How Julia Child Changed the Way We Cook

Stephanie Hersh, Julia Child's assistant for nearly 16 years, weighs in

Child and Hersh

It was 1961, and Mastering the Art of French Cooking had just been published. Hersh notes in hindsight that the initial response to the seminal cookbook was lukewarm, but a friend of Child had offered to help the cause by featuring Child and her cookbook in a live television show called I've Been Reading. Child accepted the offer, but put her unique spin on things.

Rather than go on about her book like previous guests, Child decided to do a little show and tell — she brought some eggs, a bowl, and a whisk, and performed a little cooking demonstration. The show's producers were so impressed that they decided to give Child a pilot of 13 shows, which she and her husband Paul titled The French Chef.

That's when things got crazy. The show put Child on the map and requests for public appearances on television started pouring in. Hersh got her chance in the kitchen during a taping of a segment for a Canadian television show. Everyone in the crew was so busy that there was no one to mind the kitchen, and there was cooking that had to be done before the show. So she took the initiative and stepped in, essentially preparing the dish for the show from start to finish, a dish which Child tasted. The name of the dish? Santa Barbara Fish Stew, which, coincidentally, is what Hersh is teaching at her classes right now. (Photo courtesy of Sur La Table)

Hersh soon transitioned from working part-time to working full-time with Child, and they even started going to the movies together. Child dubbed Hersh her "Executive Personal Assistant," inspired by the ending credits to a Meryl Streep (how ironic) movie in which someone was named said title. As the years progressed, Hersh began assisting Child with cooking demonstrations and traveling with her, so she got to know Child on a fairly personal level. So what was it like working for Child? "It was sort of like working for your idol and your mentor and your grandmother all wrapped up into one," says Hersh.

That explains why Child was able to so deftly demystify complicated French cooking techniques for the layman cook at home. Child's greatest impact on American home cooking was her ability to make people realize that cooking should be fun. It was OK to make mistakes in the kitchen (Child, after all, didn't really learn how to cook herself until she was in her 40s) and of course, learn from them.

Speaking of mistakes, that reminds us: Did Child really drop that chicken on the floor?