Tucked into the hills of Grasse in the south of France, the picturesque former home of America’s first celebrity chef is still bustling with culinary activity.
Julia Child and her husband Paul built La Pitchoune (also known as La Peetch) during the 1960s.
It became their holiday hideaway in the Alpes-Maritimes village of Plascassier for more than two decades.
The stucco house now offers the opportunity to master the art of French cuisine, thanks to its second incarnation as a cooking school.
Makenna Held, a Colorado-born entrepreneur who went to the same college as Mrs Child, saw the house for sale in The New York Times in 2015.
She bought it without even visiting.
The previous owners had already established it as a cooking school, but Ms Held was eager to add her own signature twist.
Photo: Makenna Held and husband Chris Nylund in Julia Child’s former kitchen; Credit: La Peetch
Intuitive, fun-loving cooking
Over the course of one intensive week, students on her ‘Courageous Cooking’ programme are given “an immersive, recipe-free culinary education,” including shopping for ingredients at the local market and learning what is in season.
The website makes it perfectly clear: “We are not a Julia Child Cooking School. Nor will we cook like her.”
What the courses on offer do promise, however, is to “translate the skillsets of French cuisine to creative, intuitive, fun-loving cooking.”
“We could teach you the recipe for an amazing raspberry pie, said Ms Held, “but then you go home and your ingredients taste different, your eggs aren’t the same size, and raspberries aren’t in season. What do you do then?”
The principal courses, which cater for up to seven people, cost around €10,000 per person for six nights.
An alternative ‘Cook Camp’, which can accommodate up to 19 guests, starts from €3,772 per person.
‘We teach French cooking, not necessarily French food’
Kendall Lane, La Pitchoune’s executive chef, says students master nearly all of the key French techniques, such as sauces, braises, souflées, mousses and sautéeing. But instead of specific recipes, she teaches a ‘food pyramid’.
This, she says, can be built on any foundation, whether a vegetable, a protein, or even a taste or spice.
Ms Lane then teaches students how to base a dish around that ingredient, using only what is readily available.
“If you find this one amazing recipe online that you really want to try, but you’re missing one ingredient, do you buy it online from across the world, or find a substitute with something that’s already in your pantry?”
It is French cooking, she claims, without necessarily being French food.
‘We will not serve tomato soup in winter’
Students are mainly from the US, where Julia Child is still a household name, almost 20 years after her death in 2004, at the age of 91.
During the summer season, the school is turned into a luxury hotel, with Ms Lane and Ms Held providing three meals a day for up to a dozen hungry and food curious guests.
Ms Lane’s husband Ross pairs the wine, while Ms Held’s husband Chris entertains the visitors with stories about the house’s history, as well as its illustrious former owners.
For both the school and hotel, the menu is all about working with the seasons and regional specialities.
“We won’t serve you tomato soup and grilled cheese in winter,” Ms Lane said.
“When a student leaves our class, they should be able to prepare a delicious, home-cooked meal wherever they are in the world.
“We teach them how to shop, how to improvise and adapt to the season and the location.”
‘When something is put on a pedestal, it is scary’
The aim, she says, is to make cooking, French or otherwise, more accessible and a whole lot less stressful.
“There is this whole myth around Julia Child and French cuisine,” Ms Held explained, “and if it’s put on a pedestal, it’s scary.
“If you fail, it is sacrilege, but it really shouldn’t be. The only thing that matters in the end is if the food is tasty.”
Through the art of cooking, Ms Held hopes to introduce her students to a wider philosophy for life.
“Roll with it,” she said. “You mess up a dish, it’s fine. Eat it, bin it, try again.”
She reminds students that Julia Child herself was beloved for her cheerfulness and positive personality.
Although she often made mistakes on screen while cooking, Julia remained unflustered, encouraging her viewers to accept their mishaps and to carry on regardless.
That is the most important lesson the current owners of La Pitchoune aim to teach: no pressure, just keep cooking and enjoy yourself.
Who was Julia Child?
Julia Child was a US cooking expert, author and TV personality, credited with bringing French cuisine into the American home.
Her expertise was acquired during her years in Paris after World War Two (Julia’s husband was a diplomat) where she studied at the city’s Cordon Bleu cooking school. She was the only woman in her class.
She went on to write the bestselling cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which was roundly praised both for its clarity and its comprehensiveness.
Julia also presented several television cooking shows in the United States, where her humour, exuberance and unpretentiousness earned her many fans.
Her autobiography, My Life in France, provided the inspiration for the 2009 film Julie & Julia, starring Meryl Streep.
Julia Child died in August 2004.