Julia Child’s ‘The French Chef’ Was Groundbreaking for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Community

Before celebrity chefs Rachel Ray, Emeril Lagasse, Anthony Bourdain, and Giada de Laurentiis, there was Julia Child. And before Barefoot ContessaChopped, and Top Chef, there was The French Chef. 

Child was TV’s original celebrity chef, and she was responsible for introducing America to French cuisine. Her show was trailblazing in many ways, and not just for home cooks. It was also revolutionary for the deaf and hard of hearing community. 

Julia Child’s life before cooking fame

Julie Child cooking
Julie Child cooking | ABC via Getty Images

Child didn’t start her cooking career until later in life — she was in her early 50s when she began hosting The French Chef. Before that, she lived quite a fascinating life.

Like many Americans, she wanted to serve her country and join the war effort during World War II. There was just one problem – her height! At 6’2″, she was told she was too tall to join the Women’s Army Corps or the women’s branch of the U.S. Navy Reserves.

Instead, she was given a position in the Office of Strategic Services, a predecessor to the CIA. Child started out working as a research assistant in the Secret Intelligence division before moving to the OSS Emergency Sea Rescue Equipment Section.

While there, she worked on developing a recipe for shark repellent. The repellent kept curious sharks from accidentally setting off explosives meant for German U-boats and was a critical tool for the U.S. during the war. 

Child spent her last few years in the OSS in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and China. She had top security clearances and worked as Chief of the OSS Registry, where she handled classified papers and top-secret messages. During her time in Ceylon, she met her husband, Paul, who also worked for the OSS. 

How Julia Child found her love of cooking

RELATED:  What the Late and Legendary Julia Child Really Thought of the Food Network – ‘They Want to Be Entertained’

Child didn’t grow up cooking. She was from a privileged family who had a hired cook working for them. Before meeting Paul, the most she cooked were frozen dinners.

Paul was well-traveled, an artist and a poet, and was known for his sophisticated taste. So she learned how to cook to impress him and entertain their many friends.

While living in Paris, Paul introduced Julia to French cuisine, which inspired her passion for French cooking. She later enrolled in the renowned Le Cordon Bleu cooking school. Her first cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was published in 1961. 

Child appeared on several TV shows to promote the book. One was a book review show on Boston’s PBS station, WGBH. Rather than doing a straight forward interview, Child also did a cooking demonstration and showed the audience how to make an omelet. Her segment received positive feedback, leading the station to offer Child her own cooking show. The French Chef premiered in 1963. 

‘The French Chef’ broke barriers

RELATED: RELATED: The Omelet That Put Julia Child in the Culinary Spotlight

Not only was The French Chef the first cooking show on PBS, but it was also the first show to be accessible to millions of deaf and hard of hearing viewers.

In 1972, it made history as the first show to have captions for the hearing impaired. At the time, closed captioning was still experimental, so The French Chef included open captions that made the subtitles visible to all viewers. The nonprofit National Captioning Institute was formed in 1979, and programs with closed captions first aired in 1980

On The French Chef, Child made cooking seem enjoyable and fun, not the chore that so many housewives dreaded. She introduced the techniques, ingredients, and flavors of French cuisine in a completely approachable way.

For the most part, the show was unedited and filmed in one shot, so many of Child’s mistakes ended up in the final version. But this only served to make her more authentic and relatable to her many fans. The French Chef aired for 10 years and won the first Emmy award for an educational program.

Child appeared on numerous other cooking shows over the span of 37 years, and she authored 18 books. In 2001, she donated the iconic kitchen where many of her shows were filmed to the Smithsonian Institution, where it remains on display to this day.