In Praise of Julia Child & The Well-Cluttered Kitchen

Ahh, the French Chef. For many, the arrival of the 1963 PBS series was a doorway into a whole new world.

In 1948, Julia Child, was stationed in post-War Paris with her husband, and little did she know then, but she’d change America’s cuisine forever in the years to come.

She spent much of the next decade writing Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the cookbook that would introduce French cooking to “servantless American cooks” once published in 1961.

By then, she had returned to America to settle down with her husband in Massachusetts. Upon getting the word that her book was being published, there was no looking back for the towering dame who’d dominate the food scene for the next four decades.

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Julia Child’s Kitchen

That quaint rural kitchen became the most famous kitchen in America, so, fittingly, at the turn of the 21st century, the Smithsonian Museum adopted it as a permanent exhibit, almost completely intact with the chef’s collection of over 800 knives and endless tools, and, yes, those incredible pegboards.

Last weekend, I was kind of wistfully dreaming I could live Julia Child’s life and cook in her kitchen. I blame Nora Ephron, rest in peace, thanks to her delightfully fun movie Julie & Julia. The DVD extras came with a long feature about the Smithsonian’s adopting of Julia’s kitchen when she decided to move into a retirement community at the end of her life. It was a passionate tribute to a legendary kitchen, and I watched it rapt.

Today, kitchens often look almost sterile. So clean and clear of clutter. It feels almost like kitchens are meant to be seen but not used.

My dream kitchen

No one could ever have accused Ms. Child of that sin of kitchen neglect. Everywhere, pegs and clips and hooks were filled with tools and pots and pans. Her kitchen was to cooking what a master carpenter’s tool shed is to his woodworking mastery: A place for everything, a tool for every job, with instruments displayed so you simply reach out, grab it, and work.

Looking at Julia’s well-cluttered kitchen, one can’t help but think there isn’t a designer alive who’d put that kitchen in a showhome today, and yet it would be my dream kitchen, and I imagine I’m not alone.

Julia Child didn’t live to eat, she lived to cook. And then eat. And then cook some more. The woman had a mirror and a makeup drawer in the kitchen, for when guests would call, because she spent so much time in there!

Toward the end of Ephron’s film, you see Julia and Paul assembling that famous kitchen upon moving into the house. Paul armed with a Jiffy marker, outlining pots and tools on these walls covered with a carpenter’s pegboards, so they’d always know where the pot was supposed to hang.

Between that, the endless drawers, the knife slots on her butcher’s carts, the magnetic strips filled with knives, and the knick-knacks that made it feel like home for her, the kitchen was a place meant for work, for creating amazing foods, and for sharing them with the world, and we’re all the better for her single-minded passion.

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Life happens in kitchens

I’m no Julia Child, but I’ve taught people to cook for a living in the past, and I believe there is no more valuable nor rewarding skill one can learn in life. Nothing beats being able to walk into your kitchen and make incredible braised chicken, or serve your lover an eggs Benedict on Sunday morning, or whip up the best cake ever for your kid’s birthday, or just cook yourself a killer steak when you want a quiet Friday night catching up on your PVR.

When you can do it for under $10 in ingredients versus shelling out $40 in a restaurant, you bet it’s a quality-of-life skill that makes you happier in heart and mind. And providing that tasty joy for others is even more rewarding, as Julia spent a lifetime teaching us.

Cooking can be done with a minimum of tools, but someone who loves to cook doesn’t just have tools — they burst at the cupboards with spices and sauces and condiments and all kinds of pantry ingredients. There are books, squeeze bottles, weird utensils, and more that we need to truly excel in the kitchen.

Show me an empty, clutter-free kitchen, and I’ll show you a homeowner that doesn’t cook. But show me a cluttered kitchen that’s poorly organized, and I’ll show you a cook who burns more than their fair share of dishes.

Organized clutter is good

If any one room should have some organized clutter, it’s a well-used kitchen of a passionate chef. Looking around Julia Child’s hub, one instinctively knows there’s not a dish in the world that Julia wouldn’t have had the tools to cook.

In today’s global-village world filled of fusion foods, international ingredients, and a more savvy dining public, you’d think our kitchens would be getting more cluttered with awesome instruments, not less.

Don’t be afraid to fill your kitchen with tools of the trade. If Julia could do it, so can you.

Maybe, just maybe, through the utilitarian-yet-loving tribute to her tool-heavy kitchen at the Smithsonian Museum, Julia Child will continue teaching us the glory of cooking, and the greatness of a well-cluttered kitchen, for years to come.

Thanks for the memories, Julia.

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