Julia Child's summer home in Provence is becoming a lodge and cooking school for culinary enthusiasts. (©Sotheby's Real Estate)
Julia Child, best known for her cooking shows on PBS and her popular cookbooks, might have died in 2004, but her spirit lives on in her former summer home in Provence, France. In fact, soon you will be able to stay there, learn to cook in her kitchen and take yoga classes, thanks to the home’s new owners, Makenna and Evie Johnston.
The couple, who has lived in California, Colorado and Georgia, said kismet landed them in Provence, near the tiny village of Valbonne, which Makenna’s dad, Craig, affectionately describes as “three square miles surrounded by cute.”
The region’s newest residents like to think that their quirky puzzle-piece life positioned them perfectly. As I listened to a breathless narrative of the odyssey to purchase Child's La Pitchoune ("The Little Thing"), or La Peetch, I was reminded of the grand dame herself who often left admirers in awe with her ruffled style and her attainable French cuisine.
Makenna discovered escargot as a 4-year-old and thought it "was the best thing in the world," thus beginning her love affair with all things French. Spontaneous yearly trips with her parents to Parisian communities where they skipped the tourist path and instead totally immersed themselves within a neighborhood were what sealed her fate. Later, as a foreign exchange student in Paris, Makenna learned the fine art of French cooking from her host mother.
"Watching her gave me an obsession with French food," she explains.
Then, there was the pillow.
Learning of the sale of La Peetch on the Smith College alumni Facebook page (Makenna and Julia Child were both graduates) on Nov. 13, 2015—the date of the Paris terrorist attacks—they began a dialogue with Sotheby’s. Two previous offers from other parties had been withdrawn—one because of the attacks. In the midst of a conversation, Makenna and Evie were reminded of Oma, Makenna’s grandmother, and one of her last gifts before her death: a pillow with the inscription, “My other house is in France.” There was no other house, yet; both agreed it was a sign, and an offer was made.
The closing on the house and Makenna’s first moments in her new property happened in April. “I still don’t believe it’s real,” says Makenna. “Sublime. I never want to leave.”
In June 2016, La Peetch became a rental on Airbnb, inviting all to experience the tall kitchen cabinets, the outlined pegboard and the wisteria-laced trees. However, the real channeling of Julia Child’s legacy begins in April 2017, when the Johnstons' offer their new cooking classes at what they're calling La Peetch École de Cuisine: Courageous Cooking. Each week at the school, six people will gather in Julia’s kitchen, with Evie in command as Head Chef and Chief of Joy, and create their personal rendering of French cuisine, using local fresh flavors and seasonal products as guide. In preparation to lead, Evie is beginning her instruction at the International Culinary Center in New York this fall while Makenna plans to walk in Julia’s footsteps at Le Cordon Blue in Paris a couple years later.
"The way that French food has modernized is really interesting," said Makenna, eager to explore new recipes with local ingredients. “What we cook will be based on what’s at the market that week. That’s part of the experience."
Evie says that they are touting it as a culinary tourism experience: "You’re not coming to get certified as a chef."
Learning to cook is all about risk, says Makenna.
“It’s about courageous cooking. If you’ve ever watched Julia Child and she’s flipping an omelet, she throws the pan to the left. She throws the pan to the right.” Makenna wants those who come, rather than worrying about messes or perfection, to do it over again if need be. “We will have extra, so do it again.”
"I think the key [to Julia]," says Makenna, "is understanding how carefully she tested the recipes." It was that ability of Child to take risks, to test and then make repeated attempts—whether for her cooking show or her books—that Makenna believes allowed Child to make French cooking a real prospect to American cooks.
Makenna’s favorite dishes always will be escargot and French onion soup, and she is not against adding these to a week’s menu. In addition to four "courageous" cooking classes taught in Julia’s kitchen, the per-person price tag of $2,950 includes lodging, daily breakfast/lunch, excursions to local food and wine venues and even yoga classes, taught by Makenna. “They aren’t just going to sit on their booties and eat butter all week,” she laughs. Many weeks (rentals and cooking sessions) are already sold out.
Both see their story as a lateral of Julia’s. Child's culinary career began at the age of 36 as a student at Le Cordon Bleju in Paris; then she became a teacher and writer, never a formal chef in a restaurant.
"She just is a chef," says Makenna. "We share that story. I think it would be a less interesting project if it were purchased by a foodie. This is a passion project about community, building a community by food."