‘Julia Child: A Recipe for Life’ comes to museum in Richmond

March 18, 2024

In the ’60s, a 6-foot-2 woman with a high-pitched, warbly voice graced the television screen each week to teach Americans how to make French cuisine. She exuded the joy of cooking, for days housewives didn’t feel like cooking for their families. They would watch her sip French onion soup, stir wine into coq au vin and place a pot of boeuf bourguignon in the oven.  

Julia Child, author and chef, starred in “The French Chef” live on PBS for 10 years, garnering

Today’s cooks and gourmets can immerse themselves in her life at “Julia Child: A Recipe for Life,” a touring exhibit at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture in Richmond. It’s making its there and continues through Sept. 2.

The exhibit chronicles Child’s life, career and travels to France through interactive storytelling with video, audio, photography and re-created scenes. It also explores her passion for teaching through recipe development for her cookbook “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” and for “The French Chef.” It weaves in Virginia’s culinary history and the influence Child had on chefs in the state and throughout the world, paying attention to the Virginia ham, James Hemings and the pioneering chef at the Inn at Little Washington. 


Julia Carolyn McWilliams was born Aug. 15, 1912, in Pasadena, California.

She majored in history and graduated from Massachusetts’ Smith College in 1934. Back in California some years later, she wanted to serve in World War II but was rejected by both the Navy’s WAVES — Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service — and the Women’s Army Corps. She was too tall.

In 1942 she moved to Washington, D.C., and became a senior typist with the Research Unit of the Office of War Information. She got a position as a junior research assistant with the Secret Intelligence Branch of the Office of Strategic Services, a  predecessor of the CIA, that same year. She volunteered for overseas assignments, too. From 1944 to ’45 she in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), then China.

In 1946, she married Paul Child, whom she had met in Ceylon, where . His job sent them to Paris in 1948, and when they dined in Rouen at Restaurant la Couronne (“The Crown”), she fell in love with French food and wanted to cook more seriously. She enrolled in the famous Le Cordon Bleu cooking school and graduated in 1950.

Julia Child and other chefs and students at Le Cordon Bleu. ca. 1950. (Paul Child / The Schlesinger Library, Harvard University)

Paul Child / The Schlesinger Library, Harvard University

Julia Child and other chefs and students at Le Cordon Bleu. about 1950. (Paul Child / The Schlesinger Library, Harvard University)

Child and her friends Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle wrote and published “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in 1961 to make French cuisine and techniques accessible to the broad American public. Their project wasn’t taken seriously by American publishers. They endured multiple rejections before landing a publishing deal with Alfred A. Knopf.

The Childs moved back to the U.S. in the 1960s and lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Paul designed her home kitchen, which became the setting for three of her TV shows, including “Cooking With Master Chefs.”

The success of the cookbook led to the television show, which over the years won Peabody and Emmy awards — including the first Emmy for an educational program. Julia Child’s influence extended into other TV series and multiple cookbooks. In 1966, Time magazine put her on the cover, calling her “Our Lady of the Ladle.”


The Virginia Museum of History & Culture wanted to host the Child exhibit because of her enduring fame. It also wanted to highlight the French influence on Virginia’s culinary history and her connections to Virginia chefs, according to Paige Newman, the museum’s curator.  

“Julia Child is a lot of things to a lot of people. She invokes personal and family memories,” she said.

The exhibit, which made its debut last year at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn, Michigan, consists of more than 100 images, nearly 50 objects and more than 40 reproductions.

Julia Child wrote about the Virginia ham, and this exhibit includes photos and some of her notes about it. Monticello and slavery figure in, too: James Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved chef, was the first American trained as a chef in France. Items borrowed for this exhibit from Monticello include a waffle iron, braising pan and a mortar base that was excavated from the South Pavilion kitchen that Hemings used in the 1700s and beyond. The exhibit also talks a little bit about  the first Southern regional cookbook known to have been published. 

A portion of the exhibit is also dedicated to award-winning chef Patrick O’Connell, who was friends with Child. He owns The Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Virginia, one of 13 restaurants in the U.S. to receive three Michelin stars. O’Connell taught himself to cook and was inspired by Child’s recipes. Today he’s known for revolutionizing the fine dining industry with his innovative techniques and uncommon flavor combinations, and is considered by many to be one of the most influential chefs in the country.

O’Connell recalled meeting Child at her fundraising event at George Washington’s Mount Vernon in 1976, he said in an interview. He told her that he loved her book and that he ran a catering business in the mountains of Virginia using all her recipes but he wasn’t making any money.

Child told him: “But you will. Surely, you will.”

“She inspired confidence in me,” he said. “I never worried about money again.”

He and Child kept running into each other at events across the country and developed a friendship over time. She was, he said, intelligent, opinionated, kind — the list goes on. She also had a wonderful maternal sense, he said, though she never had children of her own.

He adored her, and dedicated a room in her honor at the Inn that’s available to guests. It contains memorabilia of her life, including books. It also has an elevator that goes directly down to the kitchen.

“That’s why she liked it,” he said.

Child visited the Inn on many occasions. She even had a 90th birthday celebration there, according to Newman.

O’Connell was honored to be in Child’s exhibit as a part of Virginia’s heritage. It was unexpected.

“This is about as exciting as it gets,” he said. “I think Child would be pleased, knowing that someone who had no formal training and who began in the backwoods with a wood-burning stove, using her recipes as inspiration, could take it as far as his restaurant receiving three Michelin stars.”

Julia Child and production crew at Cambridge Electric Kitchen. 1963. (Paul Child / The Schlesinger Library, Harvard University)

Paul Child / The Schlesinger Library, Harvard University

Julia Child and production crew at Cambridge Electric Kitchen. 1963. (Paul Child / The Schlesinger Library, Harvard University)

The exhibit, he thinks, will inspire and cultivate new generations of American chefs as Child did for him and many others.

Aside from the Virginia sections, the exhibit will feature an interactive set for “The French Chef” where visitors can operate a vintage video camera and see the show from Child’s viewpoint. They can also mix “ingredients” and star in their own show.

A theatrical scene will transport guests to La Couronne, the French restaurant where Child experienced her first French meal. The exhibit will use smells and sounds, including Child’s voice, to make it feel authentic.

A larger-than-life copy of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” will give visitors a peek at the illustrations and recipes inside. The pages are about 10 feet tall.

There’s also a photo opportunity for visitors to re-create Valentine’s Day cards like the ones Child and her husband made for family and friends, spanning more than 50 years. They include funny photos, art or a poem.

Other exhibit programming includes events such as a screening of the Disney movie “Ratatouille” on April 5; a Julia Child cook-off featuring local restaurants, on April 12; and a Virginia Eats: Farm to Table Bus Tour that includes tastings, lunch and Virginia wine on June 1.


Julia Child died of kidney failure in 2004, two days before her 92nd birthday, in Montecito, California.

“This is Julia Child, Bon appetit.”

Rekaya Gibson, 757-295-8809, [email protected], on X, @gibsonrekaya


If you go

Where: 428 N. Arthur Ashe Blvd., Richmond

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily

Admission: $12 adults, $8 youths ages 6 to 17, free for children 5 and under

Details: 804-340-1800;

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