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Never Apologize. A Lesson from Julia Child.

Gwenn Weiss, author of Cooking In Pajamas, shares the influence Julia Child has had on her attitude to kitchen mis-haps.

“No matter what happens in the kitchen, never apologize,” is one of Julia Child’s kitchen rules.

When I was 21, I was thrilled to be throwing my first dinner party. I had decided to make my grandmother’s stuffed artichokes, which I had eaten a thousand times and was sure I knew how to replicate the dish perfectly.

That was a mistake. When I served them, the artichokes were raw, and completely inedible. I immediately began apologizing, thinking out loud, “I don’t know why these are undercooked. I watched my grandmother make them a million times. Let me take these away and stick them in the microwave to finish cooking them. Then they will taste great.”  Of course, everyone at the table responded by reassuring me that the artichokes were delicious just as they were.

As I began to take the artichokes away, apologizing profusely the entire time, Julia Child’s words came back to me. Never apologize.

The chef, famous for her TV show The French Chef, which turns 50 on February 11th, says, “I don’t believe in twisting yourself into knots of excuses and explanations over the food you make. Usually one’s cooking is better than one thinks it is. And if the food is truly vile, as my ersatz eggs Florentine surely were, then the cook must simply grit her teeth and bear it with a smile — and learn from her mistakes.”

How liberating! By criticizing my own cooking, I was devaluing both my cooking and myself. This was a great opportunity to learn from my mistake and act gracefully in the face of failure. Mistakes happen in the kitchen all the time. In fact, Julia was known for saying “…lots of cooking is one failure after another…”

In modern cooking shows, you never see a chef make a mistake. The mistakes have all been edited out and it seems like everything they cook comes out perfectly every time. I think these shows are doing a tremendous disservice to their audience. Nothing in life goes as perfectly as cooking segment on Martha Stewart. No wonder there are millions of people who claim they cannot cook and are too intimidated to even try.

Just watch a few episodes of “The French Chef” and you can see Julia’s cooking disasters for yourself. She never once apologized; instead she would just show us how to fix it and move on, never once looking embarrassed. And she would never make the same mistake twice. Here are a few of my favorite examples:

There was the time on David Letterman, when Julia was demonstrating how to make hamburgers. The burner wouldn’t work, so she was stuck with a raw hamburger patty.  What did she do? She decided to make Beef Tartare of course! She slapped some mustard, mayo, lettuce, onion, and cheese on top of the raw meat, and pulled out a blow torch to melt the cheese.

My favorite Julia disaster, and one that still happens to me all the time, was when a layer cake she made began to fall apart. She simply took dollops of frosting, threw the cake into individual dishes and called them parfaits! How could anyone not admire a woman so free of pretension?

Then there was the Potato Pancake incident, made famous in the movie “Julie and Julia.”  While attempting to flip a potato pancake, Julia ends up spilling it all over the stove. She did not apologize, instead she confessed to the audience that she had spilled the pancake because “I didn’t have the courage to do it the way I should have.” Then she pressed the cake back together in the pan.

In Julia’s later years, when asked for a piece of advice, she would always say: “Learn how to cook. Try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all, have fun.”

Have fun. I can’t think of a better way to honor Julia Child.
Picture Credit: PBS.

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