Julia Child once said, “I was 32 when I started cooking; up until then, I just ate.” In the 1970s, she could have been speaking for most of America, and, thankfully, she brought us along on her culinary journey to change the way we cook, eat, and think about food. Child enjoyed good food and the art of living well, and her inviting personality and joie de vivre gave us permission to do so, too.
Julia Child’s Legacy
To honor her legacy as a cook, philanthropist, culinary scholar, cookbook author, and advocate for food and culture, and encourage others to pursue this work, Child founded The Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts in 1995. This unique foundation has been instrumental in promoting her love of learning, culinary excellence, and “her far-reaching impact as a teacher and mentor.”
The foundation created the Julia Child Award in 2015 to recognize one person “who has made a profound and significant difference in the way America cooks, eats, and drinks” and who embodies what Child stood for. The 2016 recipient of this prestigious award was chef and Mexican food ambassador Rick Bayless.
A Tasty Start
The award was presented Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016, at a gala hosted in conjunction with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., as the commencement for the museum’s Food History Weekend. The guest list included Philadelphia Cousins, Julia Child Foundation Trustee and Child’s niece; Alex Prud'homme, Julia Child Foundation Trustee; and Child's great-nephew; Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition and food studies; as well as food writers and food-lovers from across the country.
The evening started off on a happy note as guests were greeted by servers passing Bayless’ classic margarita while the strains of a mariachi band played in the background. The atmosphere was fun and casual while guests enjoyed scrumptious bite-sized hors d’oeuvres prepared by the guest of honor, who insisted on making sure everything that left the kitchen was perfectly prepared.
To whet our appetites before dinner, we nibbled on chicken chile verde, classic guacamole in a corn basket, and roasted shrimp with a corn cake before heading to the museum’s dramatic mezzanine level for the main event. Tables decorated with the bright orange, crimson, and russet colors of Mexico greeted us and noted New York Times food writer Kim Severson was the emcee for the ceremony.
The Main Event
In addition to Severson’s entertaining introduction, John Gray, director of the National Museum of American History, and Eric Spivey, chairman of the Julia Child Foundation, gave an overview of the programs supported by the foundation, its collaboration with the museum, and explained why Bayless was chosen for this year’s award. In addition, Bayless’ personal friends, chef José Andrés and NPR on-air reporter Scott Simon, shared their memories of Rick and gave guests a window into Rick as a person, a chef, and culinary mentor. But it was in Bayless’ menu where his talents as a chef really shone through.
One reason Bayless is admired by chefs and home cooks is his ability to create a memorable culinary experience that addresses every aspect of the meal down to choosing the right wine or beer to go with a dish to the progression of courses. In this case, the selections included white and red wines from Margerum Wine Co., Alma Rosa Winery and Vineyards, Andrew Murray Vineyards; and Indian brown, whittier, and stout beers provided by Alaskan Brewing Co., Allagash Brewing Co., Dogfish Head Brewery, and New Belgium Brewing Co.
Bayless’ painstaking oversight ensured only the best seasonal ingredients were used in his recipes, and this fastidious approach was evident in the three-course menu he created for his award dinner. To start, there was a shrimp and scallop ceviche verde with avocado, jicama, and green onions followed by the main course of grilled ribeye carne asada with a classic Oaxacan negro mole (a dish Rick worked on for 10 years until he felt it was perfect) made with chihuade chilies, hen of the woods mushrooms, black beans, and 28 other ingredients. The sweet ending to the meal was mesquite bean-flour chocolate cake served with Mexican chocolate ice cream and meringue.
In between book signings, cooking, and winning his award, we had a chance to sit down with Bayless and get his thoughts on how Child influenced his career, what it meant to receive the award, and what he wanted Americans to know about the food of his beloved Mexico.
The Daily Meal: How important is this award to your work as a restaurant chef and owner, cookbook author, teacher, and scholar and your goal of significantly changing Americans’ perceptions of Mexican food?
Rick Bayless: This award is incredibly important partly because Julia was the one that set the bar so incredibly high and trained all of us who fell in love with other cultures, went to those cultures, and brought the cuisine back. Her work over so many decades was dedicated to bringing the richness of French cuisine to the American table. It wasn’t because she wanted to be fancy with it. It’s easy for people to fall into that kind of thing and say, “Oh, its French food it’s really fancy.” She actually made French food approachable to everyone.
And from my standpoint, I fell in love with Mexican food and had a sort of similar difficulty. People thought one thing about Mexican food, and I wanted to bring the real thing to them. In the same way that people thought French food was a certain thing and it was all this fancy froufrou stuff. Julia said, “No, no, it’s actually stuff that you can make regularly. It can really enrich our everyday lives.”
I wanted to say the same thing about Mexican food. It’s not all just tacos and burritos and nachos and stuff like that. It’s a cuisine that is varied and can be very sophisticated or very rustic. I wanted to bring the full range of Mexican food to American cooks, and I wanted to make sure that when I did that, it was with respect for the culture that created it — and Julia did exactly the same thing.
What would you like your legacy and the legacy of Mexican cuisine to be for Americans?
I think we are on the path to understanding a little bit more about Mexican food than when I started 30 years ago with this project. I think that people are awakened to the fact that it’s not just heavy and spicy and kind of all one color, all one texture, which is what a lot of people grew up with. I would be happy if my legacy was to shine a light for the American public on the richness of the Mexican kitchen. I feel like we have done that in a lot of ways.
I have a big book that I’m working on now that’s one of those big books you can only write after you have been doing it for a really long time. I’m writing it together with our restaurant chefs so we can have some material to leave behind, a big volume of material that hopefully will inspire a generation of chefs as well as home cooks.
Most of my work has been really focused on the home cook. I want people to be able to make this food in all of its glorious vitality and flavor, and I want them to be able to do it on a regular basis in their homes. The home level is where we really start to build a change in our country. Chefs can introduce new ingredients and techniques to people, but our goal is always to have it trickle down to the home level. I have really focused on that a lot because I want to make sure that people have something to cook.