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Published: Thursday, 4/21/2005

Cooking with the French Chef

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Julia Child Julia Child
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I was 32 when I first started cooking, Julia Child once said.

Up until then, I just ate.

That explains a lot.

She was itching for an oven.

Poking around the 18 charmingly dated episodes included on The French Chef With Julia Child (WGBH, $39.95), a new three-disc compilation of the legendary gourmand s innovative PBS cooking show, the first thing you notice is the frantic movement of her hands.

She shows the ins and outs of roasting a chicken as if she s dismantling a bomb and can t decide between snipping the green wire or the blue wire. She flips a bone up, squeezes the breast, extends the wings, comically raises the chicken to a standing position, explains in simple language how to tell if it s worth roasting she always looks as if she s about to drop it.

Child, who died last summer at age 91, seems more anxious than nervous; once, in fact, she did drop a chicken while on the air, picked it up and quipped: I have a self-cleaning floor.

Which leads us to the second thing you notice about Child: that high whine of a voice a sound best described as Julie Andrews shouting for help in a helium balloon factory.

Rachel Ray, she wasn t.

The third thing you notice, however, is how much The French Chef set the tone for every cooking show that came in its wake from The Galloping Gourmet to the entire oeuvre of the Food Network, including its perky queen of fast meals, Ray. The DVDs could have used background materials or perspective on Child how about that American Masters episode, or a commentary track from one of Child s famous restaurateur disciples? But the format of the show is so timeless and well-tested that if The French Chef were aired today, it would be taken as 75 percent practical advice and 25 percent nostalgia. In the first episode, Child introduces potato au gratin as if she d unlocked the secrets of the culinary universe.

Which, in a sense, she did.

Until the show premiered in 1962, a year after her classic cook book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the notion that a home chef could slice potatoes with any degree of speed was exotic. In many of these episodes, Child downplays her skills and says if she can do this, you can do this. But for the beginning cook, I wouldn t recommend starting here; there s not a lot of discussion of pots or pans that can make a difference between a bad dish and a good dish.

As a museum piece, though, The French Chef is a hoot. Watch Julia toss lobsters headfirst into a boiling pot because that s where their feelings are.

Marvel at the horrible looking omelets she makes. And realize that, in her breathless voice and unsteady lumberjack physique she was 6 feet, 2 inches tall Child made it possible for the idiosyncrasies of ordinary people to become the focal point of good television.

Celebrity chefs, to truly become celebrity chefs, should annoy roughly as many people as they inform. But not enough for you to want to turn to a microwave.

FLY LIKE AN ERROL: In the new martial-arts parody Kung Fu Hustle (which opens here tomorrow), the human body becomes as malleable as Gumby held to a campfire. Foreheads get dented, eyes bulge, screams shatter glass and you knew it had to happen: If Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon raised the bar for gravity-defying, Kung Fu ignores physics completely. It s also what keeps Kung Fu Hustle, from playing like anything more than a goof. Call me old-school: It s more satisfying knowing the stunt men in House of Flying Daggers (Sony, $28.95) are really up there in the treetops, poetically swaying with the wind. Director Zhang Yimou last year said they didn t expect to make it through the shoot without one severely injured (or even dead) stunt man.

Which is not the reason House of Flying Daggers is remarkable. The story (blind girl caught in a blood feud), the stunts they take a backseat to the exquisite Oscar-nominated visuals, which lose a little on TV (that depends on the size of your TV). Extras are generous making-of featurettes, storyboard stills, poorly translated commentary tracks but none as mesmerizing as the pale greens of that bamboo forest. House, incidentally, is one of the first films to be available as a Sony UMD ($28.95) a kind of cartridge-disc that plays exclusively on the Sony PlayStation Portable.

It s for those who truly believe size doesn t matter.

Speaking of old school, The Errol Flynn Signature Collection (Warner, $59.95) reminds us he wasn t really flying, soaring, or defying gravity. That s our selective movie memories at work. When he boarded pirate ships, it was more of a brisk sail, with his sword drawn, shouting This way, ya hearties! sounding as if he truly believed his words.

The set brings together Flynn s most exuberant swashbucklers, Captain Blood (his 1935 breakthrough) and The Sea Hawk, along with Raoul Walsh s General Custer flick, They Died With Their Boots On, and an adoring Turner Classic Movies documentary about Flynn s bad-headline-dodging studio life. Dodge City, his Technicolor western (mercilessly spoofed by Blazing Saddles) and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex round out the package. The prints are fairly sharp, the extras are fun: As with other classic collections, Warner presents each film with vintage shorts, cartoons, and news reels.

But the draw are those rousing battle scenes on elaborately detailed clipper ship replicas that bring to mind Russell Crowe and Master and Commander without the commitment to reality. These sets, with their long shadows adding depth and texture, are so artificial and expressionistic-looking now, they recall Tim Burton more than Indiana Jones. Each film is available separately for $19.98; the TCM documentary is only available with the box set.

TALES OF HOFFMAN: The Woodsman (Columbia, $26.98), which stars Kevin Bacon as a pedophile re-entering society after a long prison stint, has nothing in common with the grubby comedy Meet the Fockers (Warner, $29.98) except this: Both reach video this week, and both make you wonder about the actors beyond their performances. Bacon dares to humanize, and never simplify, an ex-con who s crime defies sympathy. That dare is what makes the film both engaging and self-conscious. On an entirely different wavelength is Dustin Hoffman in Fockers. He has nothing left to prove. He has reached that plateau populated by great actors who get standing ovations for simply showing up.

As Father Focker, Hoffman is like the anti-DeNiro: Yes, he seems to be saying, he is slumming, self-parodying, far from the days of Straw Dogs, Lenny, or even Wag the Dog but the weight of a picture is no longer on his shoulders, so why look miserable if you re kicking back?

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.comor 419-724-6117.



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