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What it was like behind the scenes on Julia’s shows

Susie Heller worked with Julia Child on her television shows.

CLAY MCLACHLAN

Susie Heller worked with Julia Child on her television shows.

I got to know Julia Child in the 1980s. The first time we met, I was with Jacques Pepin, whose show I was producing, and he took me to her house for breakfast. I was totally in awe that morning. Sometime later, she came to Cleveland, where I lived, and I invited her to stay at my house. On the way home from the airport I asked where she’d like to eat and gave her about 10 choices. She picked my house for leftovers. That was just the kind of person she was.

We started working together on “Cooking With Master Chefs,” which was Julia’s return to television in 1993. She went on to do “From Julia’s Kitchen With Master Chefs” and “Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home.” I was culinary producer on those shows, helping design what the food would be for each episode, coordinating the talent, and running the “back kitchen,” where the support staff preps everything and makes the duplicate of what is being cooked on camera, called “the twin.” The back kitchen is usually out of the way, sometimes in a basement. In Julia’s house, the spillover was in the laundry room.

Los Gatos gâteau, an apricot-filled torte Heller made from the “Birthday Dinner” menu in “Julia Child & Company.”

Clay McLachlan

Los Gatos gâteau, an apricot-filled torte Heller made from the “Birthday Dinner” menu in “Julia Child & Company.”

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“Cooking With Master Chefs” was filmed around the country with 16 chefs, wherever they were located. I would talk with each chef about what would be a good idea for their show. With Emeril Lagasse, as soon as I heard about a crawfish boil, I was sold. I’d go back to Julia, usually with recipes to show her, and she would decide what she wanted. Thomas Keller, who was a friend of mine (by then I had moved to California), had just left Checkers Hotel. He hadn’t yet opened the French Laundry, so he did the back kitchen for all the shows we shot in Napa Valley and Los Angeles.

“From Julia’s Kitchen With Master Chefs” was shot in her Cambridge kitchen. The dining room was our production area and that’s where the director and the sound people worked, and where all our monitors were. There wasn’t room for a back kitchen on that floor of the house, so the basement, which was Julia’s husband Paul’s area, became the prop room. They had storage there, and tools and hammers and all kinds of stuff hanging. The laundry room was where all the cooking took place. This became the back kitchen.

Whatever Julia was making on the set, we were making an identical dish downstairs. It didn’t matter how labor intensive or time-consuming the dish was. For instance, we made at least two versions of braised lamb shanks on barley risotto, whole roasted ducks, and sole meuniere, which was a re-creation of one of Julia’s first and most memorable meals in France.

It was the best time. Jean-Georges Vongerichten might be shooting his show upstairs, and Daniel Boulud was in the basement with us, prepping for the next show. It took a lot of coordination, but it went phenomenally well.

Julia worked harder than anyone else. We’d be working all day, then after dinner — the crew often went out or dined on show leftovers casually in the dining room — she’d go to work on the companion book for the show. I’d get calls from her at
11 p.m. and again at the crack of dawn. I’d ask, “Don’t you ever sleep?”

She was famous for her timing. We were doing a beef stew episode with Jacques, who during filming turns to Julia and says, “I think we need to drink a little wine with this.” Julia responds, “Yes, I’d really like to have some red wine.” Jacques opens up a bottle, pours two glasses, they toast, she has a sip, and then she walks by the beef stew and throws half her wine in. The crew cracked up.

There was always so much food around. Her motto was: “Everything in moderation.” When I stayed at her house, we’d have one egg in the morning for breakfast. On weekends, she’d make two eggs and a couple strips of bacon. She’d say, “It’s bacon day!” She just loved meat.

We did one show that was all vegetables and it wasn’t her favorite. Julia didn’t understand vegetarians and once at dinner, she gave a woman who ordered the vegetarian entree a dirty look. I honestly think she thought less of her for it.

I’ve worked with talent who wouldn’t put a hairnet on (it might be required in a food facility) because they’re not going to look good. Or they won’t do anything that can possibly make them look silly. Julia was the complete opposite. We could do anything and have fun. We did little openers to all those Julia and Jacques shows. She did a show with Jacques on salads that included a Caesar, so we decided to dress them up as Julius Caesar and they had this playful interaction during the little opening segment.

You could get her to do anything. Another time I got an ostrich egg from Texas and she and Jacques had so much fun cracking that thing open. Julia kept coming up with these funny lines, and we were all laughing.

When we traveled, Julia was in first class and the crew flew coach. I was doing the crossword puzzle and the first question was “TV’s child.” I went up to first class and told Julia, “You’ve made the crossword puzzle.” She got a real kick out of that.

What I learned from her was to have a place for everything in the kitchen. She literally had things outlined on pegboard on her walls so that you put the pot back in the right place. Working with her changed my approach to cooking: Use those good ingredients, keep it simple, and don’t put in a million ingredients. And of course, have fun in the kitchen. I knew that already, but Julia’s sense of fun made everyone working with her — and watching her — enjoy themselves, too.

As told to Matt Barber. Barber can be reached at matthewj
barber@hotmail.com. Susie Heller can be reached at susieheller
17@gmail.com.
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