MALDEN — Oohs and aahs welcome a chicken liver pate. Superlatives greet the salade Nicoise. Broadway tunes break out over the tartes flambees, the individual rounds topped with sauteed onions and crisp bacon. Silence falls when a cassoulet of lamb stew, duck confit, and sausage, topped with duck cracklings, arrives at the table. Applause accompanies crepes Suzette and chocolate mousse. Finally, the merriment settles as a tray of cheese is passed around the table.
“To Julia Child,” says the host, Ric Duarte, raising a flute of champagne. His friends had arrived at 4 p.m. and most would not leave until about midnight. The party last Saturday night was Duarte’s 15th annual dinner to celebrate the late Julia Child’s birthday. His success can be measured by the accolades, difficult menu, and the enormous effort, spread out over weeks, that the host puts into the evening.
Like those of previous parties, Duarte’s menu was composed almost entirely of recipes from The French Chef’s many cookbooks. The resplendent meal was homage to his idol in advance of Aug. 15, on what would have been her 100th birthday. “I grew up in Roxbury and Dorchester,” Duarte relates. “My mother had a day care when I was 11 years old and I was too old for ‘Sesame Street.’ But after that, this bizarre woman with an odd voice would come on TV and cook French food. I thought, What is she doing? I started watching her every day.”
Duarte (pronounced Do-Art) first tackled Child’s recipes in the 1980s by preparing coq au vin, the classic French chicken in wine. From then, cooking became as much a passion for Duarte as the Bruins and his pickup hockey team for which he is goalie. He also met Child a handful of times, in part because his career has been with local broadcasting stations where Child visited (Duarte is assistant traffic manager at WBUR radio).
‘I decided I would celebrate her birthday with friends who appreciate good food and good wine and friendship.’
The annual dinner was born of Duarte’s regret he never bought a $250 ticket for the Julia Child 80th birthday celebration at the Copley Plaza Hotel in 1992. “After reading the reviews, I decided I would celebrate her birthday with friends who appreciate good food and good wine and friendship,” he says.
Duarte is not alone in his devotion to Child’s recipes. Fans have been encouraged this month by Child’s publisher Knopf and PBS.org/food to post the dishes they prepare on the Julia Child Facebook wall and under #CookForJulia on Twitter. “I’m as bewildered as anyone about these passionate people who want to cook her recipes,” says television producer Russ Morash, Child’s director for “The French Chef” on WGBH. “I think she empowered a lot of people, no question about that, myself included.”
Nicole Messier of Worcester is also passionate about Child’s recipes. Two years ago, she could barely cook. Inspired by the 2009 movie “Julie & Julia,” Messier asked her husband for a Christmas gift of Child’s first volume, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” After six weeks of study and a 12-hour start, Messier prepared Child’s beef bourguignon for her teens, husband, and two guests. “Never had I been so proud of something I had cooked until that moment,” Messier says. “It’s a daunting cookbook. It’s complicated and time-consuming and you really have to pay close attention to everything.”
Duarte knows this all too well. He begins planning his dinners a year in advance. Invitations go out in February. Confit from four ducks, stocks, sausages, and crepes are made and refrigerated weeks, even months, before the party. He shops at Super 88, Whole Foods, and Stop & Shop, and estimates a dinner for 12 to 15 guests costs $500 to $700, excluding wine. Friends vie for a spot at Duarte’s table. One couple flies in from San Francisco.
Paul Moran, Duarte’s roommate, says the party’s success also hinges on an empty dishwasher before dinner, room in the refrigerator for leftovers, and “a reminder that Martha Stewart is not coming to dinner so the settings don’t need to match.” Critical to a smooth evening is a little help. Moran and guest Dave Manley assist Duarte as he plates each dish and they also do some washing up.
Manly, who has attended seven times, says Duarte’s dinners are “a truly magical evening.” He admires the hosts. “Ric’s party is extraordinarily generous,” says Manly. “These are probably the best dinner parties I will ever go to in my life.”