It's been more than 30 years since Julia Child first stepped onto a television set with a whisk, a copper bowl and some eggs and taught the world -- at least that part of the world that watched "educational" television -- to make an omelet.
The world has changed since then, and television, public and commercial, has also changed. But Ms. Child is very much the same person that generations have known and loved and learned from. As she launches her third television series this season, "Cooking with Master Chefs," she remains a tall, distinguished woman, articulate in her distinctive voice, and still passionate about good food and good living.
Ms. Child virtually invented the "how-to" TV cooking show with her first series, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," launched in the mid-'60s.
It was almost an accident, growing out of an interview on a book-review program, but it's no accident that she has stuck with the medium. "It's just a wonderful source for teaching," she says.
Ms. Child was in Baltimore over the weekend to attend a brunch at Citronelle restaurant, atop the Latham Hotel, given by Maryland Public Television, which co-produced the new series. "I think it's terribly useful to see things," she says. "Television is for looking and actions, and a book is for reading and philosophy. I think you need both."
Also attending the lunch Sunday -- but spending part of his time on the other side of the stove -- was chef Michel Richard, whose culinary philosophy guides the Citronelle in Baltimore, as well as other restaurants around the country. Mr. Richard, whose signature restaurant is Citrus, in Los Angeles, is one of the "masters" Ms. Child visited for the new series, watching him fix hot chocolate truffles in his home.
Before the lunch reception began, Ms. Child sat down in a green wicker chair and talked about her life in TV and about the state of cooking in America.
"Our new series is for people who really are interested in food," Ms. Child says. "It's not a lot of fluff or entertainment. They are entertaining, but if you're really interested in food, it's tremendously useful to see how the professionals do things."
Ms. Child, who once ran a cooking school in Paris called "L'Ecole des Trois Gourmandes" with her friends and, later, book collaborators Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, wants her shows to be useful.
"The shows I've been connected with, we've been able to take the time to go into the detail that's needed," she says. For "Master Chefs," for instance, there was an entire day for rehearsal and an entire day for shooting each episode. "And we did it in segments, so that if it's not right, we redo it," she says.
The point is to illustrate the processes of cooking, to show that, even with French cooking, "it's not as difficult as you might think," she says. "My theory in teaching has always been first the main theme, and then the variations. Like, if you are doing cooking, how to simmer a chicken in wine sauce. And then you can have mushrooms or onions or tomatoes or what ever you want, but the main thing is, how do you cook it."
Other chefs who appear in the new series are Emeril Lagasse, of Emeril's in New Orleans; Patrick Clark, of the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington; Jean-Louis Palladin of Jean Louis at the Watergate, Washington; Jacques Pepin, author and teacher in Madison, Conn.; Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, Berkeley, Calif.; and Jeremiah Tower, of Stars in San Francisco.
(MPT, which co-sponsors the 16-part series with A La Carte Communications, of Guilford, Conn., airs the program on Channels 22 and 67 at 5 p.m. Sundays.)
Ms. Child also finds it no accident that she's no longer the only cook on the airwaves -- "Now there's something for everybody." She perceives Americans' current fascination with food as stemming from two not necessarily complementary trends. One
is a sort of "back to basics" reaction to the gastronomic excesses of the '80s, and the second is a growing concern for food safety and better nutrition.
She does not subscribe to the notion, sometimes propounded by the national food media, that everyone these days is too busy to cook.
"Well, all my friends cook," she says. "And all the people I know in Cambridge, everyone cooks. As a matter of fact, we mostly would rather cook than go out to a restaurant -- but we don't have the choices they do in New York. And it's so expensive to go out. And if it's not going to be a really good restaurant, why go to it, because you can do so well at home? Besides, when you're concerned with not only your pocketbook but also with your health, when you are cooking it yourself you know exactly what goes into it."
Cooking is rewarding in many ways, she points out, it's truly "a creative art." But it's also important from a social standpoint. "I think if you have a family, it's just a tragedy if you don't have a family dinner table, one time in the day at least, when everyone gets together," she says. "It's terrible, you run into some people who've never sat at a dinner table and eaten and had a good pow wow with the rest of the family -- they sometimes put on the television, so there's no conversation at all. I think that's a terrible way to bring people up, more like animals feeding than people dining and having fun.
"If you don't get together as a unit, how is the family going to have a feeling of cohesion and tenderness and concern? The food is just a pleasant way of getting together. . . . It's just a way of keeping the home fires burning."
But she worries too much of people's concern for the nutritional value of their food is misguided, consisting of a series of prohibitions, rather than thoughtful meal planning.
"If it keeps on, people being so afraid of food, it will be the death knell of American gastronomy," she says, emphatically. "I see no reason for all this fear of food."
In recent years, besides her books and TV appearances and TV series, Ms. Child has been active in an organization she founded, with winemaker Robert Mondavi among others, called the American Institute of Wine and Food. The California-based institute aims to be a sort of intellectual clearinghouse for all issues relating to wine and food, from food safety to sensible eating to promoting American cuisine.
At a recent AIWF conference, which Ms. Child called a "big powwow with the nutritionists, dietitians, food writers and so forth on food and health," the message was clear: "Moderation in all things, a great variety of foods -- I think that's terribly important -- small helpings, reasonable exercise. And," Ms. Child adds, "the dietitians finally admitted, you could have fun, which is what it's about."
It's not really so hard to eat both right and well, she says. "I think if you do the moderation and variety, you just can't go wrong. Who doesn't know about limiting fat to 30 percent [of total dietary calories]? As I always said, we were given an appetite so that we would nourish ourselves, and a mind so we would know how to do it. The fanatics who say, 'Oh, I don't eat any fat at all,' I think they're going to be ruined in about two or three years, when their fingernails split, and their hair dries out, and their face gets pale and flaky. Everyone needs a little bit [of fat]."
But, in general, when she looks ahead, she is cautiously optimistic. "If you look at it right now, the world is a rather horrifying place, with all the wars, Somalia, and Bosnia and Russia," she says. "And it's ironic and tragic that it is changing so much at the time when, from a food point of view, we're getting wonderful produce and great cooks -- particularly in this country, we have such a wonderful group of young people going into the culinary arts. If we keep up, in education and so forth, we'll be leading the world."
Luncheon guests, members of MPT's Society for Excellence in Public Television, have begun streaming into the restaurant and champagne corks are popping in the background. Ms. Child is about to be engulfed by beaming fans. She pauses long enough to sum up her wishes for the future: "I just hope that more and more people are going into the pleasures of the table and learning how to cook and eating at home, with the family, and just having a good time."