The Cooking School at Julia Child’s Summer Home Is Everything You Were Hoping It Would Be
The recipe-free, no-apologies approach to cooking at La Pitchoune will help you channel your inner Julia.
My first lesson in French cooking: there is no such thing as too much butter. I've just arrived at La Pitchoune, the former Provençal summer home of Julia Child, and the new owner, Makenna Held, is looking into the fridge, questioning if 20 pounds of butter will suffice for five students over five days. "It's really good butter," she says with a sigh, as if picturing it spread thickly across a baguette.
When I botch my French omelet the next morning during our first lesson, Held looks at me with a smile and simply says, "more butter" and shows me how I missed buttering the sides of the pan. When I attempt again, I add a generous slab to the pan, swirl it up the sides, then add my eggs and give the pan a good jerk toward me, like I'm slamming a door. I slide my perfectly folded omelet from pan to plate and garnish with chives. Held looks at me like I'm forgetting something. "You might want to add a little butter on top for extra sheen," she says. Of course, more butter.
I've always been intimidated in the kitchen. During my eight-year stint at Food & Wine magazine, I was surrounded by culinary school grads and recipe developers. My job, as the travel editor, was to eat and explore the world. The kitchen never felt like my natural domain.
But Held embraces a freewheeling, no-apologies approach to cooking. Honest, humorous Julia-esque phrases like "you can hide most mistakes," "floor spice" and "tie your mirepoix like bondage" help me relax behind the stove. In fact, Held reminds me a lot of America's grand dame of French cookery, right down to her cropped, wavy brown hair and her 6'1'' stature. Both women are bombastic Smith College graduates and American Francophiles. But you won't find Held teaching from Julia's groundbreaking Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
"I don't believe recipes are the best tool for learning in the kitchen," confesses Held one evening over glasses of rosé. "A recipe is just one person's expression of a dish. Julia saw cooking as a science but I believe cooking is about wild experimentation. As instructors, we should not dictate taste. Our goal is to guide you to discover your own palate."
The name, the Courageous Cooking School, hints at Held's unconventional, recipe-free curriculum. A life coach and ski instructor from Colorado, Held never intended to run a cooking school. She grew up in a family that appreciated good food and regularly visited France. In November 2015, she learned that Julia's summer home was for sale and she bought it sight unseen. "I couldn't bear to think of the kitchen being torn out or the home being private," she says. "I think Julia would have wanted it to always be a place where people gather around food."
Child and her husband, Paul, built "La Peetch," as they lovingly called the modest cottage, in 1965 on the property of Julia's culinary collaborator, Simone Beck. The couple lived here on an off until 1992, entertaining culinary luminaries such as James Beard, Richard Olney and M.F.K. Fisher. The home then changed hands to Kathie Alex, an American who had worked with Julia and who opened a cooking school here.
It seemed fateful that Held would continue La Peetch's legacy as a place to celebrate food. The three-bedroom cottage accommodates six guests, the ideal number for Child's tiny kitchen, a replica of the kitchen from her Cambridge, Mass. home. Custom counters were built extra-tall to accommodate Julia's 6'2" height and pegboard walls have been traced with outlines of pots, brioche molds, peelers and other gadgets, including some of Child's originals utensils.
Held, who is currently studying at Le Cordon Bleu Paris, takes turns teaching in the kitchen with Dominie Clark, a Le Cordon Bleu-trained Scot and food history nerd. Our group ranges from a 30-something who vaguely recalls Child to a spunky 81-year-old devotee. Each day, we spend four hours in the kitchen, chopping, frying and roasting to a soundtrack of Tom Petty and Édith Piaf.
Loose themes—knife skills, salads, stews—dictate the four to six dishes we prepare each day. French classics—lamb navarin, beef bourguignon, coq au vin, bouillabaisse—have always terrified me. "Nothing complicated about them," Clarke reassures me. "At heart, they're peasant dishes." And to my surprise, she's right.
Throughout the week, I find Clarke's quick-fixes and shortcuts way more useful than any recipe I could take home. "Always have a kettle on so you're not waiting for tap water to boil," she shares. Instead of putting the top on our pot of lamb stew before it goes into the oven, Clarke shows me how to make a cartouche – a circle of parchment paper that will lie over the stew. "The lid would have created steam and added water back into the dish," she explains. "This is like a hat that keeps the flavor in."
Kitchen time is broken up with daily excursions that help us understand why Child fell in love with the south of France. We visit fishmongers, butchers, a Michelin-star restaurant, and fairytale-worthy villages. One day, Held drives us 20 minutes to the open-air market in Antibes. We're each given 50 euros and instructed to purchase vegetables that we'll turn into our own creative side dishes and salads.
What I love most about Held's curriculum is that it forces me to think. Recipes are like culinary GPS. Without them, most people are lost. Held challenges us to navigate our own course based around texture and flavors that appeal to us. Back in the kitchen, we're instructed to raid the fridge, cupboards and herb gardens for ingredients to accompany our market purchases.
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Clarke gives gentle suggestions as we craft our own original salads and sides from scratch. "Maybe a bit more acid in that dressing," she tells a German woman. "What about something to contrast the texture of the asparagus." Someone stuffs fried zucchini blossoms with goat cheese. I develop a black garlic vinaigrette to accompany the romanesco I've roasted. The German woman develops a wild asparagus and shaved zucchini salad plated atop pomegranate-spiked couscous. Her Martha Stewart-worthy dish makes me feel self-conscious about my combination of chickpeas, tomato, red onion, feta and dill.
When we sit down to dinner that final evening on the wisteria-shaded patio I can't help but feel a sense of pride for the meal we've created. To my surprise, my salad is a unanimous hit. "Simplicity is always a success," Held reminds me. And with that, she raises her glass and toasts her latest batch of Courageous Cooking School graduates.
Week-long cooking school programs are offered April to June, and September to November for $3,950;