How Julia Child Got a White House State Dinner on Television


Julia Child’s list of accomplishments is almost comically lengthy: She was the first woman inducted into the Culinary Institute of America’s Hall of Fame. She received the highest civilian honors from both the U.S. and France. She was a bestselling author, a wildly successful TV personality, and a secret spy for the Allies during World War II. But the opening chapter of her latest biography details another achievement. In The French Chef in America (the “sequel” to My Life in France), author Alex Prud’homme explains how his great-aunt was the first person to put a White House State Dinner on television.

Child’s 1968 TV special, White House Red Carpet with Julia Child, was born out of a failed pitch to the Public Broadcasting Library (PBL). PBL had approached Child about doing a newsy half-hour special in 1966 while she was on hiatus from her cooking show, The French Chef. She initially hoped to document Paris’s legendary Les Halles food market, but PBL deemed the project too expensive. So she proposed a behind-the-scenes look at a White House State Dinner instead. When PBL passed again, National Educational Television (NET) agreed to air the special.

No camera crew had ever been permitted to film a state dinner before. But Julia was able to get the White House on board with countless letters, telegrams, and phone calls from herself and her producers at WGBH, her “home” station in Boston. Once she had approval, Child spent several days interviewing presidential staffers—including the White House executive chef, Henry Haller.

Haller had replaced the Kennedys’ renowned chef René Verdon in 1965, after Verdon quit over creative differences with the Johnsons. (“You do not serve barbecued spareribs at a banquet with ladies in white gloves,” he once protested.) Haller did not share Verdon’s aversion to spareribs, but he did share his training in classic French cuisine. This obviously endeared him to Child, who raved about his seafood vol-au-vent as she covered his kitchen prep for the cameras. She was especially glad to hear he used butter and not that “other spread” she hated: margarine.

The dinner’s guest of honor was Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Satō, but the 190 attendees also included foreign dignitaries, local politicians, and actors like Kirk Douglas—as well as MLB commissioner William Eckert and St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson. (Satō was a big fan of baseball.) The cameras captured the guests’ arrival and the exchange of gifts between Johnson and Satō. (Satō got a Tiffany desk set; Johnson got a portable TV camera and tape recorder.) Then it was time to eat.

The seafood vol-au-vent came first. It was a puff pastry stuffed with lobster, bay scallops, shrimp, and fish dumplings, all topped with sauce Americaine. The main course consisted of a sautéed lamb filet with artichoke bottoms, asparagus, and a fluted mushroom cap. Guests also sampled salad, small-batch American wines, cheese, and grapes before the dessert: a Bavarian cream mousse with fresh strawberries. Child declared that it was “one of the best dinners I’ve eaten anywhere.”

The night took a tense turn when Johnson gave his toast, which addressed criticisms of America's involvement in Vietnam. But the atmosphere eased after Tony Bennett, Satō’s choice of entertainment, grabbed the mic.

White House Red Carpet with Julia Child aired on April 17, 1968. The reviews praised Child for her usual ebullience, but the chef didn’t stick around to hear them. On the night of the telecast, she had already escaped to her small vacation home in Provence, France, where she and her husband Paul had gone to rest, relax, and, of course, cook.