Ruth Rogers on Julia Child
Before I surfaced as an Italian chef, the dish I loved to cook was souffle.
I learned how to make them from Julia Child’s debut, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I first started cooking – home cooking, that is – when my husband Richard and I lived in Paris in the 70s, and Child was a big influence. I loved that cookbook because she was so precise in her recipes – I always felt that, if you followed them to the letter, you could never fail. She gave you the diameter of every dish, and every other measurement; it was like reading a chemistry book.
Unlike Elizabeth David, who would just say, “find the ripest, juiciest tomato”, Child didn’t really worry too much about seasonality or ingredients; she cared more about technique. And I think learning the techniques is what gives you confidence – if you feel like you really can make things, you feel confident they will work. So, with my souffles, for example, everybody would be so amazed – they were so good. But, actually, it wasn’t so much to do with me as with Julia’s recipe – it was that good.
With the souffle, it was also the drama of the dish. You make it, you put it in the oven and you watch it rise. That everyone is slightly frightened by the process helps – you’re always told how delicate it is, you mustn’t open the oven door, you mustn’t make a noise. But I learned that, in reality, you could be quite robust when making one. I remember once, on a skiing holiday with my children, putting the souffle in the oven and it breaking down halfway through. We just took it out, walked down the hall to another oven and put it in. It was fine.
My kids loved them when they were little. I would always make a green-coloured spinach one and a cream-coloured cheese one
– a dollop of each on the plate, everyone fighting over the crisp bits on top. Served with a lovely salad, to cut through the richness of it.
Child also does a delicious fish souffle. You poach sole in wine, then put bits of the fish in the bottom of your souffle dish, before adding the egg whites. While it bakes, you reduce the poaching liquid to make a sauce, which you then pour over the baked souffle. A rather beautiful dish.
I have always had respect for the rigour of cooking, which Child embodied – this idea that there is a precision to learn, which you can then break away from, in the same way that you have to know classical music to play jazz. It’s tradition versus freeform.
Another dish of Child’s I made a lot in Paris was tarte tatin – again, the drama of the dish appealed. And I love a bitter-sweet dessert. I’d make it with quite big pieces of fruit and serve it with creme fraiche. Her îles flottantes – quite similar really to the souffle, in that you have egg whites – poached – and, instead of the bechamel, a creme anglaise. It’s a dish I always have whenever I go back to Paris, which I do at every opportunity. That, and the warm salad of curly endives with crisp bits of bacon and a poached egg with red-wine vinegar.
We lived there for five years. Going down to get a baguette twice a day – one for lunch and one for dinner – crossing the Seine to do my laundry that whole immersion in the food and culture of the city – from the restaurants we ate in to the markets where I shopped – was so exciting. And then, of course, we moved to Italy and I discovered Italian food, and fell in love. But I never lost my love for French food, and for making it.
Julia Child at her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. ‘She was so precise in her recipes, you could never fail’