cookbook club: mastering the art of French cooking

For the grand finale of our Spring 2022 season, Legendary Women Cookbook Authors, Part 1, we’re talking about the woman who inspired the subject to begin with. Julia Child. 

Yes, there were legends before her – I’m talking about you, Fanny Farmer and Irma Rombauer… and so many more. But… Julia. Some thought that, at forty years old, she was getting a late start.

No. Her timing was as impeccable as her omelet making instructions. Any earlier and the world would not have been ready for her. But when she met Louisette Bertholle and Simone “Simca” Beck in 1949, it was the perfect storm. 

hurricane Julia

Simca Beck attended Le Cordon Bleu in the 1930s but didn’t begin her professional culinary career until after WWII. Her friend Louisette Bertholle was more socialite than culinary professional, but she knew good food, and how to dine.

It was actually Bertholle’s idea to write a cookbook to teach American women about French cooking. The two friends had the right idea, but something was missing.

Turns out, that something arrived in Paris in 1948. The three met at a cocktail party in 1949. Julia was invited to join the others in the culinary social group, Le Cercle des Gourmettes. She then attended Le Cordon Bleu in 1950.

The three women founded L’Ecole des Tres Gourmandes (“the school of the three hearty eaters”) in the mid-1950s where they taught visiting American housewives – many of whom were friends of Julia – to cook French.

writing Mastering The Art of French Cooking

The three authors collected all the recipes from their cooking school, as well as many others they considered de rigueur. What set these recipes apart, though, was the level of instruction they included.

Julia – a woman we often celebrate for her joyful imperfection – was a ruthless perfectionist in the writing of each recipe. The original manuscript was over 850 pages of exceptional (excessive?) details. The first edition was edited to 684 pages.

Julia questioned every step of every recipe; she scrutinized every instruction, every ingredient in order to assure they were available in America. American ingredients were flown to Paris so she could test them in the recipes herself. She left no stone unturned, no question unanswered.

Beck was equally as fastidious. Bertholle was less so, according to most accounts. This eventually spelled the end of their friendship. 

becoming legend

The Childs left Paris in 1961, the same year Mastering… was published. This was only the beginning of Julia Child, the legend. Upon returning to the US, the Childs settled in Cambridge, Mass. In 1963 Julia in an interview to promote Mastering…, a fateful moment occurred that led to “The French Chef” airing nationally on WGBH Boston from February 1963 until July 1966.

Julia made the cover of Time Magazine in 1966, dubbed “Our Lady of the Ladle.” Then, “The French Chef” returned to television, in color, in 1970 for 200 episodes. 

Books, awards, and more television shows… even the creation of The American Institute of Wine and Food followed. Paul Child passed away in 1994. Yet, still more books, more shows, and more awards followed as Julia worked tirelessly well into the 21st century. 

In 2002 the kitchen from her Cambridge home, that Paul designed especially for her, was donated to the Smithsonian Institute and became one of its most popular exhibits. In 2003, Julia was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She died in August 2004, just two days before her 92nd birthday. 

eternal legend status

Death didn’t slow her down! In 2012 Julia’s 100th birthday was a great international celebration. She has since been featured on a US postage stamp and her foundation thrives. In 2022, two new television series, a podcast, and a documentary were added to the list.

In the end, it was simply “being Julia” that made Julia a legend.

4 cookbook covers by legendary women
all books available from

about the book

Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Volume One) was published in 1961. Since then, over 1.5 million copies have sold. This book is so closely associated with Julia Child that it’s sometimes simply referred to as “Julia”. 

The book was also, over time, been accused of being elitist. Maybe it is. But Child simply acknowledged that by saying, “[French cooking] simply means careful cooking, la cuisine soignée, by people who know what they are doing.” No apologies. 

Nor are there any apologies for the notably long and complicated recipes, such as 8 pages dedicated to an omelet. Child again simply states, “every detail takes up space… making some actually quite simple recipes look long.”

The point is to teach fundamental skills that, once mastered, actually free the cook from the tyranny of recipes. Mastery of a technique means that it all comes down to ingredients. 

The 1983 re-edited version brought substantial changes that reflected decades of new technology and more recipe testing. The greatest addition to the manuscript was the inclusion of the food processor. A real game-changer. At least in my opinion, the book gets a little gushy about the machine, giving it more glory than it may deserve. 

I’ve cooked Julia Child recipes many times over the years, but this was the first time I actually read the book as a book. For someone who grew up with Julia’s voice from the television for most of my life (I’m old enough to have seen her first show in first runs, albeit I was quite young), it was her voice I heard in my head with every phrase. And that’s comforting. And encouraging. 

A lot has changed in the 60+ years since Mastering the Art of French Cooking was first published… even in the nearly 40 years since the last re-edits. But there is still something timeless about cooking from “Julia” that I don’t think will ever leave us. And I know our cookbook group was all very glad for that.

the cooking part…

For each cookbook, I create a menu featuring a selection of recipes – kinda like an assignment. This provides some structure for prep and for our conversations. They’re only suggestions, and many people experiment with whatever strikes their fancy. 

Because we only had 2 weeks to cook from this book (nearly impossible), and because the level of complexity of the recipe varies so dramatically, I chose a different method for assigning recipes. I offered “beginner” and “advanced” options for each category and encouraged people to focus on only 2-3 recipes, more if they had time. Here’s a sample of what we chose from:

eggspoached eggs rolled omelet  oeufs à la bourguignonne 
oeufs en gelée 
biteschoose a quiche 
choose a soufflé 
pâte à choux
quenelles de poisson soufflé démoulé, mousseline timbale de crêpes 
gnocchi de semoule avec pâte à choux
fishfish fillets in white wine sauce (or variation)
moules à la marinière  
lobster thermidor 
flounder soufflé with sauce mousseline sabayon 
poultrypoulet au porto 
poulet poêlé à l’estragon 
choose a chicken fricasee  
poulet sauté chasseur 
coq au vin 
caneton à l’ orange 
meatsteak: choose a preparation 
daube de boeuf 
navarin printanier  
boeuf bourguignon 
carbonnades à la flamande blanquette de veau à l’ancienne cassoulet  
vegetableschoose a seasonal vegetable (from your farmers’ market) and try a new way to prepare it.artichokes 
légumes à la grecque  
salad (cold buffet)céleri-rave rémoulade 
salade niçoise  
aspic or molded mousse 
pâtés and terrines
dessertschocolate mousse 
crème renversée au caramel 
charlotte aux pommes 
choose a clafouti 
choose a bavarois 
choose a sweet soufflé 
tarte au poires à la bourdaloue reine de saba 

notes on what we cooked

poached eggs

Yes, poached eggs. The old-fashioned way. Without the special egg poacher thingy. The bane of existence for line cooks and home cooks alike. One of the reasons eggs benedict are so popular. The instructions in this book have changed lives in our little group, and I’m sure in many others for decades past and future, too. Do you hate making poached eggs at home? Let Julia teach you how!

potato leek soup

Another super simple, but life changing recipe with a seeming endless list of variations… a perfect example of what this book is all about. Master one technique, the world is your buffet!

salade niçoise

So good that I just added it back onto my private chef service menus. Simple, beautiful, delicious, and a good excuse to dirty more bowls than you knew you had!


This was one of the group favorites. It’s another exercise in dirtying every pan and bowl in the kitchen, but – again – worth it. Maybe Julia should have been singing the praises of the automatic dishwasher instead of the food processor! Make this recipe and watch the Pixar movie of the same name in celebration of its 15th anniversary – that’s what I’m doing!

steak au poivre 

Not just for steakhouses. If you’ve never made this at home, you must give it a try. If you live in an apartment, don’t forget to open all the windows, run all the vents, and have a towel nearby to wave at your smoke alarm… just a small public service announcement (but still make the steak).

boeuf bourguignons 

Of course, we had to make this! Although maybe better to do it in the fall or winter. Still worth every minute of effort (though most effort came from trying to follow along with the multi-page recipe while cooking). 

reine de saba

The Queen of Sheba cake. The ultimate flourless chocolate cake. 


Have you ever had a clafoutis? It’s a quintessential French dessert. A favorite of many. A great way to use fresh cherries (and a good excuse to buy a cherry pitter). But let me adjust the expectations of those who don’t know… this bears more resemblance to a cherry omelet, or a dutch baby, than to a cherry cake. I prefer mine for breakfast.

chocolate mousse

In the course of our 5 seasons of this cookbook group, we have been challenged to make at least 4 other chocolate mousse recipes. This is the easiest, and the best. It’s also the richest, by far. Anything that encourages you to lighten it up by adding whipped heavy cream will do that. And, if it says that, it was probably written by Julia.

more on Julia

Want to know more about Julia? There are many good biographies to read or watch, many TV specials and series. There’s also the Julia Child Foundation where you can find this timeline of Julia’s life

Speaking of the Julia Child Foundation, our last legend, Grace Young, was the most recent recipient of the Julia Child Foundation Award 2022. You can read more about Grace here.

in closing

I hope you’ve enjoyed being a part of this season’s cookbook club. We are taking the summer off, but will return in Autumn 2022 for a new season!

I’ll continue to write these follow up posts here on Wander Eat and Tell, so make sure to subscribe/follow for the latest! This season started HERE.

If you would like to catch up with the past seasons’ books, you can get started HERE.

As always, I want to thank Kitchen Arts & Letters bookstore and the 92nd Street Y in NYC for creating these programs that provide great opportunities for furthering food and drink scholarship and enrichment. 

Note: all the links in this post are here because they’re products or services I personally support. I do not receive any sort of payment for having them here. My compensation is in no way tied to your clicks, purchases, or registrations. 

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