Sunday, April 17, 2016

Julia Child's Provence House is For Rent

Now that it's possible to rent Julia Child's old house in Provence, it's only a matter of time until someone settles into that famous kitchen, whips up some delicious new recipes and publishes a cookbook titled In Julia's Provençal Kitchen or Channeling Julia or something similar.

From the moment I heard that Sotheby's had listed the house for sale (asking price: €880,000), I had a half-real, half-ridiculous fantasy of buying it and transforming it into a cooking school. And now that's exactly what Makenna and Yvonne (Evie) Johnston have done. They swept in, snapped it up and announced they'll be offering week-long "courageous cooking" workshops there, for six people at a time, in 2017.

In the meantime they're renting the house out via Airbnb, as of June 13, 2016.  Which means that alone or in a group, you could fulfill that classic foodie fantasy of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" in Julia's actual kitchen! Or, of course, write your own master work. When one of her students spied the house on Airbnb, food writer Molly O'Neill quickly booked it--along with another next door--for two one-week writers' retreats in October. (Molly is former NY Times food columnist, author of six books, a multiple James Beard Award winner and founder of LongHouse Food Revival. For info: molly@cooknscribble.com.)

I'm so delighted that Julia's old digs--the summer home she loved so much--will continue to be a magnet for French food- and wine-lovers!

In reality this isn't the first time the house will be used as a cooking school.  In 1993, Kathie Alex, who knew and worked for Julia, took it over and ran a program there called Cooking with Friends in France.  She put it on the market in November 2015.

The story beyond the house--how Julia and Paul Child came to have it, who hung out with them there, why it was important to the whole American food revolution--has been well documented so I won't go too deeply into that here.  (If  the topic interests you, you'd love Julia's book My Life in France and as well as Provence 1970 by Luke Barr, which you can read about here.)

The house is called La Pitchoune ("the little one") but everyone calls it La Pitch or La Peetch. It was built in 1963, on a property belonging to Simone Beck, one of Julia's original cookbook collaborators. M.F.K. Fisher and James Beard were frequent guests. It's set amongst the olive groves near the villages of Châteauneuf and Plascassier,  not far from Cannes and Grasse.  (Not that Châteauneuf...but one of many villages with the same name.)

Makenna and Evie say that La Peetch Ecole de Cuisine will be more than just a cooking school. It will also welcome high-end retreats, family experiences, food and wine journeys and more. 

The Airbnb listing calls it "a space to cook, commune, explore and walk in the footsteps of the culinary greats." On Facebook they call it "A Center for Food, Culture and Community." 

Evie, a former U.S. Air Force captain who left the military in 2014,  is now studying at the International Culinary Center in New York. Makenna, a business strategist and life coach, will train at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, where Julia earned Le Grand Diplôme in 1951. (Like Julia did, Makenna graduated from Smith College in Northampton, MA.) 

The house has three antique-filled bedrooms, a sitting room, gardens, a pool...and of course that famous kitchen, which is virtually intact. Even Julia's pegboard is still there, the one Paul made and painted with outlines so Julia knew exactly which implements went where. The only thing missing is Julia's beloved white La Cornue stove, which now belongs to that other famous American cookbook author and cooking teacher in Provence, Patricia Wells

So of course I had to ring up Patricia to ask how she got Julia's stove.  "When the time came for Paul and Julia to give up La Pitchoune," she told me, "I asked her if I could buy it and she said no. Then she changed her mind and said I could have it as a gift, as long as I replaced it. So that’s what we did! We went to Darty, bought a new stove, went to her house, took the La Cornue and replaced it with the new one, which I believe is still the one in the house."

The La Cornue has two gas burners, a side burner where you can set a series of pots and a small, single gas oven. If you have Patricia's most-recent book, The French Kitchen Cookbook,  you'll see it in there. "The oven is bit cantankerous," Patricia reports, "and it's very difficult to adjust the heat so we don't use it often. But we definitely use the cooktop with our students, who of course love to cook on it. I always joke that having Julia's stove is a bit like having Freud's couch!"

As to what Julia would say about all this, I have no idea. I met her a few times over the years at food-world events but didn't know her. So I turned to someone who did,  my old pal Bob Spitz. Bob is the author of Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child and he's currently putting final touches on the script for a one-woman show of Dearie, which will open on Broadway early next year.

"Julia always filled La Peetch with friends and guests," Bob says, "so I’m sure it would delight her that the house was continuing her gracious tradition.  The fact that it will live on as a cooking school and retreat would be the icing on her, well, Reine de Saba.”  

Want to know more? Check out the stories on La Peetch in Vogue,  Conde Nast Traveler and People, then go to Lapeetch.com, where you can sign up for email updates.

Photos: (1) Julia's famously colorful Provence kitchen has been kept (almost completely) intact. Rent the house and have it all to yourself...or come take a weeklong "courageous cooking" workshop next year. (2) In the kitchen at La Pitchoune, Paul Child painted outlines of Julia’s tools and equipment on the pegboard walls. [Photo by Benoit Peverelli, courtesy of Luke Barr.]  (3) Julia Child on the terrace at La Pitchoune in the early 1970s, courtesy Luke Barr. (4-8) Interior and exterior shots of the house. Makenna says "Our goal is to maintain the house as much as possible, we have no intentions to remodel or update the house itself.  But we definitely are updating some elements of decor, including furniture and linens." (9) Julia's old La Cornue range now lives with Patricia Wells at her home and cooking school in Vaison-la-Romaine, Provence. Owning it, Patricia says, is like "having Freud's couch." (10) Julia at La Pitchoune in 1969. [Photo by Marc Riboud/Magnum Photos, from the Wall Street Journal.]

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