Julia Child, America's foremost apostle of gourmet French cooking whose television programs and cookbooks helped elevate the epicurean standards of a generation, died yesterday morning at an assisted living center in Montecito, Calif., where she lived.

She had kidney failure, her niece, Philadelphia Cousins, told the Associated Press. She died two days before her 92nd birthday.

Child broadcast her culinary gospel to an audience of millions, beginning in 1963 as the host of "The French Chef," a highly acclaimed public television program that launched a career of more than 40 years on public and commercial television. She wrote best-selling cookbooks, the first of which, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," was said at its publication in 1961 to have been the definitive English language work on French cooking.

For aspiring chefs from coast to coast, she took the mystery and intimidation out of French cooking, explaining her meal preparations and procedures in simple and down-to-earth terms that encouraged a new spirit of adventure and creativity in American kitchens. "Any literate person with a reasonable amount of manual dexterity can concoct praiseworthy French meals," Child insisted.

On television, the 6-foot-2 Child had a superb sense of showmanship, a cheery exuberance and a delightful lack of pretense that endeared her to millions and made her a national folk hero. She often made mistakes in her kitchen, and these gaffes were not edited out of the show. This helped create a personal bond between Child and her audiences, most of whom had made similar mistakes in the kitchen.

Her aim, Child once said, was "to have things happen as they naturally do, such as mousse refusing to leave the mold, potatoes sticking to the skillet, Apple Charlotte slowly collapsing. One of the secrets of cooking is to learn to correct something if you can, and bear with it if you cannot."

Such was her fame and influence that in November 2001, when Child left her Massachusetts home of 42 years to return to her native California, she gave her 20-by-14-foot kitchen to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. It opened to the public two years ago. Last year, President Bush awarded Child a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

Rayna Green, curator of the "Bon Appetit! Julia Child's Kitchen at the Smithsonian" exhibition, said in an interview yesterday with Washingtonpost.com that Child convinced many people that cooking could be fun. "And that even cooking they imagined to be difficult . . . as in French cooking . . . could be easy and wonderful. She would never have pretended to introduce French cooking to those who already knew some version of it. She just wanted people to enjoy cooking and enjoy being in the kitchen."

Child's first cooking show was broadcast in 1962 on a trial basis on Boston's public television station, WGBH-TV. In 1963, she became a regular fixture on the station's programming schedule. This was when the Kennedys were in the White House, and the style and elegance of President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy captured the nation's imagination. They had a French chef of their own, Rene Verdon, and America was eager to learn about French cooking.

Within a few years, Child's show was being carried by 104 public television stations throughout the nation, and it became a prototype for dozens of televised cooking programs that followed in subsequent decades. It won the George Foster Peabody Award for distinguished achievement in educational television in 1965 and an Emmy Award in 1966. Time magazine did a cover story on Child in 1966, and her cookbook sales soared, opening a new vein in the book publishing industry. Forty-nine cookbooks were published in the United States in 1961 when Child and two colleagues released "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." Forty years later, more than 1,700 new cookbooks are published each year.

By the 1970s and 1980s, Child had written more cookbooks, had three more television shows, and wrote columns for McCall's magazine and Parade. Three more PBS series appeared in the 1990s: "Cooking With the Master Chefs" (1992), "Julia's Kitchen With Master Chefs" (1995) and "Baking with Julia" (1996).

Ten years ago, she joined fellow television chef Jacques Pepin for the 1994 PBS special, "Julia Child & Jacques Pepin: Cooking in Concert" and a 1996 sequel, "More Cooking in Concert." Pepin became an important collaborator with her in the past 20 years. On their shows, he did most of the cooking, while she looked on and cooed dramatically.

Julia McWilliams was born in Pasadena, Calif. As a child she seldom entered the family kitchen. "Gray lamb with mint," was a typical family dinner, she later recalled. She graduated from Smith College and worked during the 1930s as a publicist and copywriter for W.&J. Sloan furniture stores in New York and Los Angeles.

During World War II she was a file clerk with the Office of Strategic Services, first in Washington and later in Sri Lanka and China. There she met Paul Child, an Office of Strategic Services mapmaker and connoisseur of fine food and wine. They spent their spare hours together sampling the delicacies of Asian cookery.

After the war, she returned to California, where she took her first cooking lesson, at the Hillcliffe School of Cookery in Beverly Hills. In 1946, she married Child, who had become a Foreign Service officer. They lived in Washington until 1948, when he was assigned to Paris as an exhibits officer for the U.S. Information Agency.

Only then did Julia Child sample French cooking, and it was a new and revealing experience for her. "I didn't know such food existed," she recalled years later.

She took French lessons at the Berlitz language school to refresh her college French and then enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu, the famed Parisian cooking school. Later she took private cooking lessons from master chef Max Bugnard.

Through mutual friends, she met Simone Beck and later Louisette Bertholle, two French women who had been considering writing a French cookbook aimed at an American readership. Neither knew English, so they asked Child to join them in the project. She liked the idea but was not ready for such an undertaking.

Instead, Child suggested that they start a cooking school, which they did. It was called L'Ecole des Trois Gourmandes, and classes were held in her apartment on the Left Bank for about $5 a lesson.

Child later accompanied her husband on Foreign Service assignments in Marseille, France, Bonn and Oslo, where she also operated cooking schools. Eventually she decided she was ready to write the cookbook. In collaboration with Beck and Bertholle, she spent years researching and writing. In her previous readings of French cookbooks, Child had been unable to find sufficient detail. She vowed that their cookbook would correct this flaw.

The first draft contained more than 900 pages of the most detailed information on French sauces and French poultry alone. Their editor pronounced it unpublishable. A revised, shortened version took several more years to produce, and that manuscript was turned down by their original publisher, Houghton Mifflin. But an astute editor at Alfred A. Knopf saw merit in it, and in 1961, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" was published. It reflected more than a decade of learning and experimenting with French cooking by Child and her colleagues.

The 40th anniversary edition of the book, which has sold millions of copies, was published in 2001. It was popular not only for the doors that it opened into a new world of cuisine for American cooks, but also for its common sense approach to food preparation. As well as recipes for such dishes as veal Prince Orloff and chocolate souffle, there were tips on easy ways to peel onions and how best to remove water from scallops. Suggested menus included both haute cuisine and cuisine bourgeois. Don't cut corners, use the freshest and best ingredients you can find and follow directions, Child urged her readers. "The essence of French cooking is that everything is supposed to taste like itself."

Publication of the cookbook coincided with Paul Child's retirement from the Foreign Service, and the couple settled in Cambridge, Mass., because, Julia Child said, "there are always lots of nifty people in university communities." She said she planned to "cook, write and teach."

A friend the couple had known in Paris was working for Boston's educational television station, WGBH-TV, and he suggested to Child that she appear on the station's book review program to promote the cookbook. She accepted and during the course of her appearance beat some egg whites in a copper bowl to illustrate a point. This prompted dozens of requests for a cooking program, and the station asked Child if she'd try it on an experimental basis, which she agreed to do. To the television audiences, she was not only a good cook; she was good theater. Her show became a fixture after three trials, and it was not long before her trademark signoff, "This is Julia Child. Bon appetit," became known to millions.

Over the following decades, she became the elder statesman and high priestess of gourmet cooking in America. Her books and shows helped create opportunities for aspiring French chefs everywhere.

Thirty public celebrations, stretching across the United States from Boston to Los Angeles and extending over a six-month period, marked her 80th birthday, on Aug. 15, 1992. Her cooking style also was parodied by Dan Aykroyd on "Saturday Night Live."

With vintner Robert Mondavi and others, Child founded the American Institute of Wine and Food in 1981 to "advance the understanding, appreciation and quality of wine and food." She revised her cookbooks to take into account the invention and wide availability of the food processor, and she continued to write.

Other cookbooks by Child included "The French Chef Cookbook" (1968), "From Julia Child's Kitchen" (1975), "Julia Child & Company (1978)," "Cooking with the Master Chefs" (1993), "Baking With Julia" (1996) and "Jacques and Julia Cooking at Home" (1999).

Paul Child died in 1994. The couple had no children.

Julia Child was outspoken in her criticism of what she called the "nutritional zealots," who in the late 1980s began warning ominously of the dietary dangers of the likes of butter, cream, red meat and salt. "I'm afraid if we don't get over this terrible food fear hysteria, it will be the death of gastronomy," she said.

An unhappy stomach, she insisted, would be a greater health hazard.

Longtime host of "French Chef."Julia Child shows a salade nicoise she prepared in the kitchen of her vacation home in southern France in 1978.