Separating Fact vs. Fiction in the Life of Julia Child

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From GBH

Cooking legend Julia Child introduced French cuisine to American audiences in 1963 with GBH’s groundbreaking television series, “The French Chef.”

Now the subject of the HBO Max series, “Julia,” GBH explores what’s fact and what’s fiction and how “The French Chef” continues to influence how we eat today with this Q&A virtual panel discussion recorded May 10, 2022.

Moderated by GBH Chief Marketing Officer Tina Cassidy, the panel features Julia’s original producer Russ Morash, Julia’s grand-nephew and author Alex Prud’homme, Bon Appétit and Epicurious Editor-in-Chief Dawn Davis.

00:00 – Intro
04:30 – Julia Child “TRUE or FALSE” flash round
07:45 – Julia’s legacy
10:20 – Background on Julia’s TV kitchen studio
12:00 – Julia’s relationship to feminism
13:59 – What was it like having a meal with Julia?
17:05 – Julia’s adoption of technology
20:32 – Julia was never intimidated
22:19 – Julia branching out beyond French cuisine
24:17 – What was it like working with Julia?
27:35 – The historical accuracy of the HBO Max “Julia” series
37:33 – Alex and Russ on special cookware they still use gifted by Julia
40:46 – Julia’s ability to cook and talk through mistakes
42:00 – HBO Max’s food styling in “Julia”
43:09 – Julia’s favorite meal to cook and eat
49:38 – Did Julia fund “The French Chef” pilot?
52:00 – If you were able to cook a meal for Julia today, what would that meal consist of?

For more content related to Julia’s life and legacy: Stream select episodes of “The French Chef” on GBH Passport:

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  1. Cindy Wilcox on November 25, 2023 at 10:24 pm

    To the best of my knowledge, there were no black production personnel at WGBH, at least in the early to mid 60’s. The character Alice, although portrayed by a very talented performer, is just another attempt to re-write history to accommodate the social engineering of woke ideology. It is offensive and insulting.

    • Wendy on December 1, 2023 at 12:10 am

      I’m sad for you. This character, and a lot of the show, is completely made up and/or just exaggerated from real life to tell deeper stories. I am thrilled watching this great actor. I guess enjoying good story telling is woke. Must be tough to be asleep.

    • Dave DeBarger on December 1, 2023 at 2:43 pm

      I joined the studio crew in 1966. Connie White was the Stage Manager at the time, and for many years thereafter. I learned many things from him, and was proud to (eventually!) rise to stage manager and, later, to Director. (Julia Child & Company was one of my projects.) Bob Wilson was also on the crew, as was another Afro-American whose name escapes me at the moment. Check the records!

    • Basil Chigas on December 1, 2023 at 2:50 pm

      Could you define your understanding of woke ideology ? Perhaps you meant something else.

    • Alex Pirie on December 1, 2023 at 3:41 pm

      There was a Black member of the remote crew, Don White?, ca. 1963-4 but I don’t remember his last name for sure. What I do remember was the international make-up of the bus folk – who at the time did the bulk of WGBH generated major show programming including French Chef, MIT Science Reporter (12 hour days, groan!), Museum Open House, College Sport of the Week, Polo at the Myopia Hunt Club et cetera, et-hausting-cetera. Jerry Gruen, Israeli; Peter Hoving, Dutch; Rolando Lastres, Cuban, Gregg MacDonald and another cameraman (forget his name) both Canadian; me, an American mutt. Don, political and a former paratrooper often had a copy of Jeune Afrique stuck in his back pocket and, when dealing with federal sites or MIT, security eyebrows were raised! Not sure how Russ Morash finagled security clearances for our visits to the mini-reactor in Watertown or the remote radar dome in back of beyond Maine, but they held their noses and let us proceed. The Black presence really took off when we did the studio creative series, On Being Black (I had moved to the shop by that time). Originally there were scripts from Black writers and Black performers – one of whom threw a fit about the lack of Black production crew and things ground to a halt until this was rectified. An interesting history of the next step (along with a few mis-steps!) in social growth at the station was Say Brother. There is a good history of Say Brother and three other station’s similar efforts in Devorah Heitner’s “Black Power TV.”

      • Michael Ambrosino on December 1, 2023 at 4:51 pm

        Was Connie White the name?

        • Alex Pirie on December 1, 2023 at 6:01 pm

          No, the same last name, I think, but a very different person. I remember Connie well, he used to live down the street from me. Don wasn’t with the station very long. Not sure if he was an NEU coop or not.

    • Amy on December 15, 2023 at 1:23 pm

      I agree. While I applaud telling the stories of being a minority in America, adjusting a story to attribute successes creating inaccurate histories undermines those who did actually succeed.

  2. Nathaniel S, Johnson on September 14, 2022 at 8:46 pm

    In my first year as an audio engineer in TV (freshly out of a decade in WGBH radio), I was assigned to “The French Chef.” In those times, an RCA lavalier microphone had to be taped to Julia’s chest, and the cable for then had to be run under her shirt and down below her dress down to the floor, where it was connected to another outgoing cable. I remember Julia kindly offering to help run the cable under her blouse to minimize my shyness and awkwardness during that first session together!

  3. Karen Johnson on September 9, 2022 at 10:43 pm

    Lo, Yes! Ruth Lockwood, also the producer of Joyce Chen Cooks which I think preceded The French Chef. Julia’s original introduction to The French Chef Cookbook, in the very earliest edition, tells the story of the beginning.

  4. Karen Johnson on September 9, 2022 at 10:36 pm

    Thanks, Mike. One of my fondest memories of 419 is Jack’s Food Truck. Judy (then Becker) Matthews found him in the Stop and Shop parking lot and convinced him to stop by the 419 loading dock every day at noon. Julia occasionally joined us on the dock to get her lunch….someone usually offered to hand it up to her so she didn’t have to climb down the ladder, though she was willing and I think did so once in a while. What a wonderful person she was.

  5. Deedee Morss Decker on September 9, 2022 at 7:08 pm

    Julia taped her show every Friday afternoon at Western Avenue. She made 3 different versions of her meal for the day so the audience could see start-to-finish. I was a PA at GBH then and enjoyed eating her finished 3 meals when the taping was done. My aunt and Julia were classmates at Smith and in each others weddings. So I did know Julia a bit outside the studio.

  6. Lo Hartnett on September 5, 2022 at 10:34 am

    Bravo Michael. I didn’t throw my shoes, just yelled so loudly Paul asked me to calm down. Vivid memories of Julia, Avis and RUTH in our fund raising office 2-3x a week going thru viewer mail and production notes.

  7. Michael Ambrosino on September 2, 2022 at 9:24 pm

    All of NET programming could be considered syndication. Stations offered series to NET. If accepted, the master tapes would be sent to Ann Arbor and distribution tapes would be recorded and mailed to major stations.
    After running the show, each station would mail their tape to a designated station who had a week to run it and then mail it to a designated station until all stations had their run and all the tapes would end up back at Ann Arbor.
    Michael Ambrosino

    • " class="url" rel="ugc external nofollow">JACK CALDWELL on December 8, 2023 at 4:30 pm

      Spot on, Michael
      Ann Arbor – location of the NET (National Educational Television distribution Center – part of WNET, Channel 13 in New York) pre-PBS.

      The center was the largest videotape duplication center in the world. Many producers came to Ann Arbor to edit videotape. (a special razor equipped splicer cut between frames made visible with stainless steel grains in alcohol. Then a mylar tape was used to attach the tape ends. The master tapes were then stored in a special vault equipped with major fire suppression equipment. Kinescope and original 16mm film processing was outsourced to three major film processing companies. Both film and videotape were “bicycled’ through the Ann Arbor facility — which was 3-M’s largest single customer.

      In any given day, there were 10,000+/- tapes or film cans in circulation. Each unit made about eight stops before returning for inspection and cleaning.

      The building burned to the ground decades ago. The fire suppression equipment had not been maintained – as distribution shifted from NET to PBS — and satellite distribution became the norm.

      I was privileged to open and manage this facility prior to joining WGBH in 1966.

      • Alex Pirie on December 8, 2023 at 4:40 pm

        lol, this would be the perfect place to insert the recording of Julia demonstrating how to edit 3″ video tape with a cleaver, chewing gum, and a rolling pin!

  8. Michael Esty on September 2, 2022 at 6:07 pm

    I remember when they moved shooting Julia Child to 419 Western Ave. Although I worked for B&G, I was responsible for assisting all with the show. Security for Julia & her husband as well as her handler. All very nice. Working as a Carpenter / Painter with maintenance when Fran Mahard or Co Bennett sent down a piece of scenery I would install if nothing major. If Julia wanted something at any moment I would handle it for her. She was a sweet lady. Then I would be entertained by Frank Lane and Greg MacDonald ( what a pare ). Great people all. I miss those days but relish the memories.

  9. Jim Lewis on September 2, 2022 at 2:14 pm

    I have told this story many times, and it remains one of my favorites. When I managed WGBY, one of Julia’s classmates, Charlotte Turgeon, arranged for her to do a major donor event at the station the afternoon following her honorary doctorate ceremony at Smith College. I picked Charlotte, Julia, and Paul up from a hotel in Northampton and began driving the twenty miles south to Springfield. Paul sat alongside me (sulking, because he didn’t want to be there), while Charlotte and Julia sat in back, Julia immediately behind me.

    The two women chattered back and forth about food during the drive (Charlotte was then US editor of LaRousse.) In her loud voice, Julie said, “And these food faddists? Like vegetarians! Can you imagine serving a meal at a dinner party without meat?”

    Following this outburst, she grew quiet, and the hair on the back of my head stood up. Suddenly she pounded on my shoulder, “Oh, dear, you’re not one of THOSE, are you?”

    I laughed so hard it was all I could do to drive in a straight line. She was a perfect example of what you see is what you get and a delight to be around.

  10. Simon Campbell-Jones on August 28, 2022 at 8:20 am

    Great to hear your sensible comments, Michael. As usual!!

  11. Wendy Davidson on August 27, 2022 at 1:44 pm

    Michael Ambrosino, I couldn’t agree more! I haven’t been able to get through the series to see how badly it continued.

  12. Ralph Schuetz on August 26, 2022 at 9:54 pm

    It was great to see your “historical note”, Jack. My own little piece of Julia Child history is that my very first assignment when I started working on the studio crew under Al Potter and Connie White was tearing apart the old kitchen that had been used for Julia’s black and white productions.

    When I left the crew to manage the tape library I well remember all those tape bicycles. As a major producing station, I also remember shipping WGBH master tapes to Ann Arbor, and even flying to Ann Arbor once on the spur of the moment to pick up a (25-pound each) 90 minute quad master that they had mis-shipped. Those were the days.

    THESE days, at age 80, I’m back to my WGBH roots, running camera in my senior community’s television studio. Actually, many days I’m actually operating all three cameras because, since COVID, they haven’t recruited any new operators. And I’m now the chairman of our bi-weekly concert series and also do the stage lighting. I’m happy as a clam!

    Much as I hate to keep seeing the names of some of my long-ago contemporaries and friends like Karl Lorencic and many other passing away, I am so grateful for the camaraderie I feel with everyone commenting and recalling memories here. And I think I might have written once before that the lanyard on which I wear my senior community nametag is the one I got at the last WGBH Reunion. I may only have worked at the station for a few years before working for PBS for the next 32, but I will always cherish them.

  13. Jack Caldwell on August 26, 2022 at 3:54 pm

    An historical note might be appropriate here. Prior to joining WGBH in 1966, I was the new vp of distribution for NET (National Educational Television). This was pre-PBS and NET was based in NY. The engineering and distribution operations were based in Ann Arbor, MI.
    This facility was the largest videotape duplicating center in the world. (so I was told). We became 3M’s single largest videotape customer. On any given day, we had 10,000 tapes or kinescopes bicycling from Ann Arbor to station after station and back to Ann Arbor for cleaning and checking and back out. Every public TV station (then ETV stations) received their national programming this way. Point – syndication was the heartbeat of all national programming and it was NET that was the early lead. Then the WGBH led northeast stations organized as EEN, the Eastern Educational Network. And “long-line” telephone /video services became available.

    The “Journey” began back in 1950 when WOI in Ames, Iowa originated an experimental signal. The first videotape machine was unveiled by Ampex in 1956….and the “beat goes on.”

  14. Leah Weisse on August 26, 2022 at 2:21 pm

    If anyone is interested, I did a very brief, very cursory look at how quickly the French Chef gained a national audience. Here is a quote from the 1963 WGBH Annual Report:

    Annual Report Fiscal 1963 WGBH-TV Channel 2, p. 2
    ‘Early in 1963 we launched what has become one of the two or three most popular programs ever put on educational television, THE FRENCH CHEF, with Julia Child. Without benefit of NET distribution, this series is now being seen weekly in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Durham, N.H., Augusta and Orono, Me., Schenectady, Pittsburgh, Sacramento and San Francisco, and may soon spread to other cities.’

    By the time of the 1965 Annual Report: ’81 stations across the country that now air the series.’

    I especially liked that Hills Bros. coffee gave money so it could be seen in San Francisco, very early on!

    Leah Weisse, One of the archivists at GBH Archives And Thank you all for your continued support and knowledge that helps us!

  15. Michael Ambrosino (1956-1976) on August 19, 2022 at 3:47 pm

    So much is false about that series I threw my shoes at the TV.

  16. Michael Ambrosino on August 19, 2022 at 3:43 pm

    NET was not interested in a Cooking Show.
    Hartford Gunn, the Station Manager went so far as to invite the wives of the top three executives of NET to the evening the show went to color.
    WGBH distributed the show to Dallas and Denver (I think) and the ratings and reviews helped change NET’s decision.

  17. Julie Guenther on August 14, 2022 at 12:26 pm

    I’ve just found this video and regret that I didn’t have the chance to pose a question I’ve been wondering about. In the HBO Max series, the fictitious producer, Alice Naman, seems to revolutionize the industry by being (apparently) the first person at the station to conceive of syndicating a program, much to the befuddled amazement of Hunter Fox, the President of the station. I suspect most or all of that concept was fiction. Could someone please confirm?

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