By Pamela Heyne
Author of In Julia's Kitchen: Practical and Convivial Kitchen Design Inspired by Julia Child; Jim Scherer, coauthor.
I met my coauthor Jim Scherer in 1989 when I was interviewing Julia Child for a possible book on kitchen design. Julia suggested I hire Jim to do the photo shoot. My book idea then was to photograph and discuss twenty kitchens of noted food authorities, but the research was daunting in those pre-Google days, and I had found Julia’s address simply because she was in the Smith Alumnae directory — we were both Smithies. My interview with Julia ultimately turned into an article in Washingtonian Magazine, which felt apropos as Julia had been a long-time Georgetown resident. The majority of Jim’s photographs then languished in files. At the time I would go on to write a second book on mirrors, Mirror By Design; parallel to my interest in kitchen design, I had come to appreciate mirrors’ versatility as a means of enhancing space and views, and providing clean energy. More on that later.
I recently revisited the Julia Child book because I felt that we — Americans — could use some of her unique inspiration today. In the last twenty-five years our American kitchens have become ever more open, which is not always compatible with serious cooks. Meals are often eaten on barstools or in front of the TV, and open kitchens also inevitably encourage snacking, which contributes to our national obesity epidemic…and some designs are so abstract they barely register as kitchens. “Julia hated those kitchens — a kitchen is a place to do things!” according to her longtime friend Pat Pratt.
Julia’s Cambridge kitchen, which is now a permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution, was both comfortable for cooking and welcoming to friends. Guests generally ate at the wooden kitchen table, which was usually covered with yellow oilcloth. Jim Scherer, who collaborated with Julia for nearly thirty years, often ate at that table; in the book he shares his charming culinary memories. Also, the photographs Jim took of Julia’s kitchen in 1989 show what it was like as a true working space, what was on her counter, and even what books she was reading. And his photographs backstage at the TV show “Julia Child & Company” demonstrate her sense of conviviality even there, as she often ate with staff after the show. Julia’s French vacation home La Pitchoune also gets attention. The small stucco house, nestled in hills near Nice, has a diminuitive, but very practical, kitchen with implements mounted on pegboard and a butcher block counter. Meals there were often taken on the flower-rimmed patio. (Under new ownership, it is a vacation and cooking destination.)
In the second half of the book I highlight a series of “simpatico” kitchens, including some floor plans. These kitchens share Julia’s attitude about practicality and conviviality, and yet they look quite different from her kitchens. Some are separate rooms like her kitchens were. Others might be more open. Importantly, all these kitchens emphasize a dining table. Additionally, climate change, not an issue in Julia’s time, now impacts our choices for materials and appliances. As an architect, I discuss how we might now use an induction cooktop rather than an energy intensive range, as Julia did.
One of my favorite “simpatico” kitchens is owned by Claudine Pepin (Jacques Pepin’s daughter) and her husband, Rollie Wesen, a professional chef. The kitchen is practical with compact counter space and equipment hung on rustic walls. Their dining table, an heirloom from Claudine’s family, is just steps away in the dining room, where most of the family’s meals are taken.
Some of our most memorable occasions often occur around a dining table. I enjoy entertaining, and on the home front have always emphasized the family meal. In 2002 my husband Carl Widell and I adopted two Russian sisters, age 7 and 9. We always sat down to meals, sometimes in the family room, sometimes in the dining room. Now the sisters are successful young women. Both are excellent cooks and advocates for the family meal.
Sometimes I set the dining table with mirrored placemats and candles — a festive look. Some might wonder how I can be interested in mirrors and Julia Child. My answer: they both add sparkle to our lives.