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Jan. 25

“Bon appétit!”

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Photo courtesy of the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and Culinary Arts

MCC Culinary and Hospitality program puts Julia Child-inspired education on display

There are nearly 250 million photos of culinary masterpieces you can find by searching “#foodie” on Instagram. The inventive chefs, influencers and at-home cooks who make and plate them would have never found the massive following they have on social media if Julia Child hadn’t first gone on WGBH-TV, a public access station in Boston, to promote the legendary cookbook she co-authored, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in 1961.

A new generation of culinary students at MCC may not be familiar with Child as they registered for classes, but through a special learning opportunity over the next several months, they will have direct exposure to her work and an understanding of how it shaped American food culture. MCC is a supporting partner of a traveling exhibit at The Durham Museum titled, “Julia Child: A Recipe for Life,” which opened in October and runs through Feb. 11, 2024. The exhibit is produced and managed by Flying Fish, developed in collaboration with the Napa Valley Museum under rights granted by The Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts and The Schlesinger Library,Radcliffe Institute and Harvard University, and is generously supported by Oceania Cruises.

The exhibition explores America’s culinary revolution through a series of immersive experiences. It features an interactive replica of Child’s kitchen from the set of “The French Chef,” where patrons can operate a vintage video camera, mix “ingredients” and have sensory experiences that bring the sounds and smells of Child’s kitchen to the exhibition gallery. It also highlights people from Omaha’s history who have impacted others through their love of food.

When Child’s distinctive voice first entered living rooms across the country, households weren’t putting a premium on dinner — advertisers were pushing frozen TV dinners during commercials and oddly concocted, molded Jell-O salads were having a moment. She bucked that trend by teaching the benefits of what MCC Culinary Arts instructor James Davis calls “the long game” in cooking.

Child’s philosophy on cooking prioritized enjoyment over convenience, an attitude that didn’t go unnoticed. Phone calls from interested viewers wanting more cooking demonstrations came pouring in after her first broadcast, and Child continued to deliver. With food as her forum, she captivated, inspired and entertained audiences for the rest of her life as America’s culinary queen and its first rock star chef.

“It is evidence of why Julia is a sage and why as educators we see so much value in teaching from her legacy,” said Davis, who teaches students how to create a fine dining experience. “Showing students that the best results don’t necessarily happen right away is so important. It takes time and work.”

Todd Schulkin, executive director for the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and Culinary Arts, said Child discovered great food during her life in Paris with her husband Paul following World War II, learning her craft at the renowned Le Cordon Bleu culinary school. A takeaway from her education was that the French revered good cooking but offered little explanation behind its foundations.

Child saw an opportunity to help fill the gap in knowledge with an American audience.

“I think one of her big epiphanies was if I know the why behind these techniques and it helped me, I think it will be helpful to the average person in their kitchen, and more importantly, it will make cooking more accessible and more enjoyable,” Schulkin said. “Her approach to recipe writing was to be a little angel on the shoulder of the person tackling it.”

During the fall quarter, MCC Culinary and Hospitality students prepared Child-inspired fine dining menus at Sage Student Bistro and catered a special event at The Durham. MCC Community Education will also have programming connections to Child’s legacy. In winter quarter, the Open Kitchen Studio at the Institute for the Culinary Arts will take on the feel of Child’s legendary TV program, “The French Chef” for pairing studios modeled from past broadcasts.

MCC Culinary Arts baking instructor Cathy Curtis said the programming connections to the exhibit provide a uniquely valuable teaching opportunity for faculty.

“Before Julia’s TV life, there really wasn’t an easy place to find and understand the key tenets of cookery that we teach our students today, like the smoke point of butter versus oil,” Curtis said. “She broadened our palettes in a way that was approachable. She had this commonality about her that I think was appealing to people and made them feel safe to experiment and play, which I think is the best way to learn about food — just get in the kitchen and cook.”

Schulkin said Child was more of a natural teacher than an intuitive cook.

“Cooking wasn’t something that came easy to her. I think if Julia were still here today and you walked up to her and asked her, she would say she was a cooking teacher, whether through her TV show or her cookbooks. She never used modern parlance — she never identified as a chef. She felt like chefs were people who worked in restaurants or professional kitchens, which she never did in her life,” Schulkin said. “She was a very effective communicator, which is key to being a good teacher. Good teachers have something inherent in their personality, that when they learn something, they get others excited about it, too. They want to share it with other people. Julia fully embodied that.”

Besides being inspirational to culinary students, Child also provides an example to the lifelong learner. She is arguably one of the most prominent nontraditional students in history.

Child was 36 when she began attending Le Cordon Bleu. Her education was provided as a benefit of her volunteer service as a research assistant for the Office of Strategic Services — the predecessor of the CIA.

Curtis said Child’s story of personal growth and breaking through in a male-dominated industry made her a historically important figure, but her authenticity is what propelled her ascent to American icon status. Her early television shows were filmed in one take. Mistakes couldn’t be edited out, so disaster recovery efforts and error-driven modifications were part of her lessons.

“She blazed the trail for so many women chefs. Her perseverance is inspirational to me, and I think it will be for our students, too,” Curtis said. “She was so genuine in everything she did and that is something we want to highlight. She was comfortable in her own flaws. Starting over and having to find new ways to the path she wanted to go down is a testament to her grit, and she moved through those moments with such humor and grace.”

The American Sage project at Sage Student Bistro honored her legacy with select dates for fine dining menus developed from Child-inspired recipes or other American chefs who were strongly influenced by her work. Each one-night-only menu included nine courses — five from the kitchen and four from the bake shop.

On Nov. 2, Sage Student Bistro closed so culinary students could attend and cater a special event at The Durham Museum’s “The Joy of Julia” speaker series. The event featured nationally acclaimed pastry chef Gale Gand, a James Beard Award winner and two-time guest on “The French Chef.” She shared stories of baking with Child and her lasting impact on the culinary world.

“Just the fact that some of our students are going to get to be in the same room with Gale Gand — she’s amazing. This is an incredibly unique experience for our students,” Curtis said leading up to the event.

Schulkin said if Child were able to attend the speaker series event, he imagined her focus would be on the MCC culinary students attending.

“Julia would be pleased to know that this kind of exhibit helps inspire and educate people about what’s possible in their life, but I don’t think she would have been terribly interested in an exhibit about herself. She would be right there asking every student what they’re learning, what they want to be and probably telling them to call her if they needed help. And of course, asking questions about what’s on the menu at Sage, and what people in Omaha and at the College like to eat,”Schulkin said.

Davis said the preparation that goes into creating the featured menus at the bistro and timing a nine-course fine dining experience for 50 to 60 guests gives students a realistic representation of the execution needed to deliver on all aspects of a special event. Participation is limited to second-year culinary students due to the level of preparation and collaboration required.

Davis and Curtis said they tried to strike a balance with their teaching approach between letting the students experiment and providing direction as they prepared their featured menus.

“We asked them not to create a replica recipe but to look at a dish from Julia and find ways to elevate or alter it while still staying true to the meal,” Davis said. “When they were previewing their menus, sometimes they missed the mark, but I think they learned a tremendous amount from those moments, especially from experiencing the pressure of what it means to roll out a new menu.”

Sage Student Bistro featured menus showcased classic French cuisine with modern twists, including a play on one of Child’s best-known recipes, coq au vin, with a take from chef Paul Prudhomme: blackened coq au Riesling. Boeuf Bourguignon was taken up a notch on the Sage table d’hôte menu as beef tenderloin Bourguignon with Yukon puree, root vegetables, mushrooms and chives. Another Child-inspired classic dish, cassoulet, made an appearance on the menu with lamb.

Fall and winter desserts that took inspiration from Child included delicacies like crème brûlée, stone fruit tarte tatin, apple charlotte, chocolate mousse trio and poached pear with fromage blanc.

“It feels like a very big day to our student chefs, and it should. They worked really hard on their menus and it’s intimidating when it is your first time running the show,” Davis said. “They had to partner and work together for the diners to experience what they intended, and it’s marvelous when you see it all come together.”

Schulkin said Child valued culinary programs at community colleges. The Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts is a supporter of Santa Barbara City College’s culinary program, which has the Julia Child Scholarship Fund. In addition to managing everything she donated to the Foundation and preserving her legacy through events and the annual Julia Child Award, its purpose is to award grants to other nonprofits in the culinary space, including scholarships for culinary careers, culinary history research and educational food media and literacy programs.

Schulkin said Child would be impressed with the value MCC is delivering for culinary education. Similar to her goal with French cuisine, providing a nationally recognized program at $68 per credit hour makes the training more approachable.

“Julia’s mandate was that the more people who do this, the better. At $68 a credit hour, [MCC is] giving people many more options to choose the path in the culinary world that fits them best without having to worry as much about how they are going to pay off their loans. That flexibility is tremendously valuable to creating diversity in the profession,” Schulkin said.

“Whether they end up in a professional kitchen, start their own catering business or want to feed their family, relatives, kids, aunts, uncles and grandmas better, that’s all for the betterment of human existence.”

Learn more about programming connections at mccneb.edu/Bistro or visit mccneb.edu/CE to sign up for Continuing Education Culinary classes. Go to durhammuseum.org/Current-Exhibits to learn more about the “Julie Child: A Recipe for Life” exhibit.