The French meal Julia Child called ‘life-changing
A single meal forever changed Julia Child’s life and American kitchens with it. It featured a mild, white-fleshed fish served in a butter sauce.
The legendary American chef stepped on French soil in 1948 for the first time. She was in her late 30s and didn’t know how to cook at least not yet.
The child and her husband, Paul, stopped for lunch at Restaurant La Couronne The Crown in Rouen, the capital of the northern region of Normandy.
For their first meal in France, Paul ordered oysters, sole meunière, and a green salad. The child devoured the meal, calling it perfection.
Alex Prudhomme, Child’s grandnephew and cowriter of her memoir, My Life in France, opened the book with this now-famous scene.
Julia is describing the sensation of eating her first bite of real French food and literally falling in love with it at that moment without realizing that was the meal that changed her life, he told carefulu.
What she ate that day was in sharp juxtaposition with the meat and potatoes she grew up eating in California.
It was my first French food and I never got over it, Child recalled in archival footage in the new documentary Julia from CNN Films that premieres Monday, May 30, at 8 p.m. ET.
This unforgettable lunch inspired Child to dedicate her life to learning and teaching the world the wonders of French cuisine. In the middle of that first bite of sole, she had an epiphany.
It came to me that that was what I was looking for all my life. One taste of that food and I never turned back, Child said.
The next years of her life were spent in Paris, studying at Le Cordon Bleu and working on a cookbook that became “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Julia said she and Paul were having so much fun that they could barely catch their breath, Prudhomme said. She experienced a flowering of the soul.
What was so life-changing about this meal?
Sole meunière, a seemingly simple dish, actually takes great practice and technique to prepare.
The Dover sole is lightly dusted with salt, pepper, and flour, then sautéed in a hot pan with butter until the fish is crisp and golden. It’s served in a brown butter called beurre noisette with a spritz of lemon and a sprinkling of fresh parsley that’s crisped by the sizzling sauce. Just as Child did, Prud’homme likes to add capers.
People today think, oh God, calories, but really, it’s about the flavor. It’s very light and delicate and beautiful, said Prud’homme, describing the dish as magical.
He suggested a green salad with a tangy vinaigrette, a baguette with butter, and a glass of white wine to accompany the fish. A child, who loved chocolate, would finish her meal with a piece of chocolate cake or a chocolate mousse.
As a legendary TV chef, Child wanted to share her passion for cooking with the world. She would say no one is born knowing how to cook; it’s a skill one must learn, just like riding a bike.
“She was more than just a cook and just a comedian, Prudhomme said. She was really a revolutionary. She changed the way Americans think of food in general eating, and cooking and brought it to the masses in a new way.
The child’s advice to cooks was to work hard, take risks and above all have fun. Lessons that apply to cooking but also to building an amazing recipe for life.
It may be challenging to find a Dover sole. The fish comes only from the English Channel and other faraway waters. You can find imported Dover soles at specialty fish stores. Flatfish fillets like flounder or fillets of sole are suitable alternatives. Particularly good choices are gray sole, lemon sole, winter flounder, and yellowtail flounder on the US East Coast; and petrale sole, rex sole, and rock sole on the West Coast.
You can also sauté small fillets 4 to 6 ounces each of round fish like salmon, snapper, and bluefish. Small whole trout is another option. Sauté only a minute or two on each side, until the skin is crisped and the flesh is just springy rather than squashy. Turn the fillets carefully so they don’t break apart.