With little more than a construction paper kitchen set as a backdrop, Julia Child was brought back to life for a rapt audience at the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center on Thursday.
Decked out in a curly brown wig, sensible shows, and a 50s style skirt, shirt, and apron, Louise Willard brilliantly emulated the woman who launched the celebrity chef phenomenon in a very unique fashion.
At 6’ 2”, with a booming voice and relentlessly cheerful personality, Julia Child was an unlikely culinary who found her passion for cooking while living in Paris, France.
The journey from Pasadena rich kid to revered international chef was long and fascinating, as Willard illustrated with passion throughout the hour-long spoken word performance.
Born on August 15, 1912, as Julia McWilliams, Child did not have a knack for the kitchen, often tormenting her housekeepers with disastrous attempts at making berry jam.
She was more fond of theater and sports, excelling in both at Smith College, where she barely squeaked by.
“I thought I had a flair for the dramatic. At 6’ 2”, I had to either stand out or cower in the corner and I’m not one to cower,” Willard said.
After graduating in 1934, Child went to upstate New York, where she became a copywriter for a furniture store.
“Back in those days, you either got married or became a secretary. I didn’t see myself being married, but I could do creative work,” Willard said.
As World War II broke out, Child was inspired to serve in the military, lending her skills to the Office of Strategic Services, where she transcribed top secret information.
The job took her to far corners of the globe: Kenya, Sri Lanka, and China. The latter really opened her eyes to the wonders of food.
“I had never experienced the fresh fish, the different kinds of rice and spices,” she said. “I was always hungry and could eat like an elephant.”
During her time in China, Child was asked to concoct a very unusual recipe. At the time, there were missiles placed in the ocean to bring down enemy ships that were instead being set off by sharks. The Navy wanted a way to keep their expensive equipment intact that wouldn’t hurt marine life.
After intensive research, without the benefit of the Internet as Willard pointed out, Child found the winning formula in a combination of black dye, copper acetate, and wax.
Placed around the missiles, the sharks would nudge containers filled with “Julia’s Recipe” and move on unharmed.
“That was used until 1970 before being replaced by sonic pings. I was quite proud of it,” Willard said.
Something even more significant happened during that time in Child’s life. She met a co-worker named Paul Cushing Child, who was ten years older and more than a few inches shorter than she was.
“There wasn’t a spark for me but we kept crossing paths and he was persistent. Paul ended up growing on me and we fell deeply in love,” she said.
They returned to the United States and married on September 1, 1946.
In 1948, the Childs moved to France because of Paul’s job. While in Paris, they enjoyed a meal that forever changed the trajectory of their lives.
“We ordered fine wine and pressed duck, which came out in this contraption. When the waiter pressed down on it, juices oozed out and a wonderful smell enveloped me. It opened my spirit to what cooking and eating could be,” she said.
Inspired, Child immediately enrolled in the legendary Le Corden Bleu, where she made two lifelong friends: Simone Beck and Louisette Berthole.
The trio wanted to write a cookbook and market it to American women. The title would be “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”
Ten years and 762 pages later, the book was a hard sell. Americans had just discovered TV dinners, as Willard pointed out.
“During the 60s, everyone was excited about the 5 minute meal. Publishers thought our cookbook was too big and complicated,” she said.
A few years later, Knopf published “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” It quickly became a bestseller.
Back in the US, Child was invited to talk about the book on a Boston public broadcasting station.
She and Paul decided to shake things up by bringing the ingredients, supplies, and equipment for meal for a cooking demo, which had never been done on television before.
Cooking a simple omelet at the studio was a big hit and Julia was asked to host a show.
On February 11, 1963, “The French Chef” debuted on WGBH. Paul Child built the set for his statuesque wife so she wouldn’t have to stoop over the counter.
“The French Chef” ran for 10 years, won 8 Daytime Emmy awards and a Peabody award.
“I made cooking simple and obtainable. It’s about the joy of cooking, not the outcome. The love you put into a meal is what makes it good,” Willard said.
Ultimately, the show spawned Julia Child’s cooking empire, which included numerous bestselling cookbooks and successful TV shows, as well as a permanent home at the Smithsonian Institute for “The French Chef” kitchen.
Even during the health-crazed 80s, a hungry America tuned into to see Child’s latest recipes.
“It’s all about moderation. If you love what you eat, you’ll feel full and the experience will be well rounded,” she said.
In the late 80s Paul Child suffered a series of strokes, ultimately passing away on May 12, 1994.
Willard teared up as she recounted the event.
“After 48 years of marriage, I stood alone, but every time I was in the kitchen, I thought of Paul,” she said.
Child, at that time a breast cancer survivor, soldiered on. She sold their home in the Hamptons and moved into a retirement community where she taught residents how to cook.
On August 13, 2004, Julia Child died of kidney failure. Her last meal was a bowl of French onion soup.
“I had a wonderful life,” Willard said before signing off in Child’s signature “bon appetit” to a round of applause.
Child is just one of the historical women Willard, a career transition advisor at Saugus High, portrays for charity and private events. Others include Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt.
“I like bringing these women to life. Every woman is more than what they’re known for. They’re not one trick ponies,” Willard said. “Julia Child, in particular, it’s not just about the love and joy of cooking, it’s that it took her until she was in her 40s to find out who she really was. That’s very inspiring.”
Betty Cameron of Valencia, who attended the performance, certainly came away impressed.
“I loved it, learning about the personal things of Julia Child’s life. Louise really brought that out to me, who Julia was besides the TV personality,” Cameron said. “I love cooking but I’m not good at it. This gives me hope. I’m 74, but maybe I can learn something new.”