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January 06, 2021

This American Chef Showed Us How to Let Your Mistakes Work for You

Sometimes we tend to stare ourselves into a wall of obstacles, failing to see how those very same obstacles can become the step up we need to go even higher than we think we could. But pearls teach us that with quiet determination and hard work, obstacles only make us stronger. Oysters work for months to fix a big problem in the safety of their tiny shell: a grain of sand or an implanted bead. The outcome of all that hardship is a shimmering pearl. We believe that people are like oysters, and that hard times, mistakes – the so-called ‘pebble in our shoe’ – can help us channel our energies in such a way that we leave our own pearlescent legacy. In honor of this unique human quality, we have started a series to look at some of the women who have lived their lives like pearls. We call it the Living like a Pearl series and you can find the other stories here.


Many of us may only know her as the eccentric cook played by Meryl Streep in Julie and Julia. But there is a reason that Julia Child had a near cult following, and it is obvious even to those who only know her from the movie. It could lie in the fact that this world-famous chef always appeared cheerful – even when she made cooking blunders on TV – or perhaps it lay in her unpatronizing, unaffected way of explaining French cooking to fellow American women. But one thing is sure: Julia Child lived a pearl of a life.


She wasn’t particularly interested or knowledgeable about food from a young age. In fact, she grew up in a house with a cook – and apparently ‘did not observe or learn cooking from this person, and never learned until she met her husband-to-be, Paul, who grew up in a family very interested in food.’ In fact, Child worked as a copywriter, and later as a top-secret researcher for the Office of Strategic Services, also known as the OSS. (She had wanted to enlist in the Women’s Army Corps or in the U.S. Navy’s WAVES, but at 6 feet 2 inches was deemed too tall, and so settled on the OSS.) One of her assignments was to help work on a shark repellent to prevent curious sharks from detonating bombs intended for German U-boats – and something that has made biographers chuckle, perhaps because in a way it was indicative of her future career, one of her experiments involved cooking up a repellent that they could sprinkle around the bombs to keep the sharks away.


So how did Child become the household name in French cooking that she was (and to many, still is)?

It was when she and her husband Paul moved to France for his job that she discovered her passion for cooking French food. Child enrolled in the famous Cordon Bleu cooking school and joined a women’s cooking club, where she met Simone Beck, who was writing a book of French cooking for Americans. Her background in copywriting and research must have helped, because she became part of a three-woman team working on the book and the first version of the book was rejected for being ‘too much like an encyclopedia’. But when it finally published in 1961, it was hugely popular. It fell together with a surge of interest in French cooking amongst Americans and seemed to be the first true translation, but also interpretation of not only recipes, but method and culture of French cooking.


The year after its publication, Child became part of a cooking show where she demonstrated French cooking skills on a Boston TV station. It was shot in her kitchen, and technology at the time did not allow for editing. So whenever she made a mistake, she simply tried to save the dish or had to start over. The French Chef was hugely popular – it ran for ten years and won several awards. Child also went on to publish many more titles under her own name and in collaboration with others, and starred in other cooking shows after that.

She is undoubtedly a pearl in American cooking history. Her kitchen, which went on to be the set for three cooking shows, is now part of the National Museum of American History. But what makes her even more of a pearl, is how she accomplished all these things embracing exactly who she was.


She never tried to pass herself off as French – she was unashamedly American – and she never allowed mistakes to trip her up. She is famously quoted as saying: “Always remember: If you’re alone in the kitchen and you drop the lamb, you can always just pick it up. Who’s going to know?”


Like an oyster works the grain of sand inside its shell into a pearl, she allowed her mistakes and imperfections to become her greatest asset.