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The five best life lessons we learned from legendary TV chef Julia Stiles

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The kitchen is the place for many activities – not just for cooking. You can experiment all you want to – learning to control your fear of failure while stirring in pots and pans. And most of all: the kitchen is the place to have fun. Five life lessons from TV chef Julia Child. 

The kitchen is the place for many activities – not just for cooking. You can experiment all you want to – learning to control your fear of failure while stirring in pots and pans. And most of all: the kitchen is the place to have fun. Five life lessons from TV chef Julia Child. 

I, myself, come from a long line of women who thought eating was a waste of time, and often said things like ‘I wish there was a pill I could take every night, that contained everything I needed’ (my mom) or the sighed ‘what to eat tonight?’ (my grandma). For survival, our family has been dependent on men who knew how to handle a dipper and a skimmer. Oh, well, we had other talents. 

‘You need an awful lot of onions!’

Still, I love reading the books written by Julia Child (1912-2004) and since I rewatched the movie Julie and Julia with my daughter, I’m a true fan. Whenever my writing doesn’t go the way I want it to, I watch historical clips on YouTube with Julia. Julia stirring an onion soup (‘You just need an awful lot of onions!’) or hammering into a chicken (‘we’re doing some cosmetic surgery on the chicken’). And it works. Every time. 

Because what Julia makes you understand, is that cooking is much more than just preparing food. Cooking is about using your senses, about the art of living. Accepting a challenge without thinking twice, developing your preferences, understanding new techniques so you can experiment with them – and most of all, enjoying what you’ve prepared together. Julia Child’s quotes are worth printing, painting on a placemat and putting on the wall. Five lessons from ‘The French Chef’. 

1. ‘Find something you’re passionate about and remain tremendously interested in it.’ 

Julia Child was 37 when she discovered her passion for cooking. Too late? Not at all. Just start doing something that appeals to you, learn about it, discover new stuff. And prepare for a life long learning. ‘You’ll never know everything about something, especially if it’s something you love.’ And that’s fine, because the more you know, the more you’re able to create. ‘There is no end to imagination in the kitchen.’ 

2. ‘Be fearless and above all: have fun!’ 

Fantastic cooks aren’t born. To be a great chef, you need to love good quality ingredients, work hard and really love to make something, to create. Julia’s advice was always: ‘Learn to cook, try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless and above all: have fun.’ 

3. ‘The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking, you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.’ 

Fear of failure is the only thing that can stop you from learning to cook. ‘If you’re afraid of failing, you’ll never earn to cook,’ Julia Child said in one of the episodes of The French Chef. ‘Cooking means one failure following the other, and that’s how you learn.’ Isn’t cooking like life itself? 

4. Did you fail? ‘Don’t apologize!’ 

If your dish doesn’t turn out as pretty as you had in mind, don’t go out of your way to apologize (‘What a disaster!’ or ‘I always fail’). Don’t emphasize the things that didn’t work out. Your guests don’t want to keep reassuring you. So just act like nothing’s wrong. ‘Maybe the cat fell in the stew, the lettuce is frozen, or the cake collapsed – eh bien, tant pis!’. Most of the time, your dish won’t be all that bad, and if it’s really horrible – just smile!

5. ‘If you’re afraid of butter, use cream.’ 

I love this piece of advice. Cook with flair, and don’t make a fuss about some grams of fat. It’s not about that. Use great ingredients, eat with attention and joy. Enjoying your food means eating healthy. Eating disorders don’t exist in Julia’s universe: ‘Life itself is the proper binge,’ was her wise conclusion. Feast on life!

Dishes and memories 

One of the lessons Julia learned during her stay in Paris (where she learned to cook at the famous cooking school Le Cordon Bleu), is that you won’t forget a dish you made. Making something special isn’t just fun, it also brings memories. Julia quotes one of her teachers, chef Bugnard: ‘You never forget something beautiful you made. Even after you ate it, it’ll stay with you.’ 

I never thought of it that way, but it’s so true. I remember the duck I helped a friend prepare at New Year’s Eve in a French house in the woods, the gumglotters and pluche nuche from Roald Dahl’s cookbook I made with the kids when they were little. The first time I made mayonnaise myself (a miracle!) during the holidays in France. For someone like me, who always says she’s a ‘horrible cook’, that means something. 

Water, butter and flour

I bought Julia Child’s ‘The art of cooking’, and it hits close to home. Julia doesn’t just explain what you need to do, she elaborates about techniques and why one thing works and the other doesn’t. I love all that. The creations you can make with simple ingredients like water, butter and flour!

So why would we think of cooking as a nasty chore? This afternoon, I’m making eclairs with my daughter, just for fun. According to Julia, it’s easy peasy, and if we fail – tant pis. We’ll learn that lesson, no matter what. 

Bon appétit!

Text: Anne Wesseling - Photo: Alyson McPhee