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Retracing Julia Child’s Footsteps Through Paris, 75 Years Later.
A food writer shares what it was like to eat, cook, and shop in Paris as Julia Child knew and loved it.
As our boat glided along the Seine, the Eiffel Tower came into view, glittering against a piercing blue September sky. The captain popped a bottle of Champagne and handed me a generous pour. I leaned back against the leather seat, letting my skin drink in the sunshine before taking a sip and letting the bubbles fizz and flit across my tongue. The captain waved me toward the front of the boat, gesturing for me to pose for a photo. I raised my glass and grinned, thinking there couldn’t be a more fitting first snapshot for an American food writer visiting Paris to retrace Julia Child’s footsteps.
Much like Julia, I had some of my most formative food memories while living in Paris. We moved there when I was three, and as a kid, I remember looking forward to buying baguettes after school with my mother at a neighborhood boulangerie—sometimes, she’d let me have a pain au chocolat for my goûter. We’d always tear into the fresh baguette as soon as we stepped outside, the crust giving way with a crackly snap. We’d sneak in bites while walking the short distance back to our apartment; she favored the crusty end while I preferred the fluffy middle. Living and eating in Paris made me appreciate not just food, but how feeding ourselves and others nurtures our appetites beyond the plate. Each time my family moved, first to Scotland and then Indonesia before returning to the US, I discovered that my ticket to belonging was through tasting new dishes. However, it was writing about my memories of living in Paris that helped me discover my voice as a writer.
Julia Child’s own Paris chapter spurred her to write the timeless Mastering the Art of French Cooking and eventually even return to film The French Chef, a televised cooking show. Could Julia ever have dreamed she’d one day have a dedicated display at Shakespeare & Co., the Left Bank bookstore where she once pursued French culinary resources? Could she have predicted that she’d inspire generations of home cooks, food lovers, and writers to express themselves in their kitchens—and embark on their own food-inspired pilgrimages to the City of Light? In retracing Julia’s footsteps, alongside two fellow travelers and a charming local host, I sought not only to eat and cook like her, but to understand her enduring legacy on a deeper level.
When they first arrived in Paris 75 years ago, Julia and her husband Paul had stayed at the historic Hôtel Pont Royal in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, but I think she would approve of my fancy quarters at the nearby Hotel d’Aubusson, still within walking distance of several of her favorite haunts. On the outdoor terrace at Les Deux Magots, where Julia famously had her first breakfast in Paris, I perched on a wicker chair and sipped a café crème while watching parents usher children with overloaded backpacks to school on the first day of la rentrée. Julia’s go-to was a café complet with coffee, a viennoiserie, baguette, and butter, but I honored Julia by upgrading to The Hemingway to sample a perfectly rolled French omelet.
Café de Flore remains another stalwart of the sixth arrondissement for locals and tourists alike. Under the wide cream awning with dark green lettering, a setting that typified Parisian restaurants for Julia unfolded: small round tables crowding the terrace with just enough room for two, woven chairs, and a red-and-green-woven stool on the side where one might place extra baskets of bread or one’s purse. Inside, I sat in the company of the spirits of literary greats and intellectuals and a salade Niçoise with a side of perfectly crisp salt-and-pepper potato chips.
Each day’s itinerary on my trip was anchored by a cooking adventure, and my traveling companions and I were giddy to visit Le Cordon Bleu, where Julia received her formal training. Under the supervision of chef Williams Caussimon, we learned how to make tomatoes and burrata with smoked octopus and pomegranate-raspberry dressing and a parsley-crusted rack of lamb with zucchini marmalade. On another day at Paroles de Fromagers, we made fresh, hand-churned butter and Tomme fraîche, a fresh cow’s milk cheese.
Despite having inherited my Lebanese grandmother’s love of cooking and my experience as a recipe developer and product tester, I found myself nervous when we rolled up to Pâtisserie à la Carte to learn how to make one of Julia’s favorite pastries: éclairs. I took a soupçon of Julia’s fearlessness and followed the instructor’s cues, which echoed Julia’s trills from her pâte à choux episode of The French Chef. I was reminded that one can only learn by doing, but first, one must dare to take the first step and embrace failure as a friend. Happily, my chocolate-dipped, salted-caramel filled éclair turned out to be one of the best bites of my trip.
In her memoir, My Life in France, Julia describes shopping for food in Paris as a life-changing experience, so I had been looking forward to Chef Philippe de Clisson’s cooking class at La Cuisine Paris, which included a market tour at the charming Marché Maubert in the Latin Quarter. As we tucked into award-winning croissants from La Masion d’Isabelle, he introduced us to his favorite vendors, pointing out the famous foie gras from Maison Lafitte and exchanging pleasantries with the fishmonger, scoring us samples of salicorne, a seaweed-esque plant that popped pleasantly in the mouth with earthy salinity. He explained that one cheesemaker was an “MOF,” a lifelong distinction as Meilleur Ouvrier de France, or best craftsman. I later sought out the designation when shopping for edible souvenirs, like the best macarons in the city from Arnaud Larher, who has three pastry shops in some of Paris’s most vibrant neighborhoods.
When Julia wasn’t shopping for produce or testing dishes on Paul at home, they dined out. Strolling through the Palais Royal gardens on one dusk-kissed evening reminded me that they first discovered Le Grand Véfour, one of Paris’ oldest and most opulent restaurants, just by happening upon it after a midday walk. They celebrated monthly date nights under Le Grand Véfour’s mirrored ceiling and rubbed elbows with Paris’ elite eaters, like the famous novelist Colette and celebrated gastronome Curnonsky. Equally, they patronized establishments like La Tour Montlhéry-Chez Denise, a well-priced brasserie that still doles out the kind of classic French cooking that Julia fell in love with and wrote about. My steak tartare was expertly prepared and sampling a tender snail coaxed from its herb-flecked shell delivered a buttery hit of nostalgia. But it was a spoonful of plush chocolate mousse that transported me to my childhood kitchen in Paris, the memory of my father making me mousse a match for the cocoa’s bittersweet tinge.
Call me a cliché, but the highlight restaurant meal of the trip was at Le Jules Verne. Scurrying around the base of the Eiffel Tower looking for the restaurant’s entrance, I recalled our boat captain casually mentioning that his grandfather worked on the historic landmark with Gustave Eiffel. It’s one thing to glimpse The Iron Lady in landscape from afar, and quite another to take in aerial views of Paris through its intricate wrought iron lattice work on a private elevator ride to the top. What would Julia have made of dining at the top of it, I wondered? Surely, she would’ve sighed with pleasure throughout the five-course tasting menu as I did, especially over chef Frédéric Anton’s langoustine ravioli draped with a beet gelée set adrift in a Parmesan foam. At that moment, I think I finally understood what Julia meant when she wrote about falling in love with French food: “…the tastes, the processes, the history, the endless variations, the rigorous discipline, the creativity, the wonderful people…” À bientôt, Paris.