Happy the Artist sketch courtesy of Jimmy Sneed
My first meeting with Julia was probably around 1987. I was having lunch at Galileo in Washington, D.C., when a friend passed by my table and told me she was with a group of women eating with Julia Child in the private room in the back. Would I like to meet her? Hell yeah. Naturally I wanted to make a good first impression, so I racked my brain for what to say to her.
Back in 1974, the owner of Le Cordon Bleu in Paris had befriended me and given me a job at the school translating for the English-speaking students. I was provided a tiny apartment and an unparalleled view of the cooking world. Julia, having attended the school many years earlier, must have known the owner well. There’s the connection.
I was presented to Julia, who proceeded to stare me up and down. I sputtered something about how she must have known Madame Brassart.
“Oh yes,” she shrilled. “Madame Brassart. Now that was a despicable woman.”
Some seven years later, I got a call from a girl named Kimberly, who said that I was under consideration to be one of the featured chefs in Julia’s new TV series. Could I send them a tape for Julia to review? Needless to say, this was a huge honor. I sent along a short video of some things I had done. Two days later, Kimberly called to tell me that I had been chosen. She went on to say that when Julia saw the tape, her reaction was, “He’s so manly.” My wife and kids fell out laughing. I don’t know why.
I showed up in Cambridge the day before the shoot and was taken by the producer to a local restaurant for dinner. At around 11 p.m., we noticed Julia arrive. I noted that we had a 6 a.m. start the next morning. Shouldn’t she be in bed? I was told not to worry about Julia.
At 6 the next morning, Julia greeted me at the door of her home and invited me in for coffee before the taping. She had hosted nine other chefs in the nine days before me. She made me feel at home, seemed genuinely interested in what I was making and was extremely easy to talk to. We began working immediately. At 11 a.m., she went upstairs for a nine-minute nap, and she did that again at 2:30. We finished around 6 p.m. Exhausting. For me, I mean.
To my surprise, we became close friends. I was surprised because Julia had thousands of close friends, and I’m just another chef. But when it came to being irreverent, I had met my match. Afterward, we sat in the dining room and shared a bottle of wine. Maybe two. The next chef was there preparing for her shoot the following day. Julia, a connoisseur of gossip as well as food, asked her what it was like working for a certain, rather famous, female restaurateur.
Chef: Great. She works very hard and does a great job.
Julia: And, well, she dates, doesn’t she?
Chef: Yes, ma’am, she dates.
Julia: And she dates, um, men?
Chef: Yes, ma’am, she dates men.
Julia: And she dates, um, women?
Chef: (Pause) Yes, ma’am, she dates women.
Julia (giggling): I had heard that about her!
Julia and I worked so well together that she requested I attend book signings, cooking demos and housewares shows with her, sharing the stage. Often we would go to dinner and share notes. At one particular dinner, I was stunned at just how bad everything was, considering the fame of the chef who cooked it. In the limo going back to the hotel, she asked me how I liked the meal. “I thought it sucked,” I said. “Yes,” she added, “It certainly wasn’t my kind of food either.”
And at one point, we were discussing the James Beard Foundation. I hinted at some concerns I had about their finances and mission. She also had concerns, she said, and was going to write a letter to its president, Peter Kump.
While touring a few weeks later, Julia and I got word that Peter had passed away. “Oh well,” she said. “I guess he won’t be answering that letter.”
In 1995, we held a dinner in her honor at The Frog and the Redneck. She delighted Richmond, and gave us some fabulous memories. I remember asking a friend if we could borrow a top-of-the-line Mercedes for a couple of days. He obliged with a most luxurious car: separate air conditioning for each passenger, burled wood trim, double-paned glass to keep the noise out and sound in. Julia asked me if I would like such a car. I said, “No thanks, I’m a Toyota kinda guy.” She then asked her producer, Geoff Drummond, if he would like such a car.
“Hell yeah,” he said, “if you’re buying.”
“I wouldn’t want this car,” she said. “It’s not because of the car, mind you. It’s very nice. It’s about the kind of people that would own a car like this.”
C’mon, Julia, tell us how you really feel.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Sneed shared a version of this story with PBS in an interview for Julia Child’s 100th birthday in 2012.