TV chef and author Julia Child dies. The ''French Chef'' was 91

By Gary Susman
August 13, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT
Julia Child: Bob Fila/Chicago Tribune/NewsCom

Julia Child, who became an unlikely TV star and bestselling author in her 50s, and in the process changed the way Americans cook, died late Thursday in her sleep, according to a statement by her publisher, Alfred A. Knopf. She was two days shy of her 92nd birthday and had been living in an assisted-living home in Montecito, Calif. She had been suffering from kidney failure, her family said.

Child was living proof of her assertion that anyone could learn to cook gourmet food at home. She herself didn’t take cooking lessons until her late 30s, when she and husband Paul Child, both working for the Office of Strategic Services (the World War II-era precursor to the CIA) were stationed in Paris. After studying at the Cordon Bleu, she collaborated with two Frenchwomen, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, to write a cookbook that would make French cooking accessible to the average American. The result, nine years in the making, was ”Mastering the Art of French Cooking” (1961), which became the definitive resource on the subject and remains in print four decades later.

Back home in Cambridge, Mass., Child appeared in an interview special on the local PBS station, which evolved into her long-running series ”The French Chef.” Launched in 1963, it made her an instant star, won her an Emmy, and became the model for virtually all cooking shows that followed. Shot in her own kitchen, it showed the unpretentious Child demonstrating techniques and giving instructions in her singsong delivery, blithely continuing if she made a mistake or dropped an ingredient on the floor. (Her manner was memorably parodied on ”Saturday Night Live” in a sketch where Child, played by Dan Aykroyd, continued through a recipe even as blood spurted from several accidental, self-inflicted knife wounds.) Each show ended with her catchphrase, ”Bon appétit!”

Through her 80s, Child wrote several more bestselling cookbooks and created several more short-run cooking series on PBS. Of her longevity, she would say it was better to enjoy eating rich food in moderation than the tasteless substitutes promoted in heath fads. In 2001, seven years after her husband’s death, Child moved out of the Cambridge home she’d lived in for 42 years, retiring to California. Her kitchen was shipped to the Smithsonian.