A single meal forever changed Julia Child‘s life and American kitchens with it. It featured a mild, white-fleshed fish served in a butter sauce.
The legendary American chef stepped on French soil in 1948 for the first time. She was in her late 30s and didn’t know how to cook — at least not yet.
Child and her husband, Paul, stopped for lunch at Restaurant La Couronne (“The Crown”) in Rouen, the capital of the northern region of Normandy.
For their first meal in France, Paul ordered oysters, sole meunière and a green salad. Child devoured the meal, calling it “perfection.”
Alex Prud’homme, Child’s grandnephew and cowriter of her memoir, “My Life in France,” opened the book with this now famous scene.
“Julia is describing the sensation of eating her first bite of real French food and literally falling in love with it at that moment — without realizing that was the meal that changed her life,” he told CNN.
What she ate that day was in sharp juxtaposition with the meat and potatoes she grew up eating in California.
“It was my first French food and I never got over it,” Child recalled in archival footage in the new documentary “Julia” from CNN Films that premieres Monday, May 30, at 8 p.m. ET.
This unforgettable lunch inspired Child to dedicate her life to learning and teaching the world the wonders of French cuisine. In the middle of that first bite of sole, she had an epiphany.
“It came upon me that that was what I was looking for all my life. One taste of that food and I never turned back,” Child said.
The next years of her life were spent in Paris, studying at Le Cordon Bleu and working on a cookbook that became “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”
“Julia said (she and Paul) were having so much fun that they could barely catch their breath,” Prud’homme said. “She experienced a flowering of the soul.”
What was so life-changing about this meal?
Sole meunière, a seemingly simple dish, actually takes great practice and technique to prepare.
The Dover sole is lightly dusted with salt, pepper and flour, then sautéed in a hot pan with butter until the fish is crisp and golden. It’s served in a brown butter (called beurre noisette) with a spritz of lemon and a sprinkling of fresh parsley that’s crisped by the sizzling sauce. Just as Child did, Prud’homme likes to add capers.
“People today think, oh God, calories, but really, it’s about the flavor. It’s very light and delicate and beautiful,” said Prud’homme, describing the dish as “magical.”
He suggested a green salad with a tangy vinaigrette, a baguette with butter and a glass of white wine to accompany the fish. Child, who loved chocolate, would finish her meal with a piece of chocolate cake or a chocolate mousse.
As a legendary TV chef, Child wanted to share her passion for cooking with the world. She would say no one is born knowing how to cook; it’s a skill one must learn, just like riding a bike.
“She was more than just a cook and just a comedian,” Prud’homme said. “She was really a revolutionary. She changed the way Americans think of … food in general — eating, cooking — and brought it to the masses in a new way.”
Child’s advice to cooks was to work hard, take risks and above all have fun. Lessons that apply to cooking — but also to building an amazing recipe for life.
It may be challenging to find a Dover sole. The fish comes only from the English Channel and other faraway waters. You can find imported Dover sole at specialty fish stores. Flatfish fillets like flounder or “fillets of sole” are suitable alternatives. Particularly good choices are gray sole, lemon sole, winter flounder and yellowtail flounder on the US East Coast; and petrale sole, rex sole and rock sole on the West Coast.
You can also sauté small fillets (4 to 6 ounces each) of round fish like salmon, snapper and bluefish. Small whole trout are another option. Sauté only a minute or two on each side, until the skin is crisped and the flesh is just springy rather than squashy. Turn the fillets carefully so they don’t break apart.
Makes 2 servings
For the fish
2 Dover sole, each approximately 1 pound
1⁄8 teaspoon salt
1⁄8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1⁄3 cup or so all-purpose flour, in a large flat platter or on wax paper, for dredging
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
For the beurre noisette
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 to 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon capers, drained
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 very large (more than 12 inches top diameter) nonstick, heavy frying pan or 2 large pans
2 spatulas for turning the fish
1 medium pan for the beurre noisette
1. Prepare the fish, removing the scales, black skin, head, roe and fins.
2. Set the frying pan or pans over medium-high heat. Season both sides of the fish with salt and pepper. Just before cooking, holding the fish by the tail, dredge first one side, then the other, in the flour. Press lightly to coat, then shake off the excess. Swirl the oil and butter in the pan and, when the butter foam subsides, lay in the fish, white skin side down. Repeat with the second fish.
3. Sauté until nicely browned on the first side, 4 to 5 minutes. Turn the fish over carefully with the spatulas and sauté until crispy and golden brown, 4 to 5 minutes or more. To check for doneness, stick a sharp knife into the top fillet, along the centerline, and push gently to one side; the flesh should separate easily from the center bone and no pinkness should be visible.
4. As soon as the fish are done, remove to a warm platter, skin side up, or to individual warm plates.
5. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon chopped parsley on each fish. Place 2 to 3 tablespoons butter in a clean medium-size pan over high heat. Watch the butter carefully as it melts, bubbles and starts to brown. Remove the pan from the heat, and, as the butter darkens to a hazelnut color, toss in the capers and the lemon juice and swirl together.
6. Pour the sizzling butter over the 2 fish, crisping the parsley, and serve immediately.