When chef John Bennett left for France in 1962, he carried a letter to assist in finding work. Bennett, born in Ardmore and raised there, Healdton and Norman, embarked on a trip overseas with Bob Dickson, his roommate at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., to further their knowledge of French cuisine. The letter, written in French, translates: "Bob Dickson and John Bennett are good friends of ours, two young chefs who study at a school for chefs, The Culinary Institute of America. ... They are coming to France to stay a year where they hope to learn about France, the wines, the vineyards and especially French cuisine as it is practiced in the good restaurants. ... They are both serious boys passionate for their work. ... Whatever you can do for them would be a great benefit for the USA as well as kindness toward us, their friends.” The letter, dated Sept. 19, 1962, was signed by Paul and Julia Child. "I met Julia and Paul Child in 1961,” Bennett said. "We kept in touch the rest of our lives. I spoke to her two weeks before she died.” The iconic Julia Child, who died in 2004, is portrayed by Meryl Streep in Nora Ephron’s new film, "Julie and Julia,” which opens Friday. Half the film recounts Julia’s getting "Mastering the Art of French Cooking” accepted by a publisher. Where the film’s time with Julia ends is when young John Bennett’s story with her began.
The opportunistBennett spent his time away from the Culinary Institute of America working the vegetable station at the Mermaid Tavern in Stratford, Conn. The Mermaid had a consulting chef who was making a name for himself as a traveling instructor and the first chef of note on television. His name was James Beard. Beard, for whom the country’s most prestigious culinary awards now are named, painted the original American culinary landscape, demanding fresh, local, seasonal ingredients. With the help of a flex-seal cooker, Bennett turned those kinds of ingredients into perfection a dozen orders at time in three minutes, endearing him to Beard. When Bennett’s Uncle Henry offered to put him through culinary school, Bennett accepted. When Dean Paul Fairbrook decided someone should get Beard to come to the culinary institute, Bennett volunteered. Beard came to the culinary institute shortly thereafter to give a lecture. Afterward, Bennett gave a tour to the couple Beard brought with him, the Childs — Paul, a smallish intellectual man, and his tall, exuberant wife, Julia. Bennett recognized another opportunity. "I told Jim Beard that Bob and I were headed into the city for dinner, and we could ride back with them on the train.” While no dinner plans actually existed, the ride afforded Bennett the chance to get better acquainted with the Childs, talking about his interest in French cuisine. Julia talked about her book, which had been accepted by a publisher but had not yet reached shelves. By the time they arrived at Grand Central Station, Julia extended an invitation to the young chefs to join her in Cambridge, Mass., if they were ever in town. Not missing a beat, Bennett conjured another fortuitous fib about plans to be in Boston to eat at Locke-Ober. "Bob shot me a glance like I was crazy,” Bennett recalled. "And Julia said, ‘You must come by the house, and we will cook something from the book.’”
A memorable feastA few weeks later, Bennett and Dickson arrived at 103 Irving St., where they cooked from galley copies with Julia. They used a buffalo iron to make spinach, Steak Diane, potatoes gratin Dauphinoise and a Charlotte Malakoff with strawberries, homemade lady fingers, almonds and "lots of butter.” A strawberry sauce was intended for the dessert, but the two upstarts wanted to put their own touch on it. "We sent them out to the garden to be served, and when they were gone, we made a rich, buttery semisweet chocolate sauce with framboise eau-de-vie (a raspberry brandy) we found in the pantry instead of the strawberry sauce.” While the dessert was a success, it was the opportunist’s first misstep. "Paul was really mad when he found out we’d used the framboise,” Bennett said. "He said, ‘That was a very rare bottling I brought back from France and was saving it for a special occasion with our friends the DeVotos!’” Bennett assured him they’d only used half a cup amid his profuse apologies. Nevertheless, a friendship lasting more than four decades was forged.
A museum to call homeBennett now resides in Oklahoma City with a little white dog named Riley in a home that serves as a museum to kitchen artifacts and his epicurean life of eating, drinking and merriment. Among the treasures are photos with Beard, menus from The 21 Club in New York, original artwork by LeRoy Neiman and enough antique kitchen gadgetry to serve as an evolutionary chart for the food service industry — chafing dishes, pepper grinders, crumbers, tea and coffee services. Bennett graciously spent an afternoon sharing his stories, letters, effects, a delectable homemade cake embedded with fresh peach slices, and a pot of coffee. The letter he and Dickson took with them to France is protected in plastic. A number of other missives from Paul and Julia, dating from 1962-2003, are kept in a leather-bound folder embossed with a schooner in gold leaf. One letter thanks him for a fish mold he sent as a gift. That mold now is part of the Julia Child display at the Smithsonian Institute on the Peg-Board where Julia kept many of her cherished tools. When Bennett isn’t working on his ostensible memoir or pampering Riley, he does private dinners and parties for friends. A few times a year he does special dinners at local restaurants. He will welcome Dickson from South Carolina for a special dinner at the Grand House in October. As I left Bennett’s home, he pointed out a striking rosebush in the center of his cobblestone walk. "Did you see these?” he said, motioning to a small butter-color rose blossom that somehow had battled through an arid July to remain wilt-free and offer its aromatic licorice scent. "It’s a Julia Child rose.” He carefully cupped the blossom named for his friend and put his nose to it. His eyes momentarily pierced a memory he didn’t share — a pleasant one. About that time, the mailman stopped at Bennett’s mailbox. Bennett shook my hand and quickly made off to see what new letters had arrived.
See Bennett’s rosebush and his dog, Riley. Read how Bennett had Kaiser’s ice cream shipped for the wedding party for Julia Child’s niece. Read more of the conversation with Julie Powell.
Bennett’s lifelong friend Bob Dickson, owner of Robert’s of Charleston in South Carolina, will be a special guest hosted by Grand House Asian Bistro, 2701 N Classen, on Oct. 8.
"Julie & Julia” opens Friday. It stars Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci and Chris Messina. Look for a review of the film in Friday’s Weekend Look.
John Bennett’s career highlights
Bennett worked almost seven years at The Cellar in the Hightower Building downtown before moving to the Skirvin and Christopher’s. He moved to San Francisco in the early 1970s, where he worked at Jack’s and La Petite Ferme. Returning to Oklahoma City, Bennett opened Grand Boulevard, where Flip’s now stands, then began a string of consulting jobs, special events and his own product line. He helped design the kitchen and menu for The Greystone in Edmond in the 1980s and Nonna’s in 2000.