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Celebrated chef Julia Child dies at age 91

Julia Child, the grande dame of U.S. television cooking shows and books has died in her sleep at an assisted living home in Montecito, Calif.., at age 91.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Julia Child, whose warbling, encouraging voice and able hands brought the intricacies of French cuisine to American home cooks through her television series and books, has died. She was 91.

“America has lost a true national treasure,” Nicholas Latimer, director of publicity for the famed chef’s publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, said in a statement Friday. “She will be missed terribly.”

Child died at 2:50 a.m. Friday at her home in an assisted living center in Montecito, a coastal town about 90 miles northwest of Los Angeles, said her niece, Philadelphia Cousins. A statement released earlier by Latimer said Child died Thursday.

“She passed away in her sleep,” Cousins said. “She was with family and friends and her kitten, Minou. She had cookbooks and many paintings by her husband Paul around the house.”

Child, who died two days before her 92nd birthday, had been suffering from kidney failure, Cousins said.

A memorial service for family members was planned, but Child asked that no funeral be held, Cousins said.

The gift of sharing good foodA 6-foot-2 American folk hero, “The French Chef” was known to her public as Julia, and preached a delight not only in good food but in sharing it, ending her landmark public television lessons at a set table and with the wish, “Bon appetit.”

“Dining with one’s friends and beloved family is certainly one of life’s primal and most innocent delights, one that is both soul-satisfying and eternal,” she said in the introduction to her seventh book, “The Way to Cook.” “In spite of food fads, fitness programs, and health concerns, we must never lose sight of a beautifully conceived meal.”

Chipper and unpretentious, she beckoned everyone to give good food a try.

She wasn’t always tidy in the kitchen, and just like the rest of us, she sometimes dropped things or had trouble getting a cake out of its mold.

In an A-line skirt and blouse, and an apron with a dish towel tucked into the waist, Julia Child grew familiar enough to be parodied by Dan Aykroyd on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” and the subject of Jean Stapleton’s musical revue, “Bon Appetit.” She was on the cover of Time magazine in 1966.

Active and a frequent traveler in her 80s, Child credited good genes and a habit begun in her 40s of eating everything in moderation.

Susy Davidson, a consultant who worked with Child on “Good Morning America,” called Child’s friendship a great gift.

“She’s helped me redefine age, No. 1,” Davidson once said. “She is the standard by which I judge all professionals. She’s always eager to learn something, to try something new. She just has this generosity of spirit.”

Offering 'the right instruction'She was foremost a teacher and never lost sight of the goal set out in volume one of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”: “Anyone can cook in the French manner anywhere, with the right instruction. Our hope is that this book will be helpful in giving that instruction.”

Like her friend James Beard, Child was influenced but not battered by the popularity of fast food, low-fat food, health food.

She aimed “The Way to Cook” at a new generation and while it offered plenty of recipes using butter and cream, it left room for experimentation and variation in its blend of classic French and free-style American techniques. It was a hit, with nearly 400,000 copies in print just four months after publication.

She worried, however, that the health craze was overdone.

“What’s dangerous and discouraging about this era is that people really are afraid of their food,” she told The Associated Press in 1989. “Sitting down to dinner is a trap, not something to enjoy. People should take their food more seriously. Learn what you can eat and enjoy it thoroughly.”

Child did not take a cooking lesson until she was in her 30s. And she was in her 50s when her first television series began in 1963.

Born in Pasadena, Calif., Child once said she was raised on so-so cooking by hired cooks.

She graduated from Smith College in 1934 with a history degree and aspirations to be a novelist or a writer for the New Yorker magazine. Instead, she ended up in the publicity department of a New York City furniture and rug chain.

Served her country in World War II
When World War II began, she joined the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA. She was sent off to do clerical chores in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where she met Paul Child, a career diplomat who later became a photographer and painter, on the porch of a tea planter’s bungalow in 1943.

They married in 1946 and two years later were sent to Paris.

Child enrolled in the famed Cordon Bleu cooking school, motivated at least in part by a desire to cook for her epicure husband. She was considered a bit odd by her friends, who all had hired help in the kitchen.

“I’d been looking for my life’s work all along,” she told the AP. “And when I got into cooking I found it. I was inspired by the tremendous seriousness with which they took it.”

In France, she also met Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, with whom she collaborated on “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” which was nine years in the making and became mandatory for anyone who took cooking seriously.

It was published in 1961 and was followed by “The French Chef Cookbook”; “Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. II,” with Beck; “From Julia Child’s Kitchen”; “Julia Child & Company”; “Julia Child & More Company”; and “The Way to Cook,” in October 1989.

'The French Chef' debutsShe was 51 when she made her television debut as “The French Chef.” The series began in 1963 and continued for 206 episodes. Child won a Peabody award in 1965 and an Emmy in 1966, and went on to star in several more series for Boston’s WGBH-TV.

Russell Morash, Child’s director from the beginning, recalled her as “spontaneous from the outset, a natural television talent — very relaxed but very professional.”

“I happened to be the right woman at the right time,” she said, noting that John F. Kennedy had a French chef at the White House and more Americans were traveling abroad.

Since the 1980s, she devoted attention to promoting the serious study of food and cooking. She co-founded the American Institute of Wine and Food in San Francisco in 1981 and co-founded the James Beard Foundation in New York City in 1986.

More recently, she teamed with fellow television chef Jacques Pepin for the 1994 PBS special, “Julia Child & Jacques Pepin: Cooking in Concert” and a 1996 sequel, “More Cooking in Concert.”

Paul Child died in 1994, and in late 2001, Julia Child, a longtime resident of Cambridge, Mass., moved to Santa Barbara. The couple had no children.