As food lovers across America celebrate today what would have been Julia Child’s 100th birthday, Boston University Gastronomy students, faculty, and alumni celebrate not only Julia, but also the academic program that is part of her legacy.
Established by Julia Child and Jacques Pépin, the Boston University Master of Liberal Arts in Gastronomy program is primed to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of its founding—and what better way to learn about how it all began than to sit down with Stephanie Hersh, the first graduate of the program with a Major in Gastronomy, and Julia Child’s full-time personal assistant for nearly 16 years.
While interested in food from an early age, Hersh recalls that pursuing a career in food was not always viewed with esteem, respect, and a degree of celebrity, but rather as invisible, manual labor. Regardless, after receiving her undergraduate degree, Hersh studied at the Culinary Institute of America, and happily began working in Boston-area hotel kitchens and as a private chef. While taking a course to augment her administrative skills, Hersh got word that Julia Child was looking for an assistant.
“I never in a million years would have pictured myself with Julia,” she says. “It was a dream job.” While working with Child, Hersh expressed her concern for yet another change in the restaurant industry. “It used to be that you could start in a restaurant as a pot washer and work your way up to become the executive chef,” says Hersh. “Eventually, that stopped being the case because chefs needed to know about nutrition and menu planning; to understand how to balance a meal and the connection between food and culture. They needed to be media savvy. The chef suddenly became someone who was important and thus needed more training.”
A strong advocate of education, always eager to learn new things herself, Child participated in meetings with Boston-area chefs and academics alike, collective efforts which eventually resulted in the creation of the Boston University Master of Liberal Arts in Gastronomy program. The program now graduates healthy cohorts of students on an annual basis, who pursue careers not only in restaurant kitchens, but also in academia, food and agricultural policy, and other areas of the food industry. Hersh gushed, “Julia would be so thrilled to know the program is still carrying on and doing so well.”
As the first graduate of the Master of Liberal Arts program with a Major in Gastronomy, Hersh describes her studies as a broadening experience. She says:
The food and culture link is key. Food is a great ‘socializer.’ It connects people in a non-threatening way. Think about when you’re on an airplane. Most people sit and put their heads down, trying to avoid eye contact or talking to anyone. But once the in-flight meal is served, strangers connect. The icebreaker is discussions about the food.
For her thesis, titled, “Children’s Cookery Books: Windows into Social and Economic Change,” Hersh built upon her personal and professional interest in children’s cooking. She drew from resources in the Johnson and Wales University Culinary Arts Museum cookbook collection, exploring children’s cooking alongside historical, social, and economic trends.
Hersh still loves cooking with children. She currently lives in Christchurch, teaching adult education cooking courses and a twelve-week food technology course to New Zealand school children, 11 to 13 years of age. This food technology course is required across the country and serves as a pre-cursor to home economics courses, which are taken in high school. She teaches students how to use kitchen equipment, the basics of food processing, and creative, critical thinking skills.
Hersh advises all students, “Go with passion, absolute passion in the study of food. If you’re not, there’s no point in doing it. When you are happy, it becomes infectious.” She quips that while she has no idea what her future holds, “ Whatever I’ll be doing, I’ll be happily doing it—and I’m proud and delighted that the Gastronomy program is carrying on so well.”
Celebrating Julia Child’s Centenary
The Boston University Metropolitan College Programs in Food, Wine & the Arts will celebrate Julia Child’s centenary over the course of two festive evenings – Tuesday, October 2 and Wednesday, November 7. Visit the program website for further details.
Emily is a gastronomy student and graduate assistant, editing the Gastronomy at BU blog, January-August, 2012. She is also the recipient of a Julia Child Award for Excellence in Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts and a Jacques Pépin award for Scholarship in Gastronomy and Food Studies. Check out her research in food studies, nutrition, and public health on her blog, emilycontois.com.