Julia Child Comes Alive

Explore her lively legacy and the history of Virginia cuisine at the VMHC.


It was Julia Child’s sing-song voice reverberating over the WGBH airwaves that first taught American home cooks to make a creamy, delicate omelet. “Before her, almost no one here understood the wonder of egg cookery or had ever tasted a properly made omelet,” says Chef Patrick O’Connell of the Inn at Little Washington, who had the privilege of not only learning from Julia Child’s recipes in his first foray into cooking, but who later considered Child a dear friend. O’Connell delivered the opening remarks at the new Julia Child exhibit in Richmond’s Virginia Museum of History & Culture, Julia Child: A Recipe for Life.

The art of dishes as simple as the perfect dual texture omelet or as complex as Child’s lauded beef bourguignon were explained on Child’s show, The French Chef, and in her now-iconic cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Yet how both came to be is the story of an unlikely path taken by perhaps an even more unlikely personality.

That story is explored throughout a multimedia and multisensory experience. The exhibit takes visitors on a journey from Child’s earliest days growing up in Pasadena, California, to her work overseas with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), to meeting her future husband, Paul Child, in Sri Lanka and, eventually, settling as expats in Paris in 1948—a move that would set her culinary career into motion. Through handwritten letters, photographs, replicas, and an immersive movie setting, visitors are transported into Child’s travels around the world. Photographs of a young, spirited Child foreshadow the larger-than-life character that would make her way into American households from coast to coast.

Child’s time in Paris led her to graduate from the Cordon Bleu, pursue private lessons with French chefs, and join Le Cercle des Gourmettes, a women’s cooking club. There, she met the two women with whom she’d open up a cooking school in Paris geared towards American women and plant the seeds for her first cookbook, The French Chef. The exhibition closely details their relationships, and the curiosity that drove Child to truly master the art of French cooking. 

Looking through notated, marked-up recipes, a replica of the pegboard kitchen storage system in Child’s French kitchen, and a scented recreation of one of Child’s dishes, visitors are immersed in an interactive telling of Child’s path from cooking novice to perhaps the most well-known, non-French voice in French cooking. Her handwriting, scrawled across measurements and directions, offer a glimpse into the precision and endless testing that went into each recipe. A roast chicken isn’t just a roast chicken—it’s an art form in Child’s eyes. It’s the work of someone whose meticulous attention to detail and enthusiasm for her craft is rivaled only by her warm, effusive personality. In each word, each recipe, you can hear her voice echoing in your head.

But some of the most charming moments throughout the exhibition are wholly unrelated to cooking. A love sonnet written by Paul for Child’s birthday and a recreation of one of their sweetly saucy Valentine’s Day cards let visitors in on the private side of Child, someone who was as approachable and joyful in her off-camera existence as she was in front of millions of American viewers.

Returning to O’Connell, his presence greets visitors at the entrance to the exhibit where his gloriously red wood-burning stove sits proudly—a testament to the days when he didn’t have heat or reliable running water in his Washington, Virginia, farmhouse, but he did have a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a will to learn, and a vote of confidence from Child herself. O’Connell met Child early in his career at an appearance at Mount Vernon. He stumbled over his words as he encountered the legend face-to-face and told her he was running a catering company using her recipes—but he wasn’t making any money. “She gave me a nurturing, maternal look of genuine concern and responded, ‘But you will. Surely you will.’”

A three Michelin star restaurant later, and he is. Surely, he is. And, surely, it is Child’s impact that drove his success, the success of a handful of other Virginia chefs featured throughout the exhibit, and the love of French cooking and food—in home kitchens across the country. 

Julia Child: A Recipe for Life runs through Sept. 2 at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture in Richmond. The exhibit is included with daily admission. 

A fully interactive recreation of The French Chef TV set, including a vintage video camera, invites visitors to play and explore.

Julia Child’s Tomatoes à la Provençale 

(Tomatoes Stuffed with Bread Crumbs, Herbs, and Garlic)

Virginia is famous for its tomatoes, particularly those big, red beauties from Hanover County. With summer nearly here, Julia Child’s Tomatoes à la Provençale is the perfect recipe for a warm weather lunch. It’s a quick and easy recipe—and delightfully delicious. 

4 firm, ripe, red tomatoes

about 3 inches in diameter

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 cloves garlic, crushed through a press

4 tablespoons minced shallots, preferred, or scallions 

4 tablespoons minced basil and parsley, or parsley only

1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

1/2 cup fine bread crumbs, preferably from homemade bread, or panko

1/4 cup olive oil, plus additional for drizzling

Heat the oven to 400°F, and position a rack in the upper third of the oven. As necessary, remove the stems from the tomatoes, cut them in half crosswise, and gently squeeze out the juice and seeds, being careful not to destroy their shape or their fleshy innards. Remove any errant seeds with your fingers. Sprinkle the halves lightly with salt and pepper.

In a small mixing bowl, combine the garlic, shallots or scallions, basil and/or parsley, thyme, 1/4 teaspoon of salt, a few grinds of black pepper, and the bread crumbs or panko. Mix them well, then stir in the olive oil. Alternatively,  you can skip the mincing and simply blitz the ingredients in a food processor. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary.

Place the tomato halves on a rimmed baking sheet or in an oven-proof roasting dish (do not crowd them), and gently fill each with some of the mixture. Bake in the upper third of the oven for 10 -15 minutes, or until the tomatoes are tender but hold their shape, and the bread crumb filling has browned lightly.

Serve with a spring salad. 

Click here for a classic Julia Child recipe: her Boeuf Bourguignon.


This article originally appeared in the June 2024 issue. 

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