Julia Child's 1963 TV debut gave audiences a fun tasted of French fare

With her warbly voice and her ditsy gusto, she seemed like an eccentric aunt. It was easy to think she might be tippling the cooking sherry. But in truth, Julia Child was a pioneer in a blue apron: When her public-TV show The French Chef debuted Feb. 11, 1963, Child incited a French revolution in America.

”I thought it would be fun and that it would promote our cookbook,” says Child, who had recently published Mastering the Art of French Cooking, cowritten with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. What the show did was introduce a brilliant, no-nonsense teacher of French home cooking to the Stateside masses — and, in the process, create a culinary cataclysm. ”She raised America’s food consciousness — and we’re still feeling that,” says New York Times food writer Molly O’Neill.

In addition to helping make Mastering a million-copy best-seller, the show’s wildly popular 11-year run won Child legions of fans. ”I think people were used to formal instruction, and I wasn’t very formal. I’m sort of a ham,” she says of her appeal. Informal would be an understatement. The unpretentious Child managed to convey complex cooking in a way that even the most domestically challenged could understand — and she also (unintentionally) made audiences laugh. On one famous occasion, after dropping a potato pancake, she reminded viewers, ”Remember, you are alone in the kitchen.” She had become such a cultural institution by 1978 that Dan Akyroyd parodied her on SNL.

A native Californian, the 6’2” Child once hoped to write novels or become a basketball star. Her culinary verve didn’t emerge until 1948, when she moved to Paris with her husband, Paul, and later enrolled in the famous Cordon Bleu cooking school. During the ’50s, she established her own school with Beck and Bertholle, opening branches throughout Europe. And after Child’s TV career took off, she hosted about 300 French Chef programs, which still air daily on the TV Food Network. She’s penned eight cookbooks, and her most recent PBS venture, Baking With Julia, runs weekly. She’s even gone virtual with a $34.95 Microsoft CD-ROM, Julia Child: Home Cooking With Master Chefs. Meanwhile, at 84, the actual Julia rises at 6 a.m. and works each day until 8:30 p.m. ”I would never retire,” she says. ”Thank God I don’t have to.” Spoken like a woman who can still take the heat.