How Julia Child Used First Principles Thinking
Blog: FS - Smart decisions
There’s a big difference between knowing how to follow a recipe and knowing how to cook. If you can master the first principles within a domain, you can see much further than those who are just following recipes. That’s what Julia Child, “The French Chef”, did throughout her career.
Following a recipe might get you the results you want, but it doesn’t teach you anything about how cooking works at the foundational level. Or what to do when something goes wrong. Or how to come up with your own recipes when you open the fridge on a Wednesday night and realize you forgot to go grocery shopping. Or how to adapt recipes for your own dietary needs.
Adhering to recipes will only get you so far, and it certainly won’t result in you coming up with anything new or creative.
People who know how to cook understand the basic principles that make food taste, look, and smell good. They have confidence in troubleshooting and solving problems as they go—or adjusting to unexpected outcomes. They can glance at an almost barren kitchen and devise something delicious. They know how to adapt to a guest with a gluten allergy or a child who doesn’t like green food. Sure, they might consult a recipe when it makes sense to do so. But they’re not dependent on it, and they can change it up based on their particular circumstances.
There’s a reason many cooking competition shows feature a segment where contestants need to design their own recipe from a limited assortment of ingredients. Effective improvisation shows the judges that someone can actually cook, not just follow recipes.
We can draw a strong parallel from cooking to thinking. If you want to learn how to think for yourself, you can’t just follow what someone else came up with. You need to understand first principles if you want to be able to solve complex problems or think in a unique, creative fashion. First principles are the building blocks of knowledge, the foundational understanding acquired from breaking something down into its most essential concepts.
One person who exemplifies first principles thinking is Julia Child, an American educator who charmed audiences with her classes, books, and TV shows. First principles thinking enabled Julia to both master her own struggles with cooking and then teach the world to do the same. In Something from the Oven, Laura Shapiro tells the charming story of how she did it. Here’s what we can learn about better thinking from the “French Chef.”
Gustave Flaubert wrote that “talent is a long patience, ” something which was all too true for Julia. She wasn’t born with an innate skill for or even love of cooking. Her starting point was falling in love with her future husband, Paul Child, in Ceylon in 1944 when both were working for the Office of Strategic Services. Paul adored food, and his delight in it inspired Julia. When they each returned to their separate homes after the war, she decided she would learn to cook. Things got off to a bad start, as Shapiro explains:
“At first she tried to teach herself at home, but it was frustrating to bushwhack her way through one dish after another. She never knew whether she would find success or failure when she opened the oven door, and worst of all, she didn’t know why this recipe worked and that one didn’t.”
Seeking expert guidance, Julia started taking cooking classes three times a week at a Beverly Hills cooking school. Even that didn’t help much, however, and after she married Paul a year later, her experiments in their Washington, DC kitchen continued to go awry. Only when the couple moved to Paris did an epiphany strike. Julia’s encounters with French cooking instilled in her an understanding of the need for first principles thinking. Trying to follow recipes without comprehending their logic wasn’t going to produce delicious results. She needed to learn how food actually worked.
In 1949, at the age of 37, she enrolled in classes at the famous Cordon Bleu school of cooking. It changed her forever:
“Learning to cook at the Cordon Bleu meant breaking down every dish into its smallest individual steps and doing each laborious and exhausting procedure by hand. In time Child could bone a duck while leaving the skin intact, extract the guts of a chicken through a hole she made in the neck, make a ham mousse by pounding the ham to a pulp with a mortar and pestle, and turn out a swath of elaborate dishes from choucroute garnie to vol-au-vent financière. None of this came effortlessly but she could do it. She had the brains, the considerable physical strength it demanded, and her vast determination. Most important, she could understand for the first time the principles governing how and why a recipe worked as it did.”
Julia had found her calling. After six months of Cordon Bleu classes, she continued studying independently for a year. She immersed herself in French cooking, filled her home with equipment, and befriended two women who shared her passion, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. In the early 1950s, they opened a tiny school together, with a couple of students working out of Julia’s kitchen. She was “adamant that the recipes used in class be absolutely reliable, and she tested every one of them for what she called ‘scientific workability.’” By this, Julia meant that the recipes needed to make sense per her understanding of the science of cooking. If they didn’t agree with the first principles she knew, they were out.
When Paul transferred to Marseille, Julia was sad to leave her school. But she and her friends continued their collaboration, working at a distance on a French cookery book aimed at Americans. For what would become Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia focused on teaching first principles in a logical order, not copying down mere recipes.
She’d grown frustrated at opening recipe books to see instructions she knew couldn’t work because they contradicted the science of cooking—for example, recipes calling for temperatures she knew would burn a particular ingredient, or omitting key ingredients like baking soda, without which a particular effect would be impossible. It was clear no one had bothered to test anything before they wrote it down, and she was determined not to make the same mistake.
Mastering the Art of French Cooking came out in 1961. Shapiro writes, “The reviews were excellent, there was a gratifying burst of publicity all across the country, and the professional food world acknowledged a new star in Julia Child. What nobody knew for sure was whether everyday homemakers in the nation that invented the TV dinner would buy the book.” Though the book was far from a flop, it was the TV show it inspired that catapulted Julia and her approach to cooking to stardom.
The French Chef first aired in 1963 and was an enormous success from the start. Viewers adored how Julia explained why she did what she did and how it worked. They also loved her spontaneous capacity to adapt to unanticipated outcomes. It was usually only possible to shoot one take so Julia needed to keep going no matter what happened.
Her show appealed to every kind of person because it could make anyone a better cook—or at least help them understand the process better. Not only was Julia “a striking image of unaffected good nature,” the way she taught really worked. Viewers and readers who followed her guidance discovered a way of cooking that made them feel in control.
Julia “believed anybody could cook with distinction from scratch and that’s what she was out to prove.” Many of the people who watched The French Chef were women who needed a new way to think about cooking. As gender roles were being redefined and more women entered the workforce, it no longer seemed like something they were obligated by birth to do. At the same time, treating it as an undesirable chore was no more pleasant than treating it as a duty. Julia taught them another way. Cooking could be an intellectual, creative, enjoyable activity. Once you understood how it actually worked, you could learn from mistakes instead of repeating them again and again.
Shapiro explains that “Child was certainly not the first TV chef. The genre was almost as old as TV itself. But she was the first to make it her own and have an enduring societal impact.”
If you can master the first principles within a domain, you can see much further than those who are just following recipes. That’s what Julia managed to do, and it’s part of why she stood out from the other TV chefs of her time—and still stands out today. By mastering first principles, you can find better ways of doing things, instead of having to stick to conventions. If Julia thought a modern piece of equipment worked better than a traditional one or that part of a technique was a pointless custom, she didn’t hesitate to make changes as she saw fit. Once you know the why of something, it is easy to modify the how to achieve your desired result.
The lessons of first principles in cooking are the same for the first principles in any domain. Looking for first principles is just a way of thinking. It’s a commitment to understanding the foundation that something is built on and giving yourself the freedom to adapt, develop, and create. Once you know the first principles, you can keep learning more advanced concepts as well as innovating for yourself.