Julia Child is one of the most beloved chefs to ever grace the world’s TV screens. Child’s résumé is impressive; she was on television for 37 years and wrote 18 books. She is most notably known for ushering French cuisine into the everyday lives of Americans—and for her love of butter.
Child didn’t start cooking until much later in her life, and her first cookbook wasn’t published until she was 49 years old. And that’s just scratching the surface! Learn what Child’s last meal was, where she learned to cook, what jobs she had before the world became obsessed with her cooking, and much more that will certainly surprise you.
Here are the most mind-blowing facts about Julia Child even her biggest fans might not know. And if you love cooking, sign up for our newsletter to get daily recipes and food news in your inbox!
1. Julia Child was an athlete growing up.
Child was extremely tall. She was 6’2,” which meant she played a lot of sports in her youth. While growing up, Child played tennis, golf, and basketball. She continued playing basketball in college at Smith College. After college, her focus shifted her attention from sports to joining the military.
2. Her first job out of college was in advertising.
After graduating from Smith College, Child moved to New York City in an attempt to become a writer. She ended up landing a copywriting job in the advertising department at W. & J. Sloane, an upscale furniture store, according to The Julia Child Foundation.
3. She was too tall to enlist in the Navy’s WAVES and Women’s Army Corps.
Child was dead set on joining the military during World War II and ended up enrolling in the Office of Strategic Services as a typist at their headquarters in Washington, D.C. She quickly rose in the ranks at the OSS, and soon she moved on from being a typist to a top-secret researcher working directly with the OSS director at the time. The OSS was the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency. Yes, as in the CIA.
4. She helped develop a shark repellent for the war.
She spent her time at the OSS completing exciting and daunting tasks. Most notably, Child was responsible for developing a shark repellent during World War II that helped keep sharks away from underwater explosives.
5. She received the Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service.
Child had many titles while working for the OSS, which meant she lived all over the world. While at her final posting in Chunking, China, Child’s received the Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service as head of the Registry of the OSS Secretariat. The Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service is commonly the second-highest award, or medal, civilian employees of federal agencies can receive.
6. Child and her husband met while on duty.
Another important part of Child’s time at the OSS was she met her husband, Paul, overseas on duty. Paul and Julia met in 1944 when they were both stationed in Kandy, Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka). They married two years later when they both left the OSS.
7. Child didn’t learn how to cook until she met her husband.
Child grew up with a cook, so she didn’t have to cook growing up. It wasn’t until she met her husband Paul, that she began cooking and found the joy in making food. Paul was a worldly man, and Julia wanted to learn how to cook to impress him. After the war and back in the states, Julia enrolled in Hillcliff School of Cookery in Beverly Hills. Paul is credited with introducing Julia to French cuisine, thus kickstarting her love of French food. She eventually enrolled in the famed Le Cordon Bleu in France.
8. Child taught an informal cooking school out of her Paris apartment.
While living in Paris, Child joined the women’s cooking club Le Cercle des Gourmettes. That is where she met Simone Beck and Beck’s friend Louisette Bertholle. The three would then go on to start their cooking school out of Child’s Parisian kitchen apartment. Their school was called L’école des Trois Gourmandes, which translates to The School of the Three Food Lovers.
9. Child was one of three authors of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
What jump-started Child’s career as an acclaimed French chef was her first cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. But Child’s wasn’t the only author of this renowned cookbook. She wrote it alongside Beck and Bertholle and it was initially Beck and Bertholle’s idea to write a French cookbook for Americans. The three would test drive their recipes on their students at L’école des Trois Gourmandes.
10. It took Child nine years to publish her first cookbook.
Despite Mastering the Art of French Cooking being the hallmark of Child’s career, it wasn’t easy getting it published. For starters, it took years for Child, Beck, and Bertholle to finish the manuscript and test recipes. The three initially signed a contract with publishing house Houghton Mifflin, but as time passed, the publishing house rejected their contract because of the length of the cookbook and recipes. Eventually, the 726-page cookbook was published after nine years, thanks to Alfred A. Knopf.
11. Her last book was published posthumously.
Julia wrote 18 books in her lifetime, most being cookbooks. Her last book published, My Life in France, was an autobiography about her time living in France, learning how to cook French cuisine. It featured handwritten notes from Julia and her husband, Paul, and she wrote this book with her husband’s grandnephew Alex Prud’homme. Child, unfortunately, died before the book was published, so Prud’homme went on to finish the book, and it was published two years posthumously.
12. Child’s TV debut was an omelet cooking tutorial.
Alfred A. Knopf gave very little money to Child, Beck, and Bertholle, to publicize their book. Child took matters into her own hands by going on several talk shows to promote the cookbook. One of the programs she appeared on was I’ve Been Reading, a show about books that were produced by Boston’s PBS station WGBH. Child showed up to the interview with her equipment and taught everyone how to make an omelet using a hot plate. Twenty-seven viewers wrote to the station singing Child’s praises, thus convincing WGBH to give Child a cooking show.
13. The French Chef was the first cooking show on PBS.
The French Chef broke many barriers, one being the first cooking show on PBS, and one of the first cooking shows in America. The French Chef premiered in 1963 and lasted 10 seasons. She would then go on to appear on TV screens for the next few decades.
14. Child’s Emmy win was ground-breaking.
In 1966, Child won an Emmy for Achievements in Education Television, making her the first educational TV personality to win an Emmy. She will forever be known for introducing French cuisine into American homes.
15. The French Chef was the first TV program with closed captioning.
The French Chef was also the first TV program to have closed captioning for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers. That’s right, closed captioning wasn’t even a thing before Child’s show! According to the National Captioning Institute, in 1970, ABC teamed up with the National Bureau of Standards to create closed captioning, which helped push the funding to make it an accessible feature for all channels.
16. The French Chef was unedited.
Digital film wasn’t around during the era of The French Chef. That meant that most of The French Chef episodes are unedited and filmed in one shot, giving the audience a full view of Child’s charming personality. It also meant that a lot of her errors were shown on TV. This allowed Child to show how to fix common cooking mistakes and relate more closely with her viewers.
17. Child’s founded the American Institute of Wine & Food.
In 1981, Child, alongside Robert Mondavi and Richard Graff, founded the American Institute of Wine & Food. The AIWF is a non-profit that helps professionals and also food and wine enthusiasts, and is about advancing and appreciating food and wine in all of its glory.
18. Many of Child’s TV programs and cookbooks went hand in hand.
Child had 13 TV programs and 16 cookbooks. Most of her television shows had cookbook companions. This way, readers could follow along with a recipe while watching Child cook.
19. While filming Baking With Julia, Child’s used 753 pounds of butter.
Child is most widely remembered for her use and love of butter. PBS states that when shooting her show Baking with Julia, Child used a total of 753 pounds of butter throughout filming the show. It aired for four seasons from 1996 to 1999.
20. Child’s real kitchen was the set for three of her shows
Child’s kitchen in her Cambridge, Massachusetts home that her husband designed for her, was the backdrop for three of her TV shows. Child cooked in her kitchen on the shows In Julia’s Kitchen with Master Chefs, Baking With Julia, and Julia and Jacques Cooking At Home.
“To turn the kitchen into a set, producers removed the table, chairs, and back wall cabinets, where they stationed the cameras,” The National Museum of American History says. “They added curtains to the windows, mounted light poles on the ceiling, and installed a large cooking island in the center. On television, Julia and her guest cooks used her kitchenware.”
21. Child’s kitchen is now in a museum.
In 2001, Child donated her actual kitchen to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. The kitchen she gave was from her Cambridge, Massachusetts home and was the backdrop Child’s last three cooking shows.
22. Child donated her home and office to Smith College.
In 1990, Child agreed to donate her Cambridge home, and office to her alma matter Smith College once she passed away. But because Child moved back to California in 2001, she decided to accelerate her gift and give her home and office to Smith College early. The college sold her home and office for $2.35 million and used Child’s donation to build the first campus center at Smith College.
23. Child has 10 honorary doctorates.
Child graduated from Smith College with a degree in history and has 10 honorary doctorates. Her first honorary doctorate came from Boston University in 1976. She received an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree. She also has honorary doctorates from Bates College, Rutgers University, Smith College, Brown University, and Harvard University.
24. She was a Costco fan.
Yes, even Julia appreciated the magic of Costco, as she often treated herself to one of their classic food-court menu items. It has been said that she would sit under the umbrellas at the Santa Barbara Costco location enjoying a hot dog.
25. Child has a rose named after her.
Before Child passed away, she had a rose named after her. Child was at first unwilling to have a flower named after her until she saw a butter-colored rose. After that, a hybrid was made, and now the buttery colored rose is called Julia Child. They’re the perfect year-round roses and have a pleasant licorice scent. Sounds, and probably smells, divine.
26. She was a breast cancer survivor.
In the ’60s, Child was diagnosed with breast cancer. She chose to have a single mastectomy, which means she had her cancerous breast removed. Child didn’t keep her mastectomy a secret, but it wasn’t well known.
27. Child was the first woman inducted into The Culinary Institute of America’s Hall of Fame.
Child has a lot of firsts under her belt, but most notably, she was the first woman inducted into The Culinary Institute of America’s Hall of Fame in 1993. Child would later also receive an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the school, and its first Lifetime Achievement Award.
28. She wasn’t a fan of blogger Julie Powell who inspired the movie, Julie & Julia.
The movie, starring the one and only Meryl Streep as Child, was based on writer Julie Powell’s blog, where she cooked through the entirety of Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year. Her blog was turned into a book which then was turned into a major motion picture. Despite all the success, Child wasn’t Powell’s biggest fan. Food editor and columnist for the Los Angeles Times, Russ Parsons, showed Child the blog, and when he asked her over the phone what she thought, well, she was brutally honest.
“Well, she just doesn’t seem very serious, does she? I worked very hard on that book. I tested and retested those recipes for eight years so that everybody could cook them. And many, many people have. I don’t understand how she could have problems with them. She just must not be much of a cook,” Child said.
29. Child was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In 2003, Child was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Goerge W. Bush. The U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest award a civilian can receive in America.
30. She credited her long life to red meat and gin.
Child passed away two days before her 92 birthday. She lived a long and adventurous life, which she credits to eating red meat and drinking gin. In a 2001 TV interview, Child said, “I don’t consider vegetarianism a sensible diet at all, because you’re supposed to have a little bit of everything. How about red meat? Which I believe in. As I’ve often said, red meat and gin.”
31. Child’s last meal was French onion soup.
Child died on Aug. 13, 2004, at the age of 91. Her last meal was homemade French onion soup prepared by her longtime assistant, which is fitting for the chef and culinary personality who ushered French cuisine into American homes. Child reshaped home cooking and was a pioneer in television cooking.
And for more tips, don’t miss these 52 Life-Changing Kitchen Hacks That’ll Make You Enjoy Cooking Again.