Mastering the art of french cooking in julia child’s summer home – houston chronicle electricity of the heart

The cottage accommodates just six guests, the perfect amount for Child’s small kitchen, a replica of the kitchen from her Cambridge, Mass., home (now enshrined at the Smithsonian Institute). Pegboard walls have been traced with outlines of pots, pans, peelers and other kitchen gadgets, including some of Child’s originals utensils.

Guests are encouraged to make themselves at home. My first night, wide awake with jet lag, I wander into the kitchen in my robe and help myself to a glass of Côtes du Rhône and a snack of olives and stinky French cheese. The relaxed vibe immediately puts me at ease.

Held, who is currently studying at Le Cordon Bleu Paris, tag-teams in the kitchen with Dominie Clarke, a Le Cordon Bleu-trained Scot with “Jeopardy!”-worthy culinary knowledge. Each day has a loose theme — knife skills, salads, stews — based around four to six dishes. Our group of five gathers the first morning, aprons tied, ready to master knife skills. The kitchen smells of freshly cut oregano, thyme and dill, and the voice of French singer Édith Piaf croons from a speaker. On our menu today: potato Dauphinoise, ratatouille and steak and salmon tartare.

The German woman next to me deftly wields her knife, slicing eggplant at an alarming speed. I timidly chop potatoes, keeping my knife tip on the board and initiating the movement from my shoulder, rather than my wrist, per Clarke’s instruction.

I layer my evenly sliced potatoes in a Le Creuset then “drown” them in cream. More cream and more butter, I soon understand, are the secret to French cooking. Clarke puts the potatoes into the oven and the pot of ratatouille on the stove then drops a hunk of raw beef in front of us. “Choose your flavoring,” she instructs. I feel like I’ve been tasked with a “Top Chef” challenge. My fellow students all go with the classic steak tartare accoutrements — capers, cornichon, Dijon, mustard, parsley — a combination that has never appealed to me.

I decide to give my tartare an Italian twist, mixing my chopped filet with pesto, Parmesan, basil, toasted pine nuts and sun-dried tomato. When we sit for lunch on the wisteria-shaded patio, I can’t help but feel impressed by our work. The preparation was surprisingly simple, and the result is absolutely delicious. I share bites of my Italian tartare and grin as my fellow cooking mates complement the flavors and texture.

Our kitchen time — usually four to five hours a day — gets broken up with daily excursions to fishmongers, butchers and markets, as well as fairytale-worthy villages. Success in the kitchen, I learn, is heavily dependent on the quality of your ingredients.

One day, Held drives us 20 minutes to Antibes. We’re each given 50 euros and instructed to purchase a vegetable we’ve always wanted to learn to cook. The produce in France seems superior to anything I’ve seen even in my neighborhood Whole Foods. I grab a head of romanesco, a psychedelic-looking cross between cauliflower and broccoli; someone else selects a bunch of wild asparagus, and Held grabs squash blossoms. Before we leave, we stop at the butcher and watch as he decapitates a plump poulet noir, a black-footed chicken from Burgundy. “Dinner!,” Held says enthusiastically.

That afternoon we divide into team coq au vin and team beef bourguignon, two dishes that have always seemed beyond my culinary capabilities. I try to cheat and ask Clarke which is simpler, and she assures me both are “easy” and identical in technique.

I decide to go team coq au vin and hours later find myself massaging a whole chicken. Clarke walks me through how to find just the right place to “dislocate” joints and avoid “shrapnel” as I break the bird down into eight pieces, leaving the skin on for extra flavor.

“Don’t listen to Julia,” is one of Clarke’s favorite sayings. We may be cooking in the recipe queen’s kitchen, but that doesn’t mean her taste and methods reign. Traditionally, at this point in our dish Child would have added bacon and mushrooms into our pot of chicken. But Clarke prefers to pan-fry the mushrooms and add them later so they don’t lose flavor. I admit, I would agree. We also break tradition and add white wine rather than red to the dish. “No one wants to eat a purple-grayish bird,” Clarke explains.

Our final evening Held leads us through an al fresco champagne tasting, a fitting way to celebrate all we’ve learned. We raise our glasses and toast the freewheeling spirt of Julia. And I add an extra “cheers” to Held and Clarke for helping a timid cook find her courage in the kitchen.

Jen Murphy is a writer based in Boulder, Colo. She contributes regularly to the Chronicle’s Luxe Life magazine, as well as writes the Wall Street Journal’s “What’s Your Workout?” column. She previously was travel editor at Food & Wine magazine.