He’s So Manly

PBS asked Jimmy Sneed, chef of Blowtoad, questions about his time with Julia Child on the show, “Baking with Julia.” In the midst of Julia Child 100th Birthday Celebration, Sneed pays tribute to her legacy.

What was it like working with Julia Child?

My first meeting with Julia was probably around 1987. I was having lunch at Galileo in Washington, D.C. when a friend passed by my table and told me she was with a group of women having lunch with Julia Child in the private room. Would I like to meet her? Hell yeah. So I racked my brain for what to say to her. Back in ‘74 I had been befriended by the owner of Le Cordon Bleu in Paris who gave me a job translating for the students. She provided me with an apartment and an unparalleled view of the cooking world. Julia must have known Mme. Brassart well. There’s the connection.

So they presented me to Julia who proceeded to stare me down. Up and down, actually. I sputtered something about how she must have known Mme. Brassart. “Oh yes”, she shrilled. “Mme. Brassart. Now that was a despicable woman.”

Needless to say it was a huge honor to be considered for Julia’s show. I got a call in early ’94 from a girl named Kimberly who said that I was under consideration to be one of the featured chefs in her new series. Could I send them a tape for Julia to review, as she hand-picked all of the chefs. I managed to find something in record time and sent it along. Two days later Kimberly called to say that I had been chosen and went on to say that when Julia saw the tape she exclaimed “he’s so manly”. My wife and kids practically fell down laughing: I don’t know why.

I showed up in Cambridge the day before the ‘shoot’ at Julia’s house. I met Susie Heller and Geoff Drummond for dinner at Chris Schlesinger’s restaurant, the Blue something. Around 11:00 that night we noticed Julia arriving for dinner. I noted that we had a 6:00 a.m. start the next morning. Shouldn’t she be in bed? I was told not to worry about Julia.

Sure enough at 6:00 a.m. Julia was there and ready for the day’s shoot. I was probably the 12th chef so far, one day each. She made me feel at home and seemed genuinely interested in what I was making. She was extremely easy to talk to.

At 11:00 she went upstairs for a 9 minute nap, and again at 2:30.

At one point in the taping I was about to untie a turkey leg that I had boned, stuffed with Edwards’ Ham and shiitake mushrooms, wrapped in caul fat and roasted. I was warned that Julia went on ‘kicks’ and this week it had to do with touching food after it had been cooked. I protested that I needed to untie the string by hand or would appear awkward, and that I needed to then hold the leg so that I could cut the slices on a slant.

Be warned, I was told. If Julia yells “cut” then you’re screwed. So I went to Julia and promised to make a big deal of washing my hands before actually touching the leg. She hesitated and made no promises. I managed to get through the procedure under her gaze and presented my plate to the camera.

After we finished I brought out a huge bowl of old fashioned pearl tapioca pudding for the crew: the secret to getting invited back one day. As Julia walked by she remarked how much she loved pearl tapioca pudding, picked up the serving spoon, took a huge bite, and shoved the spoon back into the pudding. My, my.

Afterwards we sat at her dining room table and shared a bottle of wine. Maybe two.

What do you believe is Julia Child’s lasting legacy?

This is easy. Julia was the first person to tell you that she wasn’t a chef. What Julia did for all of us, and we should be forever grateful, was to demystify food, and cooking. It’s just a chicken, she would say. If you don’t have rosemary, use thyme.

What was the impact of appearing on “In Julia’s Kitchen with Master Chefs?”

To my surprise, we became close friends. Surprised because Julia had/has thousands of close friends and I’m just another chef. But when it came to being irreverent, I had met my match. She requested that I attend events with her over the next year (cooking demos, housewares shows) and share the stage. We went to dinner together and shared notes. At one particular dinner I was stunned at just how bad everything was considering the fame of the chef. In the limo back to the hotel Julia asked me how I liked the meal. “I thought it sucked” I said. “Yes”, she added, “It certainly wasn’t my kind of food.”

In 1995 we held a dinner in her honor at The Frog and the Redneck in Richmond, VA. She delighted the whole city and 18 years later they still remember her fondly. And she gave me some fabulous memories.

Watch Julia Child and Jimmy Sneed

About Jimmy Sneed

Jimmy Sneed is the Chef/Owner of BlowToad in Richmond, VA. In 1993, Sneed and partner Adam Steely opened The Frog and the Redneck. The restaurant was named “One of the Best New Restaurants in America” by Esquire Magazine and Jimmy received two James Beard nominations for Best Chef in America, Mid-Atlantic. He studied under the late Chef Jean-Louis Palladin of Jean-Louis at Watergate in Washington, D.C.