Last weekend I was sitting in the family room reading House Beautiful when my husband Paul came in and asked if he could watch the U.S. Open PGA Masters tournament on TV.

"Fine with me," I mumbled, focused on an especially fascinating feature on window treatments.

Paul turned on the television and was disappointed to learn that the golf match had been suspended because of a weather delay. So he began flipping through the channels, looking for something involving a ball, and instead came upon the local public television station, which was showing the historic cooking show, The French Chef.

"Stop!" I cried, grabbing the remote. Forget baseball/tennis/bocce! The TV was mine.

You remember Julia Child, don't you? As public TV station WGBH recounts, "in 1963, a charismatic woman with a passion for French cuisine and an inimitable voice stepped in front of the cameras at WGBH and introduced Americans to the art of French cooking." Julia would go on to become a cooking pioneer, writing numerous books, shining on television and laying the foundation for such food-obsessed networks as The Cooking Channel. (Sadly, she died in 2004.)

And as I watched an old scratching video of her original show, Julia made a bouillabaisse, which, as she patiently informed her viewers, is a Provençal fish stew that originated in Marseille.

Five minutes into the show I realized something I should have known years ago: Julia's genius was not about the recipes, it was the way she communicated.

Here's what Julia can teach us about conveying information in a way that is simple, clear and engaging:

  • Understand your audience. When Julia began doing The French Chef in the early 1960s, she knew that American cooks weren't very adventurous and didn't have access to all the ingredients she used. So during the bouillabaisse episode, she kept offering alternatives. "If you don't have time to make fish stock," she said, "You can use clam juice instead." She then told viewers how to make the substitution.
  • Define and explain everything. As my friend Kevin Kelly says, "Never underestimate audience members' intelligence or overestimate their knowledge." Julia assumed nothing. When it was time to add seasonings to the pot, Julia showed what fennel seeds look like, what they're commonly used for and why they are important in bouillabaisse.
  • Show, don't tell. The French Chef was one of the first cooking shows on TV, and it was immediately obvious that television was an ideal medium for demonstrating how to make food. And despite terrible production values, Julia did so beautifully. She didn't just say, "Remove the gills before using the fish head for stock," she showed what gills looked like and how to extract them from the head. (Ew!)
  • Let your personality come through. Julia was not gorgeous like the glamorous female chefs who grace The Food Network today, but her personality came through with all its eccentricities. Perfection is boring. Smoothing out all the little bumps makes communication seem packaged and inauthentic. Not being herself was never an issue for Julia. "Just give it a whack!" was her advice about how to chop up a fish skeleton, and then she did so with gusto.

I guess there's just one thing to add: Bon appetit!

Published on: May 5, 2017
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