It’s hard to forget Julia Child.
More than a decade after her death, those who knew her well — and those who only felt as though they did, through her cooking shows and books — can still hear her tinny voice in their heads, coaxing them into the kitchen with a joie de vivre that made French cuisine irresistibly approachable to Americans.
Starting this year, we’ll have a new way to remember her.
The foundation Child established in the 1990s is launching an annual award in her honor that it hopes will rival the existing suite of culinary accolades in its singularity and prestige. The first Julia Child Award will be bestowed this August on one person whose work in the culinary realm is, to put it succinctly, uniquely Julia-like.
This culinary leader must be an educator, a skilled communicator, a mentor and an innovator, someone who’s charting a gastronomic course to greatness and bringing the American public along. He or she must be known for integrity and must be someone who breaks down cultural barriers and changes the way Americans approach food and drink.
“There’s not a huge plethora of people who have all of those things,” said Tanya Wenman Steel, who as director of the first award program was charged with creating a short list of contenders.
Despite the exacting criteria, Steel, whose culinary background includes editing stints at Epicurious.com, Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit and Food & Wine, already has a working list of 10 who could fill the bill. She’ll whittle that to five by the time a jury meets in June to select the winner, whose name will be announced around Child’s 103rd birthday on Aug. 15. The names of nominees will be kept secret, because they could be considered for the next annual award, and so on.
The winner will be honored at a gala in Washington on Oct. 22. Instead of a cash prize, the winner will receive a $50,000 grant to “pay it forward” to a food-related nonprofit group.
To be held at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, the gala will kick off an inaugural American Food History Weekend at that institution, where Child’s kitchen has been on display since 2002 as the centerpiece of a growing food exhibit.
“This is sort of our coming-out party,” said Eric Spivey, chairman of the Board of Trustees for the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts, which has been quietly managing Child’s legacy from its headquarters in Santa Barbara, Calif.
True to Child’s legacy, her eponymous foundation has been mulling every detail of this award and its announcement for more than a decade.
Spivey notes that it took Child about that long to launch her first book, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” published in 1961. Likewise, he said, the foundation has “been doing our own 10 years of research and writing and testing . . . to launch something impactful, which is the Julia Child Award.”
Child created the nonprofit foundation in 1995 to carry on the kind of culinary work she spent the last half of her life championing. (Her lawyer wanted to shorten the name to the Julia Child Foundation, but Child wanted the words “gastronomy” and “culinary” included — “she insisted,” Spivey said.)
Though it had some seed money, Spivey said, the foundation was basically dormant until Child’s death, two days before her 92nd birthday, in 2004. Spivey became a friend of Child’s after she moved to Santa Barbara late in her life, and he had been planning to host a party for Child’s birthday that year, with friends such as cookbook editor Judith Jones in attendance. He said the event turned into “a celebration of her life.”
Upon her death, royalties from sales of Child’s cookbooks and DVDs began flowing to the foundation, which has used the money to grant more than $1 million to like-minded organizations and universities. Grants have benefited diverse causes in gastronomy, from Les Dames d’Escoffier International’s Legacy Awards to a high school in New York focused on food and finance.
Spivey said the foundation had considered establishing an award in Child’s honor soon after her death but decided instead to work on building the nonprofit group’s infrastructure and long-term goals. Because Child had no children, the foundation holds the rights to her works and likeness, protecting them from unauthorized use.
Unlike today’s brand of celebrity chef, Child was adamant that her name not be used for commercial purposes unless they were educational in nature. Part of the foundation’s charter, therefore, is to stand sentry against someone’s launching a line of Julia Child kitchen widgets, for example.
“It’s another classic, unique aspect of Julia: It wasn’t about the money for her,” Spivey said. But, “because we’re not going to promote Julia’s name by selling a product, we still want to keep Julia’s legacy very much alive.”
To that end, the award aims to be an annual reminder of the qualities Child epitomized while recognizing those who are carrying her culinary torch into this century.
This first recipient will set a powerful tone for an honor set to rival the food-focused accolades bestowed each year by the James Beard Foundation and the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Though both organizations give lifetime achievement awards (and the IACP even gives an award in Julia Child’s name to a first-time cookbook author), this will be the only award given by Child’s foundation, and to someone whose work represents her very essence.
“I can’t think of any other award in the food world that goes to one person,” said Steel, a James Beard Award winner herself.
Choosing the Julia Child Award’s first recipient is a jury composed of food-world aficionados who knew Child personally: Darra Goldstein, founding editor of Gastronomica; Russ Parsons, food editor and columnist at the Los Angeles Times; New England chef Jasper White; and Nancy Silverton, co-owner of Osteria Mozza and other restaurants in California and Singapore. Jim Dodge, director of specialty culinary programs at Bon Appétit Management, heads the group.
Dodge said the jury’s personal connections to Child are important “because the award reflects so much of who Julia was.”
Each of the jurors contributed an initial list of candidates that Steel added to hers and has since been painstakingly narrowing. Steel, who credits Child’s television shows with teaching her to cook at the ripe age of 7, said she has pulled Child’s distinctive voice into her head often while considering who should receive the first award.
The recipient doesn’t necessarily need to be a chef or have a TV show, but he or she should have national prominence and be “a real difference maker,” Steel said. Although gender, age and region are being considered, she said, those factors are secondary.
“I don’t want to have any specifics,” Steel said when pressed for them. “I really want to keep to the spirit of the award and make sure that person embodies those virtues and assets.”
Dodge, who appeared twice on the show “In Julia’s Kitchen With Master Chefs” when he was a teacher at the New England Culinary Institute, said he is often struck by the difference between chefs who are on television today and Child, who was both gentle educator and constant student. She wasn’t about being in the limelight so much as using it to teach — and sharing it with others. Shows regularly featured Child learning from master chefs and bakers or cooking alongside chef-friends such as Jacques Pépin.
“She really wanted you to go away learning a technique, a skill. It just so happened that she was entertaining,” Dodge said.
He said the award — and its lofty criteria — will serve as important reminders to the next generation of cooks as they set goals for their careers.
Since its arrival at the National Museum of American History in 2002, Child’s kitchen has opened the doors to a growing series of food exhibits and programs. The kitchen was revamped to anchor a larger exhibit on “Food: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000” that opened in 2012. Other presentations chronicle what Child was up against — namely convenience foods and the rise of snacking — while trying to get home cooks back into their kitchens in the last half of the century.
Also in 2012, John Gray came on as director, and the museum celebrated what would have been Child’s 100th birthday with a series of events. Spivey said the museum became an even stronger ally for expanding Child’s legacy.
The award provides an opportunity for home cooks to remember Child anew, whether they grew up cooking with her on television or stumbled more recently into her kitchen at the Smithsonian in Washington.
Curator Paula Johnson, who helped bring Child’s kitchen from her home in Cambridge, Mass., to the history museum, said she still marvels at the way the exhibit draws in visitors of all ages.
She watches children mesmerized by the black-and-white cooking show excerpts and Child’s distinctive voice, discovering her for the first time. And she regularly hears from older visitors who have Child to thank for their return to the kitchen.
The exhibit, and Child’s memory, received another boost when the film “Julie & Julia” came out in 2009, starring Meryl Streep. That’s not to mention the “Julia Child Remixed” video that auto-tuned her voice into a song and garnered 2 million views on YouTube after PBS released it for her 100th birthday.
At the museum, which draws almost 5 million visitors a year, Gray said Child “has longevity to her that breeds this familiarity.”
“You go down there to watch the video play of Julia Child,” he said, “and there’s a group of teenagers.”
Correction: A previous version of this article included a photo caption that misidentified the chef pictured with Julia Child in 1976. It is then-White House chef Henry Haller.
Pipkin, a freelance journalist in Alexandria, blogs at ThinkAboutEat.com.
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