It was the spring of 1980, and La Tulipe, the little restaurant my husband, John, and I owned in Greenwich Village, was still overflowing with more customers than we could seat. Not quite a year had passed since we'd earned three stars from Mimi Sheraton, the New York Times restaurant critic, just six weeks after our May 1979 opening. "Your phone will not stop ringing for five years," advised Leon Lianides, owner of the nearby Coach House restaurant—a Greenwich Village legend and now the site of Mario Batali's Babbo—when he called to congratulate us on the review.
I was the chef, and my husband, John, formerly a noted minister and schoolmaster, was up front. During the evenings, my kitchen doors often swung open unexpectedly, and John would be there with a customer in tow. Many times it was a celebrity who had loved the apricot soufflé or lamb chops and was then encouraged by my husband to "tell her yourself." That's how I met Julia Child for the first time.
Julia was such a charmer, I soon forgot how I looked in my food-stained apron and messy hair after hours of cooking on the line. She shook hands all around and asked questions of the young kitchen staff—mainly C.I.A. graduates—who all were thrilled by her surprise visit.
She had adored her garlic chicken and wanted to tell me in person. "You can always tell a really good cook by the chicken she roasts," she wrote me years later, recalling that night.
Julia and I immediately hit it off, and as we chatted, she asked if we had made any vacation plans for when the restaurant closed in July. I mentioned that we were thinking of going to France, and she stunned me by immediately suggesting we stay in her house in Plascassier, a small village near Cannes.
"Is that a serious offer?" I asked incredulously.
"It certainly is," she replied. "Paul and I will be traveling."
That was an offer we could not refuse.
The day we arrived at La Pitchoune—the Childs' name for their Provençal cottage, meaning "the little one"—we had no sooner set our bags down on the stone terrace to breathe in the scented air and admire the olive trees, the mimosa, the neighboring vineyards, and the house itself, with its red-tile roof and long wooden shutters, when the phone rang. It was Simone Beck, the Childs' neighbor and one of Julia's co-authors of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Simca, as she was known, was calling to invite us to a garden party that evening on their adjoining property, Domaine de Bramafam.
For a moment, I imagined the party was for us—a neighborly welcome to La Pitchoune—but I was soon told that the guest of honor was none other than Escoffier's nephew. John and I were jet-lagged, and John was in no mood to socialize, but the foodie in the room could not say no to meeting an Escoffier—and in Simca Beck's garden, no less.
It was a gala affair, with lanterns and white-coated waiters serving Champagne and Simca's tasty hors d'oeuvres. There were restaurateurs and chefs and, of course, Escoffier's nephew. I hate to admit I have no memory of the nephew, but I do remember the heated disagreements—in French—about restaurant ratings in the Gault Millau guide. If, instead, it had been the Zagat guide being trashed, and in English, the setting could have been the Hamptons, and Plascassier just a dream.
John was determined not to let our stay at La Pitchoune turn into a busman's holiday, because there was so much to see and rediscover since our last trip to France. But on rainy days too nasty to be out and about, I was "allowed" to be in the cozy kitchen, baking pastry for a fruit tart, or putting Julia's shiny copper pots to use making something good for dinner. Once I was about to roast a nice plump chicken—in our absent hostess' honor—but we couldn't figure out how to light the oven. That's when we remembered the "Black Book." In the months leading up to our visit, a flurry of letters had been exchanged between the Childs and the Darrs, with Julia reminding us more than once about the "Black Book" and where to find it. It had all the answers, she said, to any problems we might have during our stay at La Pitchoune. Sure enough, the answer was there. It began: "TO LIGHT THE OVEN: Lie down on the floor." Hilarious, but it worked.