Food & Drink

Julia Child’s Surprising Southern Flavor

A Richmond exhibition spotlights the culinary icon’s Virginia connections, including her friendship with one of today’s top chefs

A black and white photo of Julia Child

Photo: Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

Julia Child, photographed during a 1966 episode of The French Chef.

Patrick O’Connell, chef of the Inn at Little Washington in rural Virginia, took a stroll the other day and ran into his good friend Julia Child around every corner. The fact that the culinary icon passed away nearly two decades ago wasn’t much of a hindrance, given that her legacy is presented so vividly by Julia Child: A Recipe for Life, a new exhibition at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture in Richmond.

O’Connell, whose restaurant is one of only thirteen in the country to be awarded three Michelin stars, was on hand last week to preview the exhibition and share personal reflections. “Julia’s spirit is captured perfectly,” he said of the woman who, though not readily associated with the South, made a lasting impact on a coterie of its renowned restaurateurs. “You really get the taste and feel of the person.”

Indeed, in tracing Child’s life from her youth in California to an idyllic interlude in France to national fame as the joie de vivre–exuding host of The French Chef on PBS, the exhibition is designed to engage and entertain as much as edify. On display are convincing facsimiles of her beloved coq au vin and bouillabaisse preparations next to pot lids that can be lifted for facsimile whiffs. Encased like the Magna Carta is the original publisher’s letter accepting her landmark 1961 cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Turn and find yourself standing amid a beguiling representation of the first café at which Child and husband Paul ate lunch upon arriving in France in 1948, with images of courses projected onto white plates. Video snippets galore are on loop, and it all culminates in a re-creation of her TV kitchen complete with avocado-green cabinetry.

photo: Henry Ford Museum
A look inside Julia Child: A Recipe for Life.

This is the traveling exhibition’s first stop in the South—and only the third since it debuted last year—and it smartly incorporates elements that speak to Child’s Virginia ties, including personal correspondence with the chef Jimmy Sneed about a dinner at his legendary Richmond eatery the Frog and the Redneck. Most arresting is the fire-engine-red, wood-burning stove upon which, while holed up in a drafty Virginia farmhouse in the 1970s, O’Connell taught himself to cook from a tattered copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. “I had the stove, some pots and pans, and those recipes—what else do you need?” he recounted. “I was amazed by the tastes and textures I discovered there.”

While still a struggling caterer, O’Connell met Child at a crêpes-making demo in Washington, D.C., and they soon became pals and mutual fans. When staying at the Inn at Little Washington, Child often came down to the kitchen in the wee hours just to chat with the restaurant’s midnight baker. And when she enlisted O’Connell to prepare the meal that would be served to more than two hundred guests at her ninetieth birthday party in 2002, he complied with her surprising menu requests of cheeseburgers, Caesar salads, and hot fudge sundaes. “At ninety, you get whatever you want,” he says. “And those sundaes brought out the child in everyone.”

photo: courtesy of The Inn at Little Washington
Child and chef Patrick O’Connell on her ninetieth birthday.

Yet another exhibition nook is devoted to Child’s 1976 cookbook-promoting visit to Richmond, during which she appeared on local TV and conducted a cooking demo at the old Thalhimers department store. Included, amusingly, is an enlarged photo of her and Paul carving a Virginia country ham in their hotel room, accompanied by the handwritten addendum, “Tasted good, but came apart and hard to carve.”

Before departing the preview event, O’Connell revealed one more way Child continues to nourish him and, in the process, her legacy. “Not a day goes by that I don’t send a young cook into my office to pull down one of Julia’s books,” he said, “and pick out something to make me for dinner.”

Julia Child: A Recipe for Life is on exhibit at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture in Richmond through September 2.