The French Chef in America

Julia Child's Second Act

By Alex Prud'homme

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Copyright © 2016 Alex Prud'homme
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-385-35175-1

chapter 1

Dinner and Diplomacy

I never forget that I live in a house owned by all the American people.

—­franklin delano roosevelt

i. White House Red Carpet

The sun shone brightly as three flags—­the American, Japanese, and District of Columbian—­riffled in a breeze. As the camera panned across the Washington, D.C., cityscape, four howitzers boomed a nineteen-­gun salute on the South Lawn. It was Tuesday, November 14, 1967, and Julia Child was taking her audience somewhere they had never been before.

“Welcome to Washington. I’m Julia Child, out here in front of the East Gate of the White House, where every day thousands of visitors go through this historic mansion. And today, something very special is going on,” she said in her distinctly breathy, high-­low warble. Hundreds of tourists streamed through the White House, also known as the People’s House, clogging the halls and gawking at the formal dining rooms just hours before an important state dinner.

“These visits are terribly important. And also terribly complicated to handle. It’s really fascinating to see how the White House manages one of them,” Julia narrated. “And that’s exactly what we’re going to see. Not only what goes on in front, but what goes on backstage, and backstairs. We’re going to see everything, inside and out, from the start—­the official greeting right on through to the White House dinner.”

Thus began a public television special called White House Red Carpet. Produced by WGBH, Julia’s home public television station in Boston, it was the first time that a TV crew had been allowed to document a state dinner. It also marked the first time in more than two years that Julia had appeared on the tube with fresh material. Season One of her cooking show, The French Chef, aired from February 1963 through July 1966, when Julia took a break and the show went into reruns. By then she had firmly established herself as “the kitchen magician,” as The Boston Globe called her. With more than a million viewers a week, Julia encouraged her audience to cook boldly and take risks without fear of failure. “Eat heartily!” she declared, and, “Never apologize!” Her fans referred to her simply as “Julia,” as if they knew her personally.

Julia had taken a sabbatical for two reasons: she had been hard at work with her French colleague Simone “Simca” Beck, on a follow-­up to their cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking; and she was waiting for color television to become a reality. By November 1967, the book was coming together and WGBH had received its first color cameras. With White House Red Carpet, Julia was making a dramatic return to the national spotlight.

A robust fifty-­five years old, Julia stood more than six feet two inches tall, had a long face with a rounded jaw, frizzy brown hair, lively blue eyes, strong hands, and usually dressed in pearls, a blue apron, and size-­twelve sneakers. At the White House she wore a stylish black-­and-­white checked coat, a shoulder-­length brown wig with a flip curl (for convenience: constant hairdos during a multiday TV shoot were a burden), and an impish grin.

The idea for a White House TV special was sparked in 1966—­“the year that everyone seems to be cooking in the kitchen with Julia,” noted Time magazine—­when the Public Broadcasting Laboratory (PBL) asked if she would like to do a thirty-­minute special about “What’s Happening Now.” Avid news watchers, Julia and Paul drew up a list of potential ideas.

Paul’s voice was important. He was an equal partner in their joint venture: Julia’s mentor, editor, manager, confidant, bodyguard, staff photographer, sommelier, and culinary “guinea pig.” He avoided the limelight and described himself as “a part of the iceberg that doesn’t show.” While she was a blast of sound and a ray of sunlight, he was more internalized, with a quieter, moodier demeanor and a sometimes prickly intellect. Julia and Paul were “a team,” they said, “two sides of a coin,” and they often signed their joint letters “JP” or “Pulia.”

In answering PBL’s request, the Childs proposed a documentary film about President Charles de Gaulle’s decision to relocate the Les Halles food market—­dubbed “the belly of Paris” by Émile Zola—­from the city center to a suburb near Orly airport to make room for a modern, American-­style shopping complex. The move was controversial, and loaded with the symbolism of France leaving behind the darkness of two World Wars, the Suez Crisis, and Vietnam in favor of a shiny, bright, space-­age future. The Childs were horrified by the decision. While living in Paris, they had spent countless hours shopping at Les Halles, and loved its teeming Old World alleys, wrought-­iron arcades, hollering shopkeeps, bins of varicolored flowers, stacks of raw vegetables, piles of copper pots, racks of knives, bottles of olive oil, barrels of wine, and the like. They wanted to document the lively, odiferous, chaotic marketplace before it was replaced by a smooth concrete, smoked glass, and blandly efficient shopping mall.

PBL accepted their plan to document Les Halles, then rejected it as too expensive. The Childs were disappointed, if not entirely surprised: the lack of funding and clear editorial vision were familiar hurdles in ­public television. They cast about for a new subject, a food story with “visual drama” located closer to their home in Cambridge, ­Massachusetts.

It is likely that Paul—­a former diplomat, who understood the symbolic and practical aspects of state dinners—­suggested a documentary about the White House. And Julia knew that President Johnson employed Henry Haller, a highly regarded Swiss-­born, French-­trained chef. They both understood that the president could use a positive boost in the media. The year 1967 had been tumultuous: the Vietnam War was grinding painfully on, and race relations were tense at home; Johnson was under attack from both the left and right and had shrunk from public appearances. This dark state of affairs presented public television with an opportunity, Paul thought: “Why not show a side of the People’s House that most of the People have never seen?”

The Childs pitched PBL a documentary about what happens behind the scenes at a state dinner. It was a long shot, they knew. But under the circumstances, Julia Child was one of the few people who could have convinced the presidential staff to allow television cameras to poke around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue—­from its elegant public hallways to the first family’s private quarters and down into the cramped, quirky kitchen in the basement—­during a high-­profile event. As Paul explained in a letter to the columnist Herb Caen, a state dinner “isn’t about spending the tax payers’ money on striped pants and pink champagne. It’s a function of diplomacy, and only the culminating, externally visible part of a complex series of discussions, decisions, studies, meetings and agreements involving many parts of government.”

PBL withdrew from the Childs’ project in order to pursue a civil rights program. But National Educational Television (NET)—­the main broadcaster of educational TV at the time—­picked up the White House special. It took four months of intensive work behind the scenes to turn the seemingly straightforward idea into an actual telecast.

Julia and her staff at WGBH issued reams of letters, telegrams, and phone messages to convince the White House of the value of such a show (an outspoken Democrat, Julia promised to remain strictly apolitical); stacks of memos to public television brass explaining exactly what they would be getting, and at what cost; and binders of research about the historical, diplomatic, and culinary significance of a state dinner. In a letter to Lady Bird Johnson, the producer Ruth Lockwood explained:

Everyone is fascinated by the White House and our first family. Millions of us have visited the public rooms, and more millions have toured parts of The White House on television. So far we have seen it only as a shrine with empty rooms. Now we would like to go behind the splendid façade and show how you and your staff make it run so well as an official residence with a home-­like atmosphere .?.?. The American public-­at-­large has little conception of diplomatic life .?.?. [and] the tremendous importance that the reception plays in our international affairs.

The Johnsons hesitated. Rock ’n’ roll, feminism, environmentalism, racial conflicts, and antiwar protests were roiling America. Moreover, the guest of honor at the diplomatic dinner that November was to be Japanese prime minister Eisaku Sato. Japan was an especially important and sensitive ally: despite lingering resentments from the Second World War, Japan was America’s leading partner in Asia, and the United States was Japan’s biggest customer. Johnson was attempting to manage the optics of his presidency carefully, if not particularly successfully, and was doubtless concerned that Julia and her cameras would get in the way of important negotiations. Yet the first family eventually agreed to invite the Childs and a small TV crew to observe the diplomatic dinner.

Over four days WGBH filmed scenic shots of Julia in Washington, interviewing key presidential staff members (though not the first couple, per White House etiquette), and exploring the grand dining rooms and narrow stairwells of the People’s House. Then it was time for the main event.

it had been 167 years since John Adams hosted the first diplomatic party at the White House. After exploring the building, which was built in the 1790s by George Washington, Paul wrote that it remained “essentially an 18th-­century gentleman’s mansion in its original conception.” In fact, President Harry S. Truman had completely renovated the rickety building in 1952, after he took a bath, felt the floor tremble, and nearly crashed through it onto his wife, Bess, and a group from the Daughters of the American Revolution. Truman insisted on a nearly exact replica of the old rooms, including what seemed to be miles of winding passageways, creaky stairs, and mysterious nooks and crannies.

The state dinner would fill two dining rooms, which were decorated with great crystal chandeliers, tall and heavily draped windows, and round tables graced by flowers, crystal goblets, candles, and gold-­and-­white plates ornamented with the presidential seal. A floor below, in the basement, the kitchen was tiny, about eighteen feet square, with shiny white walls, gray linoleum floors, roaring ventilation fans, stainless-­steel counters, and hanging pots and spoons, all lit by fluorescent lights.

The cramped space, Paul noted, made “the back-­of-­the-­stage operations humanly difficult, so potentially interesting to the American public if the PR people don’t insist on a shiny, no-­trouble image.”

As WGBH’s cameras panned down bustling hallways on the afternoon of November 14, the last tourists were being ushered out and the chief housekeper, Mrs. Mary Kaltman, who oversaw “everything from lightbulbs to lobsters,” checked that each of the nineteen tables had a flower bouquet and place cards. Mrs. Carpenter, Lady Bird’s press secretary, said of the library: “I love this room, but in the days of Abigail Adams, it’s where she kept her milk cows, and so we laughingly say, ‘We’ve moved from moos to news.’ ”

Until the Eisenhowers hired the first White House chef, food at the People’s House was prepared by navy stewards. In 1961, the Kennedys hired René Verdon, a highly regarded French chef from the Carlyle Hotel in New York. Verdon prepared a lamb luncheon for Princess Grace of Monaco, and trout Chablis for the British prime minister Harold Macmillan. After President Kennedy’s assassination, Verdon stayed on with the Johnsons. But he resigned in 1965, protesting LBJ’s insistence on serving garbanzo bean purée, the use of canned and frozen vegetables (to keep costs down), and other creative differences. “You do not serve barbecued spareribs at a banquet with ladies in white gloves!” huffed Verdon.

The new executive chef, Henry Haller, led a team of four sous-­chefs and a staff of many other, mostly African American, assistants. Haller—­a confident, robust, hawk-­faced man trained in classical French cuisine—­had apprenticed in Davos, then immigrated to the United States after the Second Word War. He met his Brooklyn-­born wife, Carol, on Martha’s Vineyard. When the job offer came from the White House, Haller was executive chef at the Hampshire House hotel in Manhattan, where then Vice President Johnson had enjoyed his cooking.

Haller’s workday began at 6:00 a.m. and ended after midnight, but he was paid far less than chefs of his caliber earned in top restaurants. Nevertheless, he declared, “there is no better job” than running the president’s kitchen. He was a phlegmatic sort who didn’t mind the pressure of the job. When the king of Saudi Arabia arrived with his own food stuffed into five briefcases and with a royal food taster as well, Haller smiled. Though the Johnsons employed Zephyr Wright, an African American woman, to cook Southern-­style family meals, there were times when Haller was required to whip up lunch for foreign dignitaries from whatever he could find in the pantry—­for which the president was eternally grateful.

“Many Americans who dislike President Johnson half-­believe that dinner at the White House is limited to such gustatory curiosities as Pedernales Chili and enchiladas,” Paul wrote in The Economist. “Alas for prejudice! The truth is that official food at the White House is ­delectable.”

To prepare for 190 guests, Haller had been cooking for three days by the time that Julia and her camera crew arrived. Dressed in chef’s whites and a toque, he barked orders, cracked jokes, and prepared a sumptuous seafood vol-­au-­vent—­lobster, bay scallops, tiny shrimp, and quenelles (fish dumplings) in a pastry crust, topped with a sauce américaine.

“Hmmmm,” Julia murmured, as she craned her tall body over a steaming pot, closed her eyes, and inhaled the seafood aroma. “Can I have a little taste?”

“Czertainly!” Haller replied.

“Oh, it’s awfully good,” she cooed. “That’s lovely.”

“Ze taste hasz to go wis ze prezentation.”

“Everything in the kitchen is timed to the minute from now on,” Julia narrated, like a play-­by-­play announcer. “It’s all keyed to what’s going on upstairs.”

By the front door under the North Portico, string instruments serenaded the guests, who wore black tie and exited limousines to a barrage of flashing bulbs. Vice President and Mrs. Hubert Humphrey made their way through the mob of reporters. Foreign ambassadors and deputy ministers led American governors and local pols, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, the chairman of U.S. Steel, Johnson backers from Waco and Cleveland and Alabama, a poet, a Rockefeller, the president of CBS, and the president of the International Union of Operating Engineers.

Japanese prime minister Sato, a short man dressed in an impeccably tailored suit, and his diminutive wife, wearing glasses and a white kimono, bowed and smiled. Sato was known to be “intensely interested in baseball,” and so the commissioner of baseball, General William D. Eckert, and the St. Louis Cardinals’s pitcher Bob Gibson had been invited. Sato was also a jazz lover, and the White House had arranged for a special musical guest to entertain at the end of the evening.


Excerpted from The French Chef in America by Alex Prud'homme. Copyright © 2016 Alex Prud'homme. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.
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