Julia Child on What Makes a Great Cook

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Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 15 2012 3:47 PM

The Real Test of a Good Chef Is…

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Julia Child prized a well-roasted chicken.

Photo credit: PBS Pressroom (Courtesy of Paul Child)

Today is Julia Child’s centennial, and though the affable, enthusiastic, and occasionally clumsy queen of the kitchen may have left us back in 2004, the love of cooking she inspired in millions of Americans lives on. Many of Child’s friends have marked the occasion by remembering favorite dishes they made together, while more distant acolytes have offered up favorite Child recipes that have been in their repertoires for years. (Melissa Clark at the New York Times, for instance, suggests a gussied-up version of the classic French showstopper île flottante.)

J. Bryan Lowder J. Bryan Lowder

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.

But if Child were still around to plan her birthday dinner, she would undoubtedly have her own menu preferences. Which tests of culinary acumen would she ask of a chef?

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As a first course, she might have chosen an egg dish. Since it’s a special occasion, let’s say a cheese soufflé. Child devoted a whole chapter of her two-volume masterpiece, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, to the humble egg; and two of the first three episodes of the ground-breaking PBS series The French Chef involved whites and yolks (for proper omelets and elegant soufflés). Child was a great advocate of rescuing the egg from the provincial “breakfast category,” so the versatile protein should hold prominence of place on this fantasy menu.

For the main course, there’s no question: “The real test of a good chef,” Child famously said, “is a perfectly roasted chicken.” She issued this decree on her television show, and she’s right, of course, that a crispy, juicy bird scented with garlic, lemon and rosemary is no mean achievement. As a side dish, a classic French vegetable like string beans or steamed asparagus topped with a velvety dollop of beurre blanc will similarly test your skills: In her memoir My Life in France, Child describes the sauce of wine, shallots, and butter as a crucial measure of her own developing powers. 

For dessert? Child again has the chef-testing, mouth-watering answer: A great cook, she once declared, should possess “the ability to invent hot chocolate truffles.”

We couldn’t agree more. Happy Birthday, Julia.

UPDATE: Bob Spitz—author of the newly released biography Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Childwrote to inform us that another favorite test of Child's was mayonaise. She's credited with saying: "What makes a great chef is the ability to master mayonnaise—and rescue it when it separates." We recommend using it on a roast chicken sandwich for lunch the next day. 

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