Learning To Cook Dinner For Julia Child

I once had a chance to cook dinner for Julia Child, and it was pretty nerve-racking, but not only for the reasons you'd expect. At the time, I was trying to get my first job in a professional kitchen.

In 1975, I left graduate school to become a writer. Because I wrote like an academic, though, my writing career began failing spectacularly almost as soon as it started. There followed jobs as a crewman on a commercial fishing boat (a line trawler out of Marblehead), as a surgical attendant in a pediatric hospital, as a night desk clerk at the Harvard Club of Boston (where I was fired for sleeping on the job), and as a security guard at Boston's Logan Airport, babysitting at night for Boeing 747 freighters that had gold, platinum, or other kinds of valuable cargo aboard.

By about 1976, I was getting published, but my writing income was very precarious. I was still in the "don't-quit-your-day-job" category. And I needed a day job.

At that time, I had a pretty good reputation (among classmates, and roommates) as a cook. It was a hobby that enabled me to produce better-than-expected meals for friends. We saved money by not eating out in restaurants and I was able to avoid doing dishes after dinner, which I loathe.

Because I felt like I knew what I was doing in the kitchen, I applied for a job as a sous chef at a new restaurant called Harvest that was opening soon in Cambridge, Mass. The restaurant was a venture of a renowned architect in Boston named Ben Thompson, who had designed the renovation of Fanueil Hall Marketplace on the Boston waterfront. He had also designed two all-glass, side-by-side, office buildings with retail spaces on Brattle Street, a couple of blocks from Harvard Square. Harvest was on the ground floor of one of these buildings. One entire wall of the kitchen was glass.

Harvest emphasized using only the ripest natural ingredients. The menu was to change repeatedly in order to make the most of what foods were in season. Nowadays this approach is pretty common. Then it was forward-thinking. Thompson and his wife had hired a French chef who was not celebrated but was something of a virtuoso. At least he sure seemed so to me. His name was an evidently French name such as Jean-Luc or Henri.

I had been taught to cook by my father's mother, whom I called "Bubbie." She was a fantastic cook, and a very indulgent teacher. Cooking together became one of the most wonderful experiences of my childhood. But I don't think she ever taught me a single recipe. I just emulated what she did, developing a feel for what proportions of ingredients should go together. In effect what I got from her was a big storehouse of tips: how to slice and dice; what to watch out for when you're making a cream sauce; how to make sure, when making a hollandaise sauce, that the warmed beaten eggs don't overcook. Best of all, she showed me how to make latkes out of mashed saltine crackers.

Bubbie was Russian, and when I would come to visit for breakfast, she and I would make the cracker batter and fry the latkes in a cast-iron skillet with about 2 inches of bubbling salted butter. Then we would eat the latkes smeared with her homemade strawberry preserves. She served the meal with tea, which she would sip through a sugar cube she would place between her teeth. This was a very exotic experience in my Leave-It-to-Beaver childhood in Michigan.

When Henri interviewed me, I told him that I had no experience cooking professionally. I didn't know what clarified butter was, I admitted. He asked me why I thought I could do the job, so I told him about what a great teacher my grandmother had been. "Ah," he said, "la cuisine grand-mère, eh?" "Yeah," I replied, not knowing exactly what he was driving at.

Instead of spending a lot of time discussing my qualifications, in his lousy English and my lousy French, Henri put me to the test. He told me to cook lunch for the staff, and then he left me alone in the beautiful, brand-new kitchen. Rather than hang around looking over my shoulder, he went into the dining room, to drink some wine, smoke a Gauloise, and chat up the pretty waitresses, most of whom were in college in the Boston area, and had as little experience in the restaurant business as I did.

Being left alone helped. I went rummaging through the walk-in refrigerator and found four big leftover roast prime ribs. If Henri had been watching me, he would have killed me for using meat like this for the staff's lunch. To conceal my profligacy with such ingredients, I chopped it all up in big chunks, along with onions, cooked cold potatoes, and green and red peppers. I fried this in a big sauté pan with some bacon fat and clarified butter. This became some really wonderful roast beef hash, which I served with poached eggs on top and some frisé salad with warm bacon dressing.

Meanwhile, Henri was on his fourth glass of wine. One by one, the waiters and waitresses walked into the dining room after lunch and said to him, "Hey, this Steve can really cook." Henri told me to come in to work again the next day. I owed it all to using such great leftovers rather than to any special skill as a chef. The sautéing was pretty straightforward.

Before I could consider myself hired, though, Henri pointed out that the restaurant first had to open. Harvest was due to serve its first meals to the public in a few weeks, and I had a lot to learn. My final test would come just a few days before opening, when Julia Child unexpectedly showed up with her husband.Over the next few weeks the head chef Henri gave me a crash course in French cuisine, and we developed the menu. It was summer so we had a lot of seasonal fruits and vegetables to feature. Then came a week or so of cooking for the owner and architect Ben Thompson, his wife, and a number of their friends. Finally, around two weeks before opening, Ben told us that we were going to host two or three dinner parties with notables from the Boston-Cambridge area. Such guests, we assumed, would include Harvard professors such as Henry Kissinger and John Kenneth Galbraith, along with the actress Faye Dunaway, who lived then in Cambridge and who was dating Peter Wolf, the lead vocalist of the J. Geils Band.

These dinners to generate buzz were like catering a wedding or bar mitzvah: everybody was going to be served the same meal. No ordering from the menu. That made it easier to plan and prepare, but also easier to cook with complacency and have the food sit around too long while the small crew of waiters and waitresses were running back and forth.

The menu we settled on was tasty but pretty traditional. We were going to serve Steak Diane, cauliflower polonaise, and oven-roasted new potatoes with rosemary. There were other courses, but those were the dishes that Henri and I were responsible for. Because I was the sous chef, and was working the sauté station, I was going to cook the steaks.

At posh restaurants, Steak Diane gets flambéed tableside, but I was going to do the honors in the kitchen, because we were cooking so many steaks at one time. As we were involved in the flurry of preparations leading up to dinner, Henri, who had seen my pretty amateurish flambé technique, not so subtly put a fire extinguisher right next to the stove where I was working.

Soon the guests started arriving, and Ben and his wife went into full-court schmooze. The kitchen started cranking with commendable coordination, which was pretty surprising considering that this was the biggest meal we had served as a team and some of us (including — and especially — me) had little professional culinary experience.

Thankfully, the fixed menu enabled us to get things going on an assembly line. The waiters and the pretty waitresses started carrying their trays out to the dining room with a fairly convincing imitation of professional aplomb. However, the smoothly confident atmosphere didn't last.

Around 10 minutes into serving the main course, when about half of the tables had their entrées, one of the waitresses burst into the kitchen saying, "Holy sh*t, you'll never guess who's at my next table."

"Who," I asked? I was expecting her to say some big shot from Harvard.

"Julia Child," she said.

At this point, we were standing side-by-side, peeking through the little diamond-shaped window in the door to the dining room.

"Where?" I asked her. I was hoping that she was mistaken.

I had envisioned the evening as a sort of trial run, a little stressful, maybe, but pretty much a shakedown cruise. Mistakes would be made. We'd learn from them. And, when opening day arrived, we'd feel like seasoned veterans and handle whatever they threw at us. Suddenly Child's presence turned it into a whole other sort of debut, one I felt completely unprepared for.

"There," she said, pointing to the far wall, "sitting next to that little short guy. Is their dinner almost ready?"

"Oh f*ck," I said. "Yeah, just give me a second."

With as much stealth as I could muster, I slid through the door and walked in a bent-down, crab-like way over to the bar, which was pretty close to the door to the kitchen. I got the attention of the bartender, and said in a whisper, "What's the best cognac you have?"

He pointed.

"Give it to me," I said.

He hesitated, giving me a look that said, what the hell are you doing, this is expensive stuff.

"That's not to cook with," he said.

I responded with one of those menacing looks and two-hand gestures you see in Italian movies, when the gangster is demonstrating what he is going to do to his intended victim, the one who deflowered his daughter who, he thought, was a virgin.

He gave me the cognac, and I sneaked it back into the kitchen.

When I was making the steaks for Julia Child's table, I got a little carried away with the cognac. As I tilted the sauté pan to ignite the sauce, the flame went up above my head. It scorched my eyebrows, cheeks, and eyelashes. Finally I got it to simmer down, and shoved the skillet into the oven for a moment to finish cooking.

It was only then that I realized that everybody in the kitchen was staring at me. I looked over at Henri, who was standing nearby with a Maurice Chevalier-sort of smirk, cigarette dangling from his lower lip.

"Stevie," he said, "you just want to give them a taste, not get them drunk."

At that point I took the steaks out of the oven and put them on the plates Henri had gotten ready with the side dishes. After I added a heaping tablespoonful of sizzling sauce from the sauté pan on each steak, they were ready to go.

"They look perfect," the waitress said, putting them on her tray, and, just as she was walking out the door, she looked back and added, "Almost thought we lost you there."

I was ferociously hot, although I don't know whether it was because I had gotten a bit scorched, or I if I was just frightened and nervous.

The rest of the dinner went ahead without any mishaps. Later, when things calmed down, Henri and I were having a beer, recapping the meal, and reviewing what I could learn from the experience. He did not seem too disappointed in me. Then, just as I was allowing myself to relax, into the kitchen came Julia Child.

She was basketball-player tall, maybe six-two or six-four. And she was accompanied by the short man the waitress had pointed out — her husband Paul. Julia towered over me. I'm only around five-eight, but Paul was even shorter, maybe five-five or five-six. When Paul and Julia were standing side by side, it made this sweetly comic effect, like Mutt and Jeff.

Before Henri or I could say anything, she burst out in that warbly, fluty voice that I knew from TV. "I just wanted to tell you what a delicious dinner we had tonight chez Harvest," she said. "Everything was just perfect. Who made the steaks?"

Henri pointed at me.

I nodded my head. I saw that she was looking at my eyebrows. I glanced down to the fire extinguisher. I looked up at her. She looked down at the fire extinguisher, then back at me.

Here was my one and only chance to get acquainted with this world-famous chef and TV personality, and all I could say was, "This is my first cooking job. When it comes to flambéing, I am sort of a loose cannon."

"Oh, me too," she said. "I am always setting off the sprinklers in the TV studio. But the food was great, delicious bistro cooking. I hope Harvest is very successful."

We thanked her, and I grabbed four crystal old-fashioned glasses and poured her, Paul, Henri, and myself a hearty slug of the good cognac, which was still by the stove. As we drank a toast, Ben Thompson and his wife came in. I gave each of them a cognac, which Thompson took with a look that said, "What the hell are you doing with this bottle?" He then regaled the Childs with a speech about how Henri was such a brilliant chef and mentor, and that Steve was such a promising prodigy, blah, blah, blah.

I left that night knowing I had a job to come to the next day.

And, more important, that Julia Child had liked what I cooked for her.