At 36, Barry Maiden is chef and co-owner of Hungry Mother in Cambridge. But a little more than a decade ago, he was a nervous young cook heading to the prestigious restaurant L’Espalier for an internship.
“The first night I walked in those doors, I was scared to death,” he said. “My girlfriend at the time, now my wife, and one of my friends bought me a cookbook that day to inspire me.”
That cookbook was Julia Child’s 1961 classic, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Maiden is just one of countless chefs and home cooks inspired by the volume and by Child — the late author, television personality, and longtime Cambridge resident who would have celebrated her 100th birthday Wednesday.
A champion of local restaurants, Child was a mentor to chefs such as Jody Adams, Gordon Hamersley, Lydia Shire, and Jasper White, all of whom would help the city cast off its reputation as the home of the bean and the cod, becoming a center for thoughtful, inventive cuisine. Now Child’s proteges are mentors themselves, extending her influence to a new generation of chefs.
“She was somebody who made all of us feel like she was supporting us, looking out for us, advising us, representing us, and then ultimately learning from us with her cooking shows where she brought chefs on,” said Adams, of Rialto and Trade. “She was really something.”
Ask young cooks whom they look to for inspiration and they might mention Ferran Adria, the Spanish pioneer of molecular gastronomy, or Thomas Keller, who stands French cooking on its head at restaurants like the French Laundry in Napa Valley. Is there still room for Child, who was open to anything delicious but always loved best the traditional dishes of France?
Mais oui. In an era when food television churns out new celebrity chefs and recipes are found online as often as in cookbooks, Child’s influence remains remarkably strong.
“People are very aware of her,” Hungry Mother line cook Leah Nadel, 26, said of her peers. “Especially being in Boston and Cambridge. She was a huge influence on a lot of chefs I’ve worked for. They knew her. I wish I was a little older so I would have had the chance to know her, too.”
Sometimes, when Nadel can’t sleep, she watches footage of Child and Jacques Pepin online, she said.
Chances are Child, who died in 2004, would have liked to meet Nadel, too. After a meal at a restaurant, she would frequently wander into the kitchen to chat with the staff.
“She was always introducing herself to everyone on the line cooking,” said Gordon Hamersley of Hamersley’s Bistro. “She particularly loved speaking with women. She would ask: Why are you a line cook? Why do you want to be a chef? It was always interesting to me the connections she made, especially with young women.”
The restaurant industry is frequently male-dominated, but Boston kitchens are known for being especially welcoming to women. “I’ve never seen it like it is here,” said Megan Lozano, 25, who works the grills at Hamersley’s. “There are so many female chefs.”
Perhaps for them particularly, Child serves as a role model. “She bridged the gap between feminism and being herself in a kitchen,” Lozano said. “She still wears high heels and dresses, but she would take these primal [cuts of meat] and rip them apart with delicacy and ease right in front of you, talking about it nonchalantly. Taking this French cuisine she was in love with and bringing it to American households, she was a pioneer.”
Television programs such as “The French Chef” exposed whole generations of housewives to Child, and they in turn shared her with their children. Bill Walker, 43, is executive chef of the Cambridge branch of Le Cordon Bleu, the cooking school Child attended in France.
“I used to watch her as a kid,” he said. “I was always cooking with my mom, and my mom was a French teacher, so she loved Julia Child. ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’ was my bonding with my mom. It turned into my career and my life.”
Paul Burchfield, 25, sous chef at Sel de la Terre in Natick, remembers playing as a kid while his mother and grandmother watched Child together.
“My mother taught me to cook when I was 5 or 6, and we cooked from Julia Child cookbooks,” he said. “It never clicked in my head who that was — I just knew it was the woman on TV with the crazy voice. I was 18 or 19 when I realized who Julia Child really was.”
Today, however, young chefs may be more likely to know Child through film than television. The 2009 movie “Julie & Julia,” starring Meryl Streep as Child, brought her story and legacy to a wide audience.
“The movie really helped do something. It got people going,” said Rebecca Alssid, director of food and wine programs at Boston University, where Child cofounded the culinary arts program with Pepin in 1989. “The young people who come work with us in the kitchens all know who she is and her influence. . . . They are interested in the Food Network and the competition [cooking] shows. I think they really know a lot stems from what she started.”
Even the very young who come to participate in kids’ cooking classes at BU, 7- or 8-year-olds, know about Child, Alssid says. “She’s an American idol of some sort, really.”
Thus, her centennial is being celebrated with pomp, in Boston and beyond.
Many restaurants are participating in a Julia Child Restaurant Week that draws to a close on her birthday; WGBH, the local PBS station on which Child cooked her first on-air omelet, has been sharing archival footage all month; and Le Cordon Bleu in Cambridge threw a birthday bash for its most famous alumna on Tuesday, with viewings of “Julie & Julia” and cake.
“When I think of classic food, it’s a lot of people like Julia Child and [French chef Auguste] Escoffier,” said Shawn Cameron, 28, sous chef at Aka Bistro in Lincoln. “To cook nowadays, you have to keep your eye on chefs doing things right now. Younger cooks are really looking to the newer, the modern. But to have a respect for that, you need to always remember the classics.”Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Hungry Mother line cook Leah Nadel.