publisher changed its mind and the second publisher, who went ahead and put it out, didn't have many expectations, Cohen says

The belief at the time was that the book - Mastering the Art of French Cooking - was too complicated and that the target audience would prefer simplicity, she says.

"That's what got her her spot and her ongoing cooking show is that she shows up on this reading program to promote her book and makes an omelette and people are like whoa, who is this kind of crazy, wacky lady who is clearly so buoyant and so loud and she's got this crazy voice - she was authentic and viewers can sense that and they just started calling in the station and saying 'we want more'."

With her unmistakable warble and towering figure, Julia Child, who first appeared on TV when she was already in her 50s, was an unexpected icon of the kitchen, Cohen says.

"As middle-aged ladies ourselves, Betsy my directing partner and I, that's part of the Julia Child's story we love the most.

"Like if a team of television executive consultants had been trying to dream up the perfect woman on television, they would have certain things in mind - 'oh she has to be blonde, she has to be petite, she has to be maybe a bit demure, she has to have the perfect figure' - Julia Child was kind of the opposite of all those things and yet from the minute she appeared on American television sets in the early 1960s, the viewers loved her."

The documentary was stitched up seamlessly with shots from two places - partly in France, prior to the pandemic, for close-up and slow-motion shots of specialty foods and in New York, where a kitchen was built to match that of Julia Child's.

"We quite consciously wanted food to be shown off in all its sensual glory in our film and we really put quite a bit of love and care into the preparing and filming of the Julia Child dishes that we prepare in the film."

Now in the pandemic, Julia's works are coming back to light as more people immerse themselves in the art of cooking, Cohen says.

"Like all of America and probably all of the world was so focused not only food, but on the specific kind of food that Julia excelled in teaching, home cooking.

"So we watched with interest as people became more obsessed than ever with some of the great current cooks like José Andrés and Ina Garten who are both in our film, but even more so with the great works of Julia Child."

Julia opens in New Zealand cinemas on 21 October.

Betsy West and Julie Cohen are working on another documentary about "a phenomenal living American woman in the political sphere who has had an enormous impact on America".

Cohen says more news about it will be released in early 2022.