My Life in France by Julia Child

I’ve been meaning to write this post forever. It’s my 100th. Life gets in the way, but the timing is perfect. I’ve left my job at Jumptap to start my own company, Media Armor. On top of that, I’ll be taking the second part of the Back to Basics series at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. This is a time for new beginnings which parallel’s Julia’s experience as chronicled in the book, My Life in France, based on her journal entries. The challenge of writing a post about her and the book is daunting. Books have been written about her. By no means could I ever do her justice, so I won’t profess to. In fact it is probably more appropriate to be simple, like her cooking and to talk about how I connected with her and her writing.

Of course I’d seen Julia and Julia. This book reflects the half of the movie that was about Julia, and my opinion the more interesting half. My exposure to Julia Child is rooted in my childhood like many. I remember watching her cooking shows with my grandmother when I was young. We loved watching Julia. Her passion, simplicity and comfort in the kitchen where inspiring. I had no idea what to expect while reading this book.

It goes without saying that this was an amazing read. Her desire and courage to take on new challenges made me want to learn more. She easily conveyed that she was like anyone else to her fans which helped make her so likable. Best of all as she learned throughout her life, she understood that her passion beyond food was teaching others, and this she excelled at, changing the food industry forever. Her stories, humor and openness were welcomed.

Maybe because she was older, or maybe because I was much younger and couldn’t understand…Julia was much more “raw” and progressive than I ever could have imagined. Tall, slightly awkward, loud, and fearless, she approached her life in France and cooking with conviction and fearlessness. Her life’s story came alive with each and every page turn. Most striking was her honesty about life, her relationships and lessons. While I read this I couldn’t help but think back to Jaques Pépin’s own autobiography The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen which I read and wrote about previously. It is no wonder why they became such close friends in life.

This book doesn’t portray a woman seeking glory, recognition or vanity. She is humble, appreciative and genuine. To fully appreciate it, another read is necessary so as to absorb the detail and experiences that she painstakingly recounts. Since I started this blog I have definitely become more comfortable with cooking. Hell, I even won a work cooking competition. I now challenge myself with new recipes and ingredients and feel free to experiment. As I embark on my own new life with respect to work, I’m encouraged by Julia to go after what I want in life, to take risks, and embrace the unknown and unexpected. Life is sweeter.

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I am not doing the “Julie and Julia thing”…

Note: This is not a rant, just a clarification. No need to change the channel.

Ever since I started the Cooking Through Ratio series on my blog, people have been asking me if I am doing the “Julie and Julia thing”. The quick answer to that question is no, I am not doing the “Julie and Julia thing” and it never was my intent.

At the beginning of the year I made the simple decision to learn how to cook. I wasn’t about to plunk down thousands of dollars for culinary school on a whim and opted to design a “course of study” if you will that would allow me to learn mostly on my own. Overtime as I’ve learned about cooking, nutrition, food issues and a myriad other topics I’ve become very focused on cooking method. The reason being, recipes, ingredients and knowledge don’t make great cooks, but rather the perfect execution of methods that bring them all together.

I’ve read through many books and decided that the best way to learn method was to actually work my way through a book or program that taught key methods through a clear lens. Michael Ruhlman’s book Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking fit the bill for what I was looking for. By teaching through the lens of how chef’s look at cooking and by employing simple ratios for ingredients as a base for cooking knowledge I was not bound by the ingredients and recipes I had at my disposal. Instead I could start with employing varied methods and ratios and build a foundation.

So even though I am working my through a book as Julie Powell did, I am not trying to cook my way through recipes to learn a particular type of cuisine. That has its merits, but I am not at that point in my journey. I hope that when I start focusing on a particular style of cooking such as French, Asian, Latin, Italian, Mediterranean or something else, the foundation I am building will allow me to approach the food with confidence not only in my skill but in my ability to experiment while focusing on the essence of the food and not the minute details of a recipe. Moving forward I’ll choose another text to delve deeper into specific methods for cooking and baking while also learning the science.

Thanks for all of the comments and encouragement. I enjoy interacting with readers while sharing ideas and experiences. The learning process has been fun with the future filled possibilities looking even more exciting as I learn more each and every day.

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Julie & Julia…More Julia Please

Tonight I went to see Julie & Julia with my family. We went to the 10 p.m. showing at a local theater and despite the late time were surprised that the theater we were in was empty except for ourselves. This was amazing considering all the press that has come out promoting the film.

I started reading Julia’s book, My Life in France in anticipation of the film, but was unable to read it through before the film came out. So far it has been exceptional and eye opening, providing insight into the legendary cook that goes way beyond her successful TV shows and books. I’ll admit that I was less excited to hear about Julie Powell’s story and introduction to cooking. Yes, she and I have many commonalities with respect to writing a blog food and our learning to cook, and perhaps our egotistical view that anyone should care to read our blog, but I could not find any additional contributions to the food world from her big or small post blog except for her story which has become a film. Perhaps our desires and goals are different, but I believe in give and take when it comes to anything in life, and that each student has a duty to teach what they have learned to make the world a better place. This I intend to do in the future.

I was not swayed by the onslaught of press that has come out for the film. I chose not to read any reviews and go in with an open mind and with only a cursory idea of what it was about.  Often hype ruins a movie.

Acting for both personalities was great. Amy Adams is sweet and likable as she portrays Julie Powell in this film. Meryl Streep provides a convincing and enjoyable performance as Julia Child. The acting is where I feel the film’s merits end. The Powell side of the story was definitely weaker than the Julia Child portion. The director did a great job of weaving both stories together in a non-confusing way and in the end did the best she could making a movie as my father put it “out of a story with no plot”.

Julia Child’s culinary legend is unlikely to be matched by anyone. Being able to top what she has done for cooking in society is a feat nearly impossible to top. She was an amazing person who left an amazing legacy, helping America and the world embrace the kitchen again. With the bar set high, she provides inspiration for us all to be the best we can and help others be at their best as well. Even though the movie was not a ten, it’s easy going and worth seeing even if only to be inspired. The fact that it exists is an indicator of how far and how important food has become in our society. If only it had more about Julia or perhaps if it was just a movie about her life would it have scored higher.

Bon appétit!

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The Apprentice by Jacques Pépin

The Apprentice by Jacques Pépin
The Apprentice by Jacques Pépin

A lifetime of learning, sharing and eating; now this is what cooking is all about! The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchenby Jacques Pépin is a fun and amazing autobiography that I simply couldn’t put down as I read it. A classically trained French Chef, Pépin, the well known and likable culinary personality, great friend of Julia Child and other notables, chronicles his life in this book filled with a mix of serious and funny memories and stories that provide a simple, yet profound perspective on cooking and life. The book conveys a love for family, tradition and cooking all with ease and feeling as if you were having a conversation with an old friend or even Jacques himself.

Born of modest beginnings, the book starts with Jacques recounting his life growing up in France during World War 2, and at a young age immediately discovering a love for food and cooking. Incorporating poingent stories of family history and learning, he describes his call to the stove to further his education in cooking by becoming an apprentice at a well respected hotel far from home at the young age of thirteen. Jacques Pépin moves through a life of culinary adventures, quickly rising the ranks to work for notable figures such as Charles de Galle and Howard Johnson. He then moves on to successful ventures such as a soup business in New York City, cooking demos and classes that are fully booked years in advance as well as a couple of television series. Through hard work, occaisional mishaps and sheer determination, his learning transforms him into a well respected man of great talent, aptitude and accomplishment.

Even through misadventures and misunderstandings Pépin is always likable, easily making friends and garnering support for his ideals.  As his success and lessons unfolded, I constantly found myself reflecting on my own training and learning, identifying with commonality of vision and enjoyment in cooking.

If one thing can be said about this book, it is that it demonstrates a pure love of cooking by its author and a desire to make people happy through it. Unpretentious, down-to-earth, warm and insightful, this writing is captivating from the very first chapter to the last. As I mentioned, I simply could not put this book down as I followed Jacques’ evolution into the culinary luminary he is today.

At his core, Jacque is a teacher keenly focused on the next generation of cooks. In an era where it was the norm, he honed his craft through hard work, creativity, rigorous training and time. The same is required today to be successful in any endeavor, though he takes it to the next level for this generation, understanding that time seems to be a luxury noone has anymore.

His mission to teach others was furthered by becoming a founding dean of the French Culinary Institute in New York, a top tier culinary institution in the Unite States and the world with its roots steeped in French tradition as well as a co-creator of the gastronomy program at Boston University. His love for teaching guides him to condense his lifetime of experience into a learning path fit for today’s “right now” society. While taking a steady path of learning over a lifetime does sound romantic I can also more clearly see the value in an accelerated learning program and in enrolling in culnary school. The idea of learning from others and their successes as well as their mistakes is something my father constantly tries to instill in me and is a valuable lesson in effeciency of time, something we are all limited in and is arguably our most valuable asset.

My only regret with this book was that it was not longer. A lifetime of culinary experience proved to be exciting and was probably nearly impossible to write without leaving out equally pivotal memories and captivating stories. I encourage anyone with an interest in cooking or a great true story to read this book and as Jacques is known for saying, “Happy Cooking”.

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Cooking Methods and Understanding

Do chefs use recipes? I am willing to bet the answer to that question is “no” or “rarely”. This isn’t because recipes are bad or because they aren’t useful. They are and they have their place for sure. Recipes are a great way to pass on a dish and methods to someone else so that they can replicate something of yours. They are like a recorded history passed from person to person. They also ensure consistency which is key in the world of cooking? So if recipes are good for all these things, why aren’t they used by Chefs? The reason can be generally summed up that Chefs have an intuitive sense of cooking and more importantly method. Method and experience combined with creativity allow a chef to free themselves from recipes and cook.

I’ve been watching a lot of Chef Todd Mohr’s videos on YouTube about cooking method. He is keenly focused on the method so that one does not have to worry about recipes and can cook freely. I’ve enjoyed the many videos I have seen so far along with his quirky and enthusiastic explanations of key cooking methods with the aim of demystifying what humans have been doing since the dawn of time. His lessons are many and cover the broad range of topics on cooking and made me think even more about the learning process I am going through.

I recently purchased Michael Ruhlman’s latest book Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking which focuses on a key tool in the chef’s arsenal, the ratios of cooking. The premise is that by knowing key ratios instead of recipes you open up yourself to countless possibilities instead of a finite few. I plan to work my way through the book which will allow me to take the next step in what Chef Mohr advocates with learning method while also proving a great opportunity to use my new KitchenAid mixer, a definite bonus. I hope to gain a deeper understanding of culinary fundamentals that will help me become more comfortable and creative in the kitchen.

I still plan on following recipes as they will allow me to reproduce the dishes they outline. A key benefit of this is that after the dish is created I can use the methods I have learned to provide my own interpretation of the dish and make it my own if I choose. I’ll also be able to better understand the whys of problems I encounter when a dish doesn’t turn out as expected.

Taking blog readers along for the ride seems to be the popular trend these days with blogs like Alinea at Home, 101 Cookbooks and The Julie/Julia Project which has become a published book will make a debut as a major film in August. Following suit, I plan to take you all through Ratio in a blogging series I plan on calling Cooking Through Ratio. Who knows, maybe you’ll see my story in the theaters in a few years. Wish me luck and Bon Appétit!

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