Flashcards, shoestring budgets and butter: How “The French Chef” came to be
“Warming Up Julia Child: The Remarkable Figures who Shaped a Legend” is an upcoming book by author Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, out April 5. This excerpt from the book — which is packed with passages from letters between Child and those closest to her — details the lead up to the first episode of “The French Chef.”
In late November, Julia had asked Bill [Koshland, former Knopf president] to let her know the last six months’ sales figures for Mastering. These he didn’t yet have, but he did know that the total sales since publication had reached 16,110, and that orders at the Book of the Month Club were now roughly 6,400 and likely to rise to at least 12,000. All was not business, however. He and Julia had been planning a special meal at Le Pavillon for when the Childs were next in New York. Since reserving a good table required a prestigious name on the reservation, Bill wrote, “I think maybe I can manage to get Alfred to use his name.”54 Clearly both understood, though at different levels, Alfred Knopf’s importance in New York City.
The three early shows of The French Chef served as Julia’s audition, and over the next months she waited to learn if she had gotten the part. In late November 1962, word finally came. Julia received a call from WGBH that the station “would definitely go ahead with the half hour TV programs, starting in January.” She immediately wrote to Simca with the good news: “They are coming to do a color photo of me in the kitchen, which will be on the front page of the Boston Globe TV Sunday magazine—so I guess it is serious. Now, if we don’t get some good publicity for the book out of this, and sell a great many copies so we can spend a great deal more money, I shall be mad!”55
On December 18, she wrote Simca that she was awaiting “WGBH types” coming over in the afternoon to talk over the television programs. “They had originally intended to use the 3 programs we did this summer, but have now decided to do all new ones. 26. We shall do at least 2 a day, and perhaps 4 in two days—I don’t know how that would work!
Related: What Julia Child’s favorite soup recipe teaches us about the art of cooking
But Paul has bought a rowing machine, so I am gathering strength. Anyway, if we can get them all taped by April 1st, that will be wonderful.” 56
“Since both Julia and Paul Child are extremely fond of the original title I have capitulated. Let us call it: THE FRENCH CHEF now and forever!”
The show still lacked a name. A title under consideration in mid- December, “Looking at Cooking,” caused Julia to write a strong letter of protest to Robert Larsen. This proposed title and its variations were to her mind, “cheesy, little womanish, cute, amateurish.” She wanted what she had been informally calling the show since at least September: “THE FRENCH CHEF.” Julia argued that the word chef was as appli- cable to a woman as it was to a man, “is short, to the point, dignified, glamorous, and appeals to men as well as women.” 57 With that, Larsen relented, writing in a memo to Russ Morash, “After having racked our collective brains for weeks to find a good alternative title for the French Chef we have decided that a good alternative title does not seem to be available. And since both Julia and Paul Child are extremely fond of the original title I have capitulated. Let us call it: THE FRENCH CHEF now and forever!”58 Ruth Lockwood’s initials were on the list of those copied on the memo, signifying that she would continue working with Julia on the show.
Chef Julia Child posing w. assorted rolling pins. (Lee Lockwood/Getty Images)
Once production was underway, Julia wrote Simca about Ruth: “There is a very nice girl, Ruth Lockwood, who is about my age, and is the asis- stant [sic] director. She and I work together all the time, and she rehearses with me. Is also very interested in cooking, and never moves without THE BOOK. She is just fine, and devoted to the series. How lucky! All is done on a shoestring, and there is no one to clean up but Ruth and me, and that dear Paul who comes for the afternoon taping and then remains to wash the dishes.” Ruth worked out a system of using flash cards, each giving the task and the time allotted. Julia gave an example: “BROWNING CHICKEN, 5 min” was held up for her to see by one of the crew. After that “the chap also has little cards saying 5, or 4, or 1 or 1/2 to show how many minutes there are left.”59
As the months went on, Julia kept Koshland in the loop. She and Paul had gone to California to spend the Christmas holidays with her sister, Dort. As 1963 began, Bill wrote, “How good it was hearing your voice in California and then to have a note from you to greet me upon my return to the office this morning.” Continuing, he revealed what Julia had related on her call, “I’m delighted with the details as to the TV cooking program and your fierce schedule of making the tapes. What channel is it in Boston? What station?” Koshland then said something that clearly pleased Julia: “Do give me much more by way of details so I can pass word along to the salespeople.”60
A little over a week later, he had good news to report. “Don’t look now, but the phone rang today and my friend Allan Ullman at the Book-of- the-Month Club called to say (are you sitting down?) that the total orders received thus far from the mail order campaign are somewhat in excess of 35,000 copies. I haven’t recovered yet! At the moment they are some 18,000 behind in unfilled orders and the end is not yet in sight. Three cheers for all of us, and a happy New Year to you.+ Paul & Avis.”61
Julia was thrilled: “Can it be true? After you have digested and confirmed it a bit more, tell me again.” She added, “Avis says she’s not surprised!” In his letter confirming the 35,000 copies, Bill wrote, “Well, it just couldn’t have happened to a group of nicer people is all I can say.” Julia had asked for a subscription to the club’s mailing list. She added a request by Avis, always on the alert for ways to publicize Mastering, that Bill push Book of the Month Club to give more publicity by mentioning the book in their monthly magazine.62 Julia’s request was easy to arrange; but Koshland was not able to honor the one by Avis. He wrote that there was nothing in the contract with BOM that justified it, adding, “There’s a mystique about these things think we can leave that to the experts!” 63
As Julia prepared for the tapings of The French Chef to begin on January 23, her hope, clearly expressed to Bill Koshland, was that the show would become a major marketing tool for Mastering. With Book of the Month Club distributing it for their members, future sales were promising, but Julia was eager for Knopf to sell more books in bookstores, as the proceeds from BOM were a meager $.50 per copy.
“Julia clearly did not want The French Chef to be regarded as a program fit only for women who did not work outside the home. She had pushed WGBH to schedule it in the evening for the southern New England audience, and now New York needed prodding.”
Promoting this, Julia gave Bill the schedule of the show and followed with, “If any bookstores wanted to put THE BOOK in the window saying ‘This week’s recipe FROM THE FRENCH CHEF, “Beef Bourgui- gnon”.’ [sic] That would not be a bad idea, would it? (We’d send schedule and page numbers for the weekly change.)” She was also eager to promote the show in New York. Currently the plan was for Channel 13 to show it midafternoon on Wednesdays. Julia clearly did not want The French Chef to be regarded as a program fit only for women who did not work outside the home. She had pushed WGBH to schedule it in the evening for the southern New England audience, and now New York needed prodding. She suggested that if “2 dozen people wrote in and said WE WANT THE FRENCH CHEF, or that great French cooking program what’s-its-name, shown in the evening so we can see it—perhaps they might.”65
Julia Child in her kitchen (Aaron Rapoport/CORBIS OUTLINE/Corbis via Getty Images)
On January 26, 1963, Paul announced to Charlie, “Life is speeded up.” With this, he wrote of Ruth, gave her a title, and conveyed the nature of her work. He gave Julia’s program for rehearsals first at home. They were “with either Ruth Lockwood (Production Assistant for THE FRENCH CHEF) or me, holding the stop-watch.” Following this, “there are practice sessions, w/ just Julie & Ruth” at the studio’s kitchen in the electric building, “fol- lowed by dry-runs w/ the Producer and the lighting and the camera crews, during which certain parts are rehearsed several times, often changed as better action is invented.”
As Paul continued, he labeled the taping as “a blitz-type operation.” For- tunately, he and Julia could rely on their earlier experiences: “We have had to lead scheduled & disciplined lives for a long time in my Foreign Service life, so this is new only in respect to Julie’s proffesion [sic] dominating it rather than mine.” This was not for him a time of soul searching, for he had no desire to crawl out “from under the layers of illusion which separate me from THE FACTS. I rather enjoy it down under here at the moment & I don’t propose to let in any more light & air than I can deal with.” Little did he likely know how deeply he would become involved in the making of each episode.
Want more great food writing and recipes? Subscribe to Salon Food’s newsletter.
One pleasant connection linked Paul to his own past. He told Charlie that the prepared food at the end of the show was displayed for the camera on a well-set table with “the handsome” accessories furnished “courtesy of Design Research . . . A fresh table-setting for each of the 26 shows.” Above these words, he wrote, “Thompson [the store’s owner] turns out to be a former student of mine at Avon!”66
Once the tapings for the first full season began, Paul was fully engaged in Julia’s work. And fortunately for a historian, he left a rich record. In early February, after twelve tapings, he wrote to Charlie, “These evenings when other folk are at the movies, or the symphony, or lectures, find Julie & me in our kitchen—me w/ stop-watch in hand, and Julie at the stove—timing the various sections of the next two shows. Over and over and over, with critical comments, and with suggestions for new language or new demonstration methods. This all counts strongly in the final filming. The engineers & cameramen say they have never seen a show so thoroughly prepared before.” Paul described the diagram he had devised that the crew had found “particularly impressive.” It showed the stoves, shelves, and sink, “listing on them every single piece of equipment, and every bit of food, spice, flavors, liquids, spoons, dishes, oven-temperatures and so on.”
Before the filming,Ruth Lockwood and Julia wrote specific labels for each program.
It was a good method, but it wasn’t foolproof. Offering a dramatic example, Paul wrote, “In the very mid-stream, w/ cameras turning, lights lit, every second being ticked off the other day, lo and behold! Julie reaches for the butter, supposed to be on Shelf #2, lefthand side, glass dish—only to find in the dish a piece of paper saying ‘BUTTER.’ It had been moved to the refrigerator because it had gotten too soft during the rehearsal.” Paul praised Julia’s improvisational skills, her “real pro’s imperturbability when the chips are down.”67 Julia described to Simca what she had actually done. Looking at the camera, she said, “Merde alors, forgot the butter, always forget something.” She went to the refrigerator on the set, pulled out the butter carton to find it had only a tiny amount. When a moment came when the camera was off her, she “was able to mouth an anguished ‘BUTTER’ to the floor manager, who snuck into the frig, with trembling fingers peeled paper of[f] a piece of butter, and snuck it into the work table, with no camera spotting him.”68 To Charlie, Paul put it this way, quoting what was likely said on the set, “we lose 10 years w/ every show.”69
The initial program was to air on February 11, 1963. Paul told Charlie that he and Julia were going to view it at Ruth Lockwood’s home and would be joined there by others from WGBH.70
To read more about Julia Child and the supporters and confidantes who made her the legend she is today, be sure to pick up a copy of “Warming Up Julia Child: The Remarkable Figures Who Shaped a Legend” when it is released on April 5.
Read more stories about Julia Child: