Learning to Cook Dinner for Julia Child

A food writer gets his prime opportunity

The chance of a lifetime — cooking for Julia Child.

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.