Learn to Cook (and Enjoy Santa Barbara) Like Julia Child

Julia Homage - Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University - H 2020
Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

March 13-15, the inaugural Santa Barbara Culinary Experience food weekend offers more than 40 events, including French cooking classes and special dinners paying homage to the famed TV chef.

After Julia Child moved to Santa Barbara in 2001, she could often be spotted shopping at the city’s Saturday farmer’s market, eating at Lucky’s restaurant in the village of Montecito, catching a movie at the Riviera Theater or even getting fries at In-N-Out Burger or a hotdog at Costco. “That’s the thing that people can’t get over. If something tasted good, she liked it. She was not at all snobby,” says Child’s grandnephew, writer Alex Prud’homme, who collaborated with the late chef on the 2006 best-selling autobiography My Life in France. (The book became part of the source material for the 2009 film Julie and Julia.)

Child lived out the last years of her life in Santa Barbara. Now, 14 years after she died in 2004 at the age of 91, the coastal California area — in partnership with the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts — is celebrating her legacy with the inaugural Santa Barbara Culinary Experience food and wine event. “The premise is to shine a light on the culinary riches of Santa Barbara while creating a set of educational events that Julia herself would have wanted to attend,” says Eric W. Spivey, chairman of the Julia Child Foundation. “We’re consciously not using the word festival — that generally means primarily lots of drinking and eating. We’ll have lots of great drinking and eating, but we also have these great panels and discussions and classes.”

Comprising more than 40 events, SBCE will take place March 13-15 all around the area at hotels including the Hotel Californian, Rosewood Miramar, San Ysidro Ranch and Four Seasons Biltmore, and at acclaimed restaurants such as The Lark and bouchon. Celebrity chefs taking part include Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken (who in 2018 won the annual Julia Child Award presented every year at the Smithsonian); Chris Bianco; and Ludo Lefebvre (who’s guest of honor at a two-day getaway that’s being dubbed an afterparty at the Alisal Guest Ranch in the nearby Santa Ynez Valley post-fest).

The heart and soul of the weekend are events that pay homage to Child, including classes to learn how to make her legendary boeuf bourguignon (the subject of Child’s first television episode of The French Chef in 1963) and cheese soufflé. There’s also a talk titled “Behind the Scenes and Inside Julia’s Kitchen: An Intimate Conversation With Julia’s Friends and Family” that will include Prud’homme (who also is a member of the board of the Julia Child Foundation). Plus, more than a dozen restaurants throughout Santa Barbara County will serve up special Julia Child-inspired dishes and cocktails. The weekend will include a five-course dinner tribute to Julia Child at the Hotel Californian’s Blackbird restaurant and a screening of the new documentary Nothing Fancy about chef Diana Kennedy, who has been called the Julia Child of Mexican cuisine.

Other highlights include a wine-tasting opening reception at the Hotel Californian featuring almost two dozen Santa Barbara wineries; a brunch at the Rosewood Miramar with executive chef Massimo Falsini and James Beard-award winner Sherry Yard; a winemaker dinner at The Lark conceived by vintner Matt Dees of Jonata and the Hilt and chef Jason Paluska; a paella class at Loquita restaurant; and a dinner at the Belmond El Encanto hotel pairing the hotel’s executive chef Johan Denizot with L.A. chef Vartan Abgaryan of Venice’s Yours Truly.

The Julia Child Foundation published an interactive map of Santa Barbara that shows spots around town that Child loved. The chef had a deep history with the area going back decades. “Julia grew up in Pasadena and like many Pasadena families, her family summered in Santa Barbara,” says Spivey. “She had really fond memories of hanging out at the beach. In her adult life, she wintered here to escape the cold of Cambridge, Massachusetts. She and her husband Paul Child owned an apartment right near the Four Season Biltmore hotel.” The map, says Spivey, “allows visitors to come and check out Santa Barbara through her eyes” and visit places like La Super-Rica Taqueria. “She made that famous in the '80s on Good Morning America,” says Spivey. “She was doing a profile on the city of Santa Barbara and she went around and found this family-owned taqueria. It’s a fun, not fancy sort of place.”

Adds Prud’homme (who is working on a new book due out in 2021, a history of U.S. presidents and food), “Santa Barbara reminded her of the South of France where they had a house. They call Santa Barbara the Riviera of America and it kind of is. They have similar climates. Both have amazing food and wine cultures. She loved Santa Barbara. She had friends who were winemakers."

Prud’homme recalls that on his visits to his great-aunt, they would go to the market every Saturday. "She would see what looked good and would cook whatever caught her eye. She knew everybody. I would wheel her around in her wheelchair and she wanted to talk to the olive guys and the strawberry lady and the mushroom people. It really was an amazing experience. She had this wonderful charisma and sense of humor and intelligence and was just endlessly curious.”

Spivey says the SBCE benefits the Julia Child Foundation, which also is the recipient of royalties from the chef’s books and TV shows. However, it has not and will not ever, he says, put her name on products: “She never had a whisk or an apron or anything. She never endorsed products.”