It All Started at Julia Child’s—Local Resident Organizes Culinary Trips to Europe
Julia Child’s place
March 8, 2013
by Elinor Griffith
People who hear about the cooking trips I lead to Julia Child’s former home in the South of France, and elsewhere, often ask how I got started. And I have to laugh and say, “Essentially, I got fired. And then I got fired up about doing what I really love, which is cooking, eating and traveling with friends.” My next trip? It’s this May with a group to study cooking at the Don Alfonso 1890, an Italian restaurant so divine that the New York Times has singled it out as among ten restaurants worldwide worthy of a plane ticket. The following account of my reinvention is adapted from my forthcoming cookbook:
The news that I would lose my job of thirty-one years wasn’t completely unexpected. I was soon to be fifty-five, the spring chicken in me aged into a sprightly mother hen, and the editorial offices for the national magazine where I worked as a senior editor had shrunk from a robust 250 people to a frazzled, often-fatigued group of seventy-five. Layoffs like mine were an all-too-common occurrence as American workforces contracted countrywide.
Distraught and discouraged, I was relieved my husband and two almost-adult children weren’t around when I arrived home. As I entered my kitchen I turned on the oven, a reflex actually. Dozens of books including Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking sat squarely on my counter, but I had no recipe in mind.
My disappointment was soon nudged, though, by an image from my childhood: my father hunched over a butcher block counter vigorously kneading and turning a soft mound of dough. He’d always made his Friendship Bread when bad things happened to his friends, knowing that oven-fresh baking was an opportunity to show he cared.
I could almost hear his voice urging me on, “Elinor, all you have to do is open two packets of yeast. Can you do that? Now take out Grammy Chloupek’s little silver bowl and measure out a teaspoon of sugar—yup, that’s right, and add a quarter cup of warm water. Losing yourself in baking this bread will be good for you. Trust me….” As a youngster I’d made and delivered so many loaves with him to his friends that I automatically assemble the remaining ingredients: butter, molasses, brown sugar and salt, some leftover stone-cut oatmeal that I’d stashed away in the fridge, and seven cups of bread flour.
Julia with her husband, Paul Child
That evening a smell of comfort permeated the house when my husband opened the kitchen door and spotted five well-browned loaves cooling on the counter. But nonetheless I couldn’t hold back the unpleasant news. “I was let go,” I blurted out. “I realize I’m way too young to retire so I’ll figure out something. Not quite sure what, but I’d like to explore some ideas.”
All I had was a glimmer of an idea about wanting to try something new and exciting. Good salary aside, a rut was a rut. My work had become predictable; my geographic boundaries narrow, with work and home in the same area code. So while I did not know the journalistic “what,” “when,” “where” or “why” of my next move, the “who” in me had already sprung onto the possibility of reinventing myself—something to match my interests and be on my terms.
Chocolate, raspberries and a pistachio cream—what could be better?
My search for what might be plan be was initially much like a troublesome soufflé: high expectations, lots of stirring up of the ingredients and a flop for results. I felt lost and uneasy more times than I cared to admit. Best to fast-forward to the fruits of my labor. I decided to start custom culinary tours to France. I would gather friends, make all arrangements and be their French-speaking guide.
After carefully researching cooking schools, I came across an American chef in the South of France whose name is Kathie Alex. Now I’m no astrologer-consulting, tea-leaf reading, New Age type, but the chef’s name is that of my two children, Kathleen and Alex. So it didn’t take much self-convincing for me to contact her. Especially when my eyes spotted on her website that this “once in a lifetime opportunity” involved cooking in ... “Julia Child’s former Provence kitchen.”
Chef Kathie Alex with Elinor Griffith in Julia’s kitchen
I knew that Julia had followed her passions like I was doing to reinvent herself. At Smith College she’d planned to be, as she put it, “the Great American Novelist.” She worked in U.S. intelligence in Asia and had virtually never cooked before her arrival in France, age thirty-six. En route to Paris she and her husband Paul had stopped at a restaurant, La Couronne, and that was where she tasted her oft-described, life-changing sole meunière that “arrived perfectly browned in a sputtering butter sauce… a morsel of perfection… the most exciting meal of my life.” And that was when she fell in love with French cooking, went on to attend classes at the Cordon Bleu and took up her typewriter for cookbook-writing. Voilà, reinvention.
And thus inspired, my own second act followed soon in Julia’s footsteps—with niche cooking trips to her home and her sacrosanct kitchen. That was seven years ago, and each year since I can’t wait for my return with groups of friends (or friends of friends) to stir up yummy things in her cozy yellow kitchen. But don’t just take my word for it ... browse a few photos from her home, La Pitchoune, or “The Little Thing,” and check out pictures to my latest culinary extravaganza, the Michelin-starred Don Alfonso 1890.
The Don Alfonso 1890 is one of Italy’s finest restaurants
Some of our cooks from spring 2012