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Oklahoma chef John Bennett recalls meeting, working with Julia Child

Oklahoma City chef John Bennett recalls meeting and working with Julia Child.
by Dave Cathey Published: August 15, 2012

My first year at the Culinary Institute of America, then located in New Haven, Conn., was in 1961, and it is where my lifelong friendship with Julia Child began.

When I wasn't in school, I worked full-time as entrementier, or vegetable cook, at the Mermaid Tavern in Stratford about 25 miles down the Merritt Parkway. Albert Stockli was the executive chef.

He came to oversee, sample and tweak the menu frequently during the opening weeks and would often come with James Beard, well-known food authority, cookbook author and restaurant consultant.

As entrementier, I had my own station at the end of the cooking line. Stockli and Beard would hang out at the end of my work table, Stockli drinking Scotch and Beard ogling the new wait staff and watching me like a hawk to see if I was cooking the vegetables correctly.

Using a flex-seal cooker, which cooked enough vegetables for a dozen orders in 3 minutes, I became a master of the quick cooker and was able to serve beautifully green and perfectly cooked vegetables for each order without fail.

This endeared me to Beard, which gave me the confidence to suggest new menu items gleaned from the culinary institute's library. During these conversations, and unbeknownst to the school administration, I asked Beard to visit the institute to give a talk to our junior class.

When he agreed, we chose a day in April.

I then proceeded to campaign Dean Paul Fairbrook to officially ask Beard to come and give a talk. After much hemming and hawing Dean Fairbrook decided it was a mighty good idea, but he didn't have a clue how to contact Beard.

I told him I knew how and would handle it.

Beard asked me if he could bring someone with him, and I agreed immediately.

Meeting Julia Child

April 19, 1962, was the first time we met Paul and Julia Child. Beard gave a hearty, funny speech. After his talk, the students asked questions, and he included Julia in the question-and-answer period.

Her manner of speech drew snickers and giggles, but, nonplussed, she continued. I later apologized to her for their behavior, but she said, “Don't worry, dearie, they are young and brash.”

Julia, towering above all, was her inquisitive self, so she and her husband agreed to a tour of the campus with me and my best friend and classmate, Robert Dickson.

As time approached for the Childs to catch the train back to New York City, I told Beard that Bob and I were going into the city to dine that night. Dickson shot me the most incredulous look, but I plunged on and told him we would have someone take us to the train station, and we would ride with them.

During the hour-plus ride to New York, we expressed our deep interest in cooking, France, etc., and during our approach to Grand Central Station, Julia said, “If you boys are ever in Cambridge, please look us up.”

Without missing a breath, I said, “Julia, we are going to be in Boston in two weeks to meet some old friends at Locke-Ober's restaurant.”

Bob glared at me before Julia could say, “You must come by the house, and we will cook something from the book.”

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