Julia Child wasn't my mentor, but her husband sure was

In early May, Simon & Schuster released A Covert Affair: Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS by Jennet Conant — a book pegged by romantic home cooks as the prequel to Paul and Julia Child’s love story and culinary affair that led to Julia’s later-in-life success.


While excerpts from diaries and personal letters of Paul and Julia give a more voyeuristic glimpse into their courtship and marriage than readers received from Julia’s My Life in France and Noël Riley Fitch’s Biography of Julia Child, the main characters of this book are World War II, McCarthyism and Jane Foster — friend and former OSS (Office of Strategic Services) colleague of Paul and Julia, whom was later convicted of Soviet espionage. Hardly romantic, and hardly inspiration for preparing Julia’s famous boeuf à la bourguignonne.

Despite the misleading “Covert” title, there is a common storyline that bridges the gaps and different perspectives of Julia’s life illustrated in these books: Paul’s love and devotion, which was later confessed by Julia to be the secret to their 47-year marriage, and the secret to Julia’s culinary triumphs and achievements. And it’s this kind of adoration that keeps us hopelessly in love with Paul and Julia as a couple, and with Julia as a teacher and mentor. (Stanley Tucci didn’t hurt in helping us visualize, either.)

I never considered Julia a culinary mentor. I suppose in some way I was inspired, although not in the way one might compare the influence on Julie Powell from the Julie and Julia blog-to-book-to-movie phenomenon. I casually watched her shows on PBS while growing up in Massachusetts, never giving a second thought to the filming happening less than 50 miles from my house. At the time, I had my sights set on graduating from art school and then working in advertising as a creative director and copywriter. And I did, for 18 years.

Then I found out I had food allergies, and in order to eat (and live to tell about it) I had to begin cooking everything from scratch. I considered myself a good cook, but not a great cook. And despite watching Julia Child over a 10-year period, I certainly didn’t consider myself the type that could cook without recipes.

At the age of 38, to learn more about food and food allergies, I enrolled in culinary school with kids half my age. Once in a while I would think about Julia Child, but this time with admiration rather than for entertainment value. And as graduation approached I came to realize the parallels in our lives (minus the McCarthyism).

In particular, we share the same love and devotion storyline that seems to bridge the gaps, push us beyond our expectations, and inspire us to reach for goals we never thought possible. For Julia, it was Paul. For me, it’s my husband, daughter and entire extended Italian family.

Having this type of support system allows you to do career-related things that scare the pants off of you (in a good way), like doing a first-of-its-kind live cooking show in 1963 (Julia) or cooking for Food Network cameras in 2009 without any prior experience (me).

The support makes the possibility of failure less of a burden. Not to say that without the support and encouragement of friends and family you can’t take giant leaps of faith. You can, and should. The love and devotion part just makes it easier.

So what’s your story, who is your “Paul?” How have your friends and family helped you achieve your greatest culinary success stories or helped you get through your biggest failures?


Dawn Viola is a research and development chef, food writer and the voice behind the award-winning food blog, Wicked Good Dinner.  

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