August 10, 2009

"Julie and Julia." A movie, a legendary chef, a life lesson.

As every foodie knows by now, this weekend was the much anticipated opening of the film "Julie and Julia" starring the magnificent Meryl Streep as the legendary Julia Child.

Embracing the recent hype over the film, the Institute of Culinary Education in New York designed a one day class entitled "Cooking with Julia: A Film, Cooking Class, and French Supper." Julia Child taught classes at her friend Peter Kump's New York Cooking School between 1975 and 2000, before it was renamed the Institute of Culinary Education.

I was sold! As soon as I saw the listing, I immediately called and reserved a much coveted spot in the class. Last night 15 of us first gathered at the theatre to watch the movie and then proceeded to the Institute of Culinary Education to try our hands at numerous recipes from Julia's cookbook "Mastering The Art of French Cooking." Dinner and a movie has never been so exciting!

However, the event began on a bit of a sour note. Our reserved movie tickets were delivered late and all of us had to sit in the front row of the crowded theatre. Many in the class were very vocally displeased. (Admittedly, I had already seen the film on opening night so I leaned as far back as possible and enjoyed the show again!) After the movie we walked over to the culinary school and discovered the elevators in the building were out of commission. Instead of a quick ride up to the 12th floor we took the old fashioned route and walked. At this point several students were not only displeased but quite out of breath. I figured that after an unexpected workout, I was now allowed an extra crepe for dessert!

The class sat down to this gorgeous table setting and our instructor, Chef Melanie Underwood began to review the recipes for the evening. The menu was as follows:

Moules a la Provencal
Quiche Lorraine
Petit Chaussons au Roquefort
Bifteck Saute au Buerre
Concombres au Buerre
Champignons a la Greque
Carrots a la Concierge
Charlotte Malakoff aux Fraises
Crepes Fourrees et Flambees

That's right, just as they joke in the film Buerre, Buerre and more Buerre!

We divided ourselves into 3 groups and began our assigned recipes. This is when things got interesting...

One of my classmates (a gray-haired woman, presumably in her 60's) offered to measure the flour so we could begin making the Pate Brisee (a basic recipe for Short Paste, Pastry Dough or Pie Crust). I stood in shock as she grabbed a liquid measuring cup, scooped it into the flour bin and began to eyeball 2 cups. Luckily, our ever patient instructor stepped in and gently recommended the dry measuring cup. The student snapped back in her abrasive New York accent, "This is how I have always done it!" I had barely tied my apron strings and I already knew we were in for a long night. Begrudgingly, she transfered the flour to a dry measuring cup and proceeded to PACK the flour down as if it were brown sugar! My knee-jerk reaction was "Whoa!" and then I caught myself and in the nicest way possible asked if she would lightly spoon in the flour and carefully level it off. Her eyes slowly looked up through her dark rimmed glasses and I was given what can only be described as a death glare. It was as if she was saying "What do you know about life?" After what seemed to be an eternal pause, she threw down the cups and said "Why don't you just do it!" At this point, time was of the essence and lots of food needed to get done so the rest of the group proceeded with the elephant in the room.

We made a Court Bouillon for our mushrooms...

And everyone had fun with the crepes...

By 10 PM, the wine was flowing and we sat down to a delicious, if a bit imperfect, meal. With our stomaches growling and smiles on our faces we toasted each other, all our hard work and dove in. At this point the stress was over and we got to know each other a little better. That's when I realized this is what Julia would have wanted.

I started thinking back on the movie and the life story of Julia Child. Here is a woman who got herself through everything because of her attitude. From her television show to her books, through interviews and even through this movie, she has always appeared to be so purely happy. In the film, even when her book is rejected after 8 years of hard work, her positive attitude pulls her through. She would laugh at herself when things would go wrong on live television and she instructed us to "never apologize" for our culinary mistakes.

Would Julia have complained if she was forced to sit in the front row of a movie? I doubt it. She probably would have laughed and been glad for the extra leg room. Would Julia worry about walking up flights of stairs? Never - her fortitude was stronger than that. I certainly doubt Julia would ever argue with an instructor and would instead embrace learning something new. I am sure Julia would have loved sitting down to a deliciously imperfect meal and toasting to new friends.

The more I learn about Julia, the more I love her. Her positive attitude, her unbelievable work ethic, the way she embraced being different, new and unique. Re-reading "My Life in France" and watching this film (twice...) I come to realize that Julia Child taught us more than how to cook, she taught us how to live.

From Julia Child's Kitchen at the Smothsonian.

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