Savouring good food

Julie Cohen on Julia Child, food preparation and documentary Julia

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Sony Pictures Classics DOC NYC Julia première with directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen on Julia Child takes place on Sunday, November 14
Sony Pictures Classics DOC NYC Julia première with directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen on Julia Child takes place on Sunday, November 14 Photo: Jim Scherer, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Legend has it that one filet of sole with lemon and butter altered the path of Julia Child’s life. With one omelette, she set in motion a change of the kitchen culture in America. Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s mouthwatering documentary implicitly gives credit to this fish and this hen, and explicitly to the woman who appreciated so much the culinary treasures they had to offer. Julia is a film about food and about the change in attitude towards cooking one woman could spark. Based on Julia’s great-nephew, Alex Prud’homme’s book, The French Chef in America: Julia Child's Second Act, directors West and Cohen (of RBG fame), trace her career and enlighten us about what was at stake.

Julie Cohen with Anne-Katrin Titze on the French spirit and the centrality of food: “Life can be so much better when we’re all putting a little energy into preparing and eating and savouring good food.”
Julie Cohen with Anne-Katrin Titze on the French spirit and the centrality of food: “Life can be so much better when we’re all putting a little energy into preparing and eating and savouring good food.”

Yves Montand croons about the pleasures Julia Child and her husband Paul are about to experience Sous le ciel de Paris, the marvellous markets and bakeries beckon, and Julia in enrols at the fabled Cordon Bleu cooking school to learn all the codified secrets which form the basis of classic French cuisine. With her friend Simca, Julia embarks on writing a cookbook for American audiences which is rejected by Houghton Mifflin, because they believe the American housewife “might be frightened by it.” Seen on camera praising Julia Child is her friend Danièle Delpeuch, personal chef to former French President François Mitterand. Earlier this year I had two conversations with Oren Jacoby (a Julia executive producer) on his latest film On Broadway and Sam Shepard: Stalking Himself from 1998.

Before watching Julia, you may want to stock up on green beans and potatoes and other favourite ingredients to prepare your own version of the end credit miracle - the Salade Niçoise.

From Los Angeles, Julie Cohen joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on Julia (a highlight of the 12th edition of DOC NYC), Julia Child, and food preparation.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Good to see you! You’re not in New York!

Julie Cohen on Julia Child: “Julia is amazing, she’s hilarious, both knowledgeable and an entertainer and everything you want her to be.”
Julie Cohen on Julia Child: “Julia is amazing, she’s hilarious, both knowledgeable and an entertainer and everything you want her to be.” Photo: Fairchild Archive-Penske Media-Shutterstock, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Julie Cohen: Although I’m based in New York, I’m actually in LA right now.

AKT: I see the light coming through your window.

JC: The beautiful light of LA, although, frankly, there’s a little bit of the smog of L.A. too out there right now.

AKT: First question: Did Ruth Bader Ginsberg ever meet Julia Child?

JC: Ho, ho! Okay, on a fact-checking basis I’m not positive that the answer is no. But I am strongly guessing that RBG and Julia Child never met one another. It would have been an awkward thing if they had, because RBG was notoriously a terrible cook. So bad that her own family actually threw her out of the kitchen. RBG’s husband who did the cooking in their household probably would have loved to meet Julia Child. As far as we know they didn’t meet, but we haven’t researched it.

AKT: So you are the connecting link. I have to tell you, I haven’t eaten meat in more than ten years.

JC: Oh-oh!

AKT: I haven’t had much butter or dairy either, but I was never more tempted in all those years. That’s a great compliment! I have not fallen off the wagon, but your food footage is fantastic!

Julie Cohen on Danièle Delpeuch: “ A great pioneer in French food …”
Julie Cohen on Danièle Delpeuch: “ A great pioneer in French food …” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

JC: Yes, when you’re making a story about Julia Child, the food seems like the right place to start. It was very much our intention that the food was to be an absolutely essential part of the story and that we wanted to show it off to great effect. So we got all these episodes of the French Chef and other shows that Julia did. If you look at that archival footage, Julia is amazing, she’s hilarious, both knowledgeable and an entertainer and everything you want her to be.

The food cinematography going back to the Sixties - actually the years have not been kind to it. The black and white footage, a little bit blurry at the edges of Boeuf Bourguignon is not what it should be. Technology has just improved so much. To do this for the big screen we were really psyched about. All the food that you’re seeing in the film, except for the vegetables in a wok, is Julia Child recipes prepared authentically as Julia prepared them. We had two separate cinematographers, one in New York and one in France. In New York, we created a replica of Julia Child’s Cambridge kitchen, quite specific in its detail.

Our great DP Claudia Raschke did very vérité-type shooting of a food stylist and cook named Susan Spungen, who is sort of an expert on Julia Child preparing these dishes. Separately we had a specialty photographer in Paris who was filming these same recipes, much more impressionistically - extreme closeups, slow motion footage that we created with the Phantom Camera that can shoot 1000 frames per second. The editor, Carla Gutierrez, who was also our editor on RBG would bring these elements together, so that it felt like a seamless preparation.

Julia Child at the Ecole Des Trois Gourmandes
Julia Child at the Ecole Des Trois Gourmandes Photo: Paul Child. © Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

AKT: It worked beautifully. I particularly loved the Salade Niçoise you end with. It’s my favourite!

JC: You know what’s funny? The Salade Niçoise was the most beautiful of all and we couldn’t quite figure out where to fit it in. We were a little worried, it it weird that we have dessert near the beginning of the film and then we end with a salad?

AKT: Not at all! I went out and got all the ingredients for a Niçoise after watching it. I was most happy, though, to see Danièle Delpeuch in your film! I interviewed her in 2013 at the Algonquin Hotel in New York in connection to the film that was made about her life, with Catherine Frot playing her [in Les Saveurs Du Palais].

JC: Right, the narrative film, which we became aware of once we had booked her for an interview. What a spectacular parson! A great pioneer in French food, the first woman to be the personal chef for a French head of state, François Mitterand. Oh my god, we loved her so much! She was in fact close to Julia in life, but she brought so much to the story in terms of the perspective why the French love food so much. Also painfully, the sexism that she herself experienced in the French professional kitchens going back to the Fifties and Sixties. We loved the story she told, that no woman can be a cook because the utensils are too heavy for her. The way she rolls her eyes when she’s talking about that! What a fantastic lady!

AKT: She’s great, so happy to see her featured in your film. One omelette changed Julia’s life and with that changed the food culture of America! Before that, for her, came one filet of sole in butter and lemon. Were you structuring your film around those pivotal moments?

Paul and Julia Child's wine and cheese party
Paul and Julia Child's wine and cheese party Photo: Paul Child. © Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

JC: Absolutely. And often the pivotal moments were about food! My directing partner Betsy and I are old enough that we can remember how bad food used to be in this country, what passed for something that was acceptable to serve at a dinner party. Those crazy artificially coloured jello moulds with weird vegetables and marshmallows suspended in them. My own mother actually used to prepare a spaghetti with ketchup as something she served for dinner. There’s sort of no bottom to how bad food was allowed to be. And Julia really changed that and brought to this country the spirit that the French have had for so long of just the centrality of food. Life can be so much better when we’re all putting a little energy into preparing and eating and savouring good food.

AKT: I have to give you credit for that part as well. The footage you show of the processed American food from the Fifties is some of the most disgusting I have ever seen on film. You are really going out there! It’s very funny.

JC: That was really a fun part of the movie to gather the archival footage and assess it, like, which is the most disgusting.

AKT: I liked your choice of music. The two Yves Montand songs set the tone and energy of Julia’s enchantment with Paris.

Julia Child with her husband Paul on their front lawn
Julia Child with her husband Paul on their front lawn Photo: Brian Leatart, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

JC: We were trying to create a movie that feels not so documentary-ish. We wanted to create the feeling of a romantic comedy and of a date movie. An expensive date movie, because people really need to have dinner reservations also, otherwise it would be a terrible date. The songs that we licensed we want to be really engaging in a whole variety of ways. Yves Montand, as you point out, but also Jimi Hendrix woven in there at the top, and Nat King Cole at the end. The original score was composed by Rachel Portman, who is mostly a narrative film composer. She makes music part of the storytelling. Making it a woman composer was from our point of view all the better.

AKT: There are surprises about Julia Child that go beyond cooking, beyond the kitchen. First of all, during the war she worked with spies at the OSS, not as a spy. Later on she became an advocate for Planned Parenthood. She did AIDS benefits.

JC: Yeah, Julia came very early to the table as a celebrity who chooses to use her platform to support things that they decide matter. It’s almost hard to have the full context right now, it seems like not such a big deal to come out for Planned Parenthood, but to be doing that 40 years ago, was a really big deal. Particularly for Julia, whose audiences were not liberal elites, Julia’s audience was middle America and there were certainly, as the film shows, those who disliked her advocacy of reproductive rights to the point where she was showing up at a grocery store to do a demonstration and people were picketing her. She didn’t care, she wants to stand up for what she believed. In her AIDS activism, it showed Julia’s evolution from someone who was frankly pretty homophobic to someone who became a big supporter of both gay rights and AIDS research.

AKT: Her ability to change and learn comes across so well. I think it is Ruth Reichl who mentions that Julia was at first so defensive about new trends concerning farm-fresh produce. It’s astonishing when you take into consideration her California childhood in Pasadena which is described as a paradise of avocados and lemon trees. Also the market shopping she loved in France. Those contradictions are interesting.

The Professor (Marcel Hillaire) with Sabrina (Audrey Hepburn) in Billy Wilder’s Sabrina
The Professor (Marcel Hillaire) with Sabrina (Audrey Hepburn) in Billy Wilder’s Sabrina

JC: Absolutely. Julia had a lot of contradictions in her life. Her childhood and youth which was so luxurious and privileged on the one hand, but also very restricting and caged. There were not a lot of options. Yes she could go to college, her family was in favour of that degree of education, but the idea was not that she was then go and work. You find a respectable husband, you have babies and maybe do a little bit of volunteer work. That she would pursue her passion was not something that Julia’s conservative family had in mind.

AKT: Do you and your co-director cook?

JC: Betsy and I we both really enjoy eating and we both enjoy cooking. In my case, my original career aspiration was actually to be a professional chef. I had a catering business that I started in junior high school and high school. My mother, the one who gave me the spaghetti with the ketchup, was a terrible cook. Also both of my grandmothers were terrible cooks, but the whole family was pretty interested in eating, so I became the family’s special events cook from the time I was 12 years old.

I did quite a lot of cooking and baking, I had this catering business, and I thought that I would be a lady chef. Between my junior and senior year in high school, I went to a cooking program in France where I got to meet some women who were in the professional food world, all of whom - this goes back to the 1980s - told me: you do not want to pursue this career. It is miserable, being in the food business is miserable on its face and being a woman is even worse, like don’t do it, Julie! That changed my mind. I had actually been planning to apply to get a degree at a hotel school and I was talked out of it. So I made cooking an avocation. Ever since then I cook for myself and my husband, not as a career.

Julia Child with Chef Bugnard and students at Cordon Bleu
Julia Child with Chef Bugnard and students at Cordon Bleu Photo: Paul Child. © Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

AKT: You resisted to show the clip from Billy Wilder’s Sabrina? “New egg!”

JC: That’s a good question. We looked at that clip and I don’t remember whether there were financial and legal reasons that we decided not to include it. That’s such a sweet moment - I love Audrey Hepburn. It did give a good sense of what the world at the Cordon Bleu was like, certainly.

AKT: I spoke with Oren [Jacoby] about his films about a month ago, the Broadway one and also the old Shepard film.

JC: Yes, I love that movie.

AKT: By the way, did you see Morgan Neville’s Anthony Bourdain film? Talking about being resistant to going into the cooking world?

JC: Yes, I obviously saw that when it came out, but it’s quite something to remember all the downsides. Julia Child in some way didn’t even enter the cooking world in that sense. She learned to cook herself, she became a personality on television, which is pretty different than if she had tried to work her way up in a professional restaurant.

AKT: Earlier this afternoon, I spoke to Tom Donahue, the director of Dean Martin: King Of Cool, which is also screening in DOC NYC. There is a very important cooking thread throughout the film. Dean Martin’s Rosebud [according to Deana, his daughter] is actually a recipe.

Member of the crew comes out of the refrigerator to hand Julia Child a fish
Member of the crew comes out of the refrigerator to hand Julia Child a fish Photo: Paul Child. © Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

JC: Really? That’s interesting.

AKT: There’s a secret ingredient that I won’t give away, but I’m sure you would enjoy that.

JC: I will check it out. I’m just thinking of the first Dean Martin song that comes to my mind from The Best Is Yet To Come, starts with a reference to a plum, so maybe he’s a food guy.

AKT: It’s not a plum, but he was a food guy, yes. His family was making its own pasta.

JC: As an Italian-American he was ahead of the game with the love of food.

AKT: Thank you!

JC: Thank you so much, very nice to see you!

Julia screens on Sunday, November 14 at 1:50pm - SVA Theatre - In-cinema Q&A with Betsy West and Julie Cohen will follow.

DOC NYC 2021 in cinemas (IFC Center - SVA Theatre - Cinépolis Chelsea) runs from November 10 through November 18 with select films screening online in the US from November 19 through November 28.

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