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Memories of Julia

Ojai chef Jamie West on his relationship with a food legend, and why Mrs. Child was right all along about butter.

By Matt Katz

 

ulia Child, who introduced the American public to French cooking and reminded us that “fat gives things flavor,” spent her final years in nearby Montecito, where she bonded with the Ojai-based chef Jamie West. Child’s exuberance in the kitchen gave rise to a new culinary genre—the celebrity chef, an unheard of phenomenon in the early sixties, a time when Jacqueline Kennedy’s fashion Francophilia had the eye of America and air travel had suddenly transformed a trip to Paris from a trans-Atlantic boat journey to a hop and a skip. And here was Julia: all six-foot-two with formal mannerisms and a pan of sizzling goose fat. An atypical media darling to say the least. “The only time to eat diet food is while you’re waiting for the steak to cook,” she instructed her audience with a chuckle. The camera loved her. And just like that, French food and cooking techniques found a place in American homes, alongside casserole dishes and TV dinners.

After working at acclaimed restaurants on both coasts, chef West’s California Mediterranean cooking proved a match with the sun-kissed aura of the Ojai Valley. Today he lives in Meiners Oaks and oversees the restaurants at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa. We sat down in the foyer of Maravilla, the property’s fine dining crown, so he could dish on the unique relationship he shared with an icon.

How did the relationship begin?

I was in Santa Barbara, the Stonehouse restaurant at San Ysidro Ranch, and she lived right down the street. She came in for dinner one time and, of course, I went out and talked to her, told her what an honor it was to cook for her. Over time we got to know each other. I started doing a cooking segment on KEYT, and when I got that opportunity I took her out to lunch and asked if she had any advice for me. The only thing she said was to look at the camera like it’s a good friend.

Your cooking style is relatively light and healthy. Julia was famous for butter. How did she react to your food?

She loved everything I made for her, but she was very honest. We did a cooking demonstration once and I was making crab cakes—I had actually already made the crab cakes, and I let her taste one. I asked her, “Julia, what do you think?” And she said, “Well, if I say I don’t like it what are you going to do about it now? It’s too late!” I think if she were cooking now she’d adjust her style somewhat, but it’s true: butter adds a richness and a flavor that nothing else can replicate.

What do you think Julia would make of “Le Fooding,” the Paris-based culinary movement that rejects traditional French conservatism in the kitchen?

Well, she was very traditional; she was taught at a French cooking school. And tradition is important. Tradition and technique in any cooking is the foundation of what you do, and without a strong foundation it’s hard to go out and cook other styles. Having a good foundation, and many French chefs do, you can take those techniques and tweak them a little bit so they work.

You accompanied her at the Masters of Food & Wine in Carmel, a significant event. Did you feel awestruck?

I didn’t in the beginning, because by that time I had a good relationship with her; I knew her on a personal level. I got invited to be a guest chef at the event and she was being honored, so it just made sense that I drive her up there. But once we arrived I realized the [significance] … There were some top name chefs and dignitaries, and everybody would have a story to tell about how she impacted their life. When she walked into the kitchen everybody stopped working.

It’s a long drive to Carmel. Where’d you eat?

That’s interesting, because when we took the trip my biggest concern was where to eat. So I put it on her. I said, “Julia, let me know when you get hungry—and where would you like to stop?” She said, “Well, you know, In-N-Out makes a really good burger.” On the way up we went through the drive-through, but on the way back we went into the restaurant and the girl who was working the cash register, a young girl, teenage girl, she looked at me and whispered, “Is that Julia Child?” I was really surprised somebody that age knew who she was.

A lot of female chefs and “food personalities” on TV have an obvious physical appeal. Julia was six-foot-two but no supermodel. What do you think was her main appeal?

I think it was her honesty. When she dropped a chicken she picked it up, brushed it off, and kept on going. And I think that was her approach in life: Pick up and just do what you’re doing, and be honest to yourself. I think that carried her a lot.

Saturday Night Live did a sketch where Dan Akroyd, playing a boozed-up Julia Child, cuts his finger and continues to cook as it bleeds profusely. How do you think she would have reacted if she saw that episode?

I actually asked her about that. She told me it was the only Saturday Night Live she’d ever seen—she probably watched it because they’d done that bit. She had a great sense of humor, and I think a lot of people didn’t realize that. She came across as being very formal because of the way she spoke.

Before attaining success as a chef and TV personality, she worked in advertising. Do you think media savvy helped her career? Did she play the media?

After seeing the movie (Julie & Julia, 2009), I’m sure it did. The movie took place during a different time than when I knew her, so I got to learn more about her, assuming it was accurate. I think she knew how to project herself and present herself to the public.

What’s the best piece of advice she gave you as a chef?

Technique—using the proper techniques. And practicing. Doing what you like to do and making food how you like it. If you don’t like bell peppers, don’t put bell peppers in it. You can make it to your liking, and that is one of the beauties of cooking, the artistic side of cooking.

Is there one moment that stands out, an experience that remains fresh in your mind?

Sitting in her apartment going through some of her cookbooks trying to decide what we wanted to do for this [Masters of Food & Wine] cooking demonstration. And spending eight hours in the car with her—just the two of us. … I think one of the coolest things we did together was a TV segment, a half-hour special called “Christmas at the Ranch.” When we filmed, I got Julia to actually come into the kitchen. I didn’t think she would; she told me she’d never do TV again.

Why do you think she didn’t want to do TV later in life?

I think she didn’t want people to see how she was as she got older, although she was very together. She spoke well, wasn’t forgetful. I once asked her, “Julia, how do you keep going?” She looked at me and said, “I know that if I don’t keep going, I’ll stop.” ­­

07-01-2010

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