Alex Prud’homme, a journalist and author who also happens to be the grandnephew of cooking icon Julia Child — Prud’homme co-authored her memoir My Life in France, which was adapted into the Meryl Streep-starred movie Julie & Julia — was a featured speaker at the fourth annual Santa Barbara Food & Wine Weekend in early April, which was held at the Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Bacara Resort & Spa.
The festival, which was organized by Bacara and The Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts, not only showcased Child and her connection to Santa Barbara (where she lived in her later years), but also the bounty and culinary innovation of the region she enjoyed. Proceeds from the event benefited the foundation, which offers grants to support other nonprofits in gastronomy and the culinary arts.
Prud’homme discussed his latest book, The French Chef in America: Julia Child’s Second Act, at the festival. He took time out to talk to us about his famous great-aunt, their work process and why he felt compelled to write a follow-up to the memoir.
How did you come to work with Child on her memoir?
Julia was my grandaunt by marriage. Her husband, Paul, was the twin brother of my grandfather, Charles Child. I grew up hearing Julia’s stories of how she learned to cook in France, and she said she was working on a memoir about those “favorite years” of her life — yet the book never appeared.
In December of 2003, I went to visit her in Santa Barbara and convinced her to let me help her write the memoir. It wasn’t a moment too soon. We worked together until August, when she died in her sleep two days before her 92nd birthday.
It took me another year to finish the book, which I had to write in her idiosyncratic voice. The result was My Life in France, which was published in 2006.
Is there a personal anecdote you could share from your time working on the memoir?
Julia and I shared a sense of humor, a love of movies and politics, and had a great time working on her memoir. But it wasn’t easy at first. Julia was surprisingly modest, and didn’t like to “toot my own horn,” as she’d say.
She’d deflect and turn the conversation around to me, or someone else. This was endearing, but made it extremely difficult to interview her.
I finally cracked the code by reading aloud from Paul’s letters to my grandparents. They were beautifully written, often contained drawings or photos, and were full of wonderfully journalistic detail. Her stories began to flow.
Is there anything in particular that surprised you about Child when you were working on The French Chef in America: Julia Child’s Second Act?
Indeed, researching this book was far more surprising than working on Julia’s memoir. I learned about Julia’s two visits to the White House, her failed TV series with James Beard, what she thought of Dan Aykroyd’s impersonation on Saturday Night Live and the really dark times she suffered during the height of her celebrity success.
One thing that struck me is that most of us think that Julia spent her entire career as The French Chef, but that period only represented a quarter of her career.
In the 1970s, she reinvented herself as “Julia Child,” re-Americanized herself, began to use recipes from around the world, wrote in the first person and finally found her true voice. It was exciting to uncover this hidden history.
Do you have a favorite Child recipe?
The answer depends on the day, my mood, the weather, what’s fresh in the market, my wife and kids. But at this time of year, I always enjoy Julia Child classics, like boeuf bourguignon and coq au vin. And for dessert, you can’t go wrong with the fabulous tarte tatin upside-down apple tart or the Reine de Saba chocolate-almond cake.
You are quite well-traveled. Is there any place you haven’t visited that you’d like to?
After college, I spent nearly two years traveling around the world, mostly in Asia and Europe. It was a fantastic and life-changing experience. But I have yet to visit Africa, Central and South America, and the two poles, among other places.
Do you have a favorite destination for food?
Small restaurants in France, of course. Japan. The coast of Maine. Santa Barbara.
What’s one item you can’t travel without?
A good sketchbook/diary. I like to jot down notes and doodle when I travel. Years later, you can look back at your notebook, and it helps you put life in perspective.
What’s up next for you?
In October, Thames & Hudson will publish France Is a Feast: Paul and Julia Child’s Photographic Journey. It’s a book of Paul Child’s evocative black-and-white photos, taken in Paris and Marseille in 1948 to ’54, when he and Julia lived there.
It’s a visual companion to My Life in France, and tells the story from Paul’s perspective, which is quite a tale. I wrote the text, and Katie Pratt edited the images.
I am currently researching a book about the history of food at the White House, from George Washington and his slave chef Hercules to the Obamas and Trumps. It’s a rich and wonderful subject. This book was inspired by Julia’s visits to state diners at the White House in 1967 and 1976, as I recount in The French Chef in America.