Meet the Woman Making New Magic in Julia Child’s French Home
Makenna Held is the current owner of the Courageous Cooking School at La Peetch, Julia Child’s former summer home in Provence, France — and she has some pretty big shoes to fill (both literally and figuratively).
Before the serial entrepreneur saw a listing for the legendary property back in 2015, Makenna had zero formal culinary training and had never considered running a cooking school as part of her future. But as soon as the house nestled in the rural French countryside went on the market, Makenna knew that she had what it takes to keep the magic alive. (And she has a lot more in common with Julia Child that she may think.)
How did you end up as the owner of La Peetch?
I first realized the house was on the market in November 2015 when the New York Times wrote an article about it that went viral. I saw the feature in the Smith alumni forum (Julia went to college there too) where everyone agreed that a Smithy had to buy it. We were all joking about crowdfunding.
I went down the rabbit hole and found out that it had already been sold. The deal ended up falling through because the person backed out after the Paris attacks, and then we closed on the house in April.
What else do you have in common with Julia Child?
Well, I knew Julia went to Smith College — it was one of the reasons that I went. Growing up, I used to watch reruns of her show on PBS and always found her to be really fascinating. She was one of the only famous people I knew who was very tall. I am too — I’m 6’1″. It made me feel good that she was so delightfully awkward and haphazardly adorable. There’s just something about her.
Despite our similarities, we do have different food methodologies — she’s very exacting and I’m more of a “make it work” kind of chef with no plan. I like to throw myself in whole hog.
What did you change about the house (if anything)?
We really only cleaned a lot! We must have put in a few hundred man hours of cleaning and then did a few refreshes on paint. We kept it as it was. I call it a living museum because it changes over the years. We have a number of things that are original and you can tell because her name is on them — but Julia also packed a number of her things and took them with her.
What’s your cooking (and teaching) style?
When we were creating the cooking school curriculum, we made a decision to teach people to cook without recipes. Everyone expects the school to revolve around Julia’s recipes, but that felt off. Her cookbook doesn’t translate that well to the French grocery store. It’s more geared towards the 1960s American grocery store. We also took issue with the fact that you can cook from her cookbook from home, so why come to France to cook from her cookbook? So we decided to scrap recipes completely.
Recipe-free cooking is immersive and it really helps you to learn what kind of cooking mistakes you’ve made in the past. I will say that Julia embodied this “devil may care” attitude once the recipe got started.
What are some of the things you make?
We make a number of different tartare like beef and tuna. We also do a spring or fall version of a coq au vin, depending on the season, although we use white wine instead of red. We also talk a lot about the history of the dishes that we’re making (like the niçoise salad) and work through a number of the classics, focusing on seasonal ingredients that you can get at the French market. It really changes by the day.
What is the typical visitor to La Peetch like?
It is so widely varied! We’ve had everything from women in their 20s who are in grad school to the other day when we had a woman flipping a crêpe who was 82. They’re mostly Americans, Canadians, and Australians (where her cookbooks were distributed).
What are they coming to celebrate?
Birthdays, engagements, honeymoons, anniversaries, friend reunions, you name it. People come from all over and it’s really special to see. We are hosting our first wedding next year and I’m so excited; I think it’s going to be magical.
When is the best time to come?
High season in Provence, believe it or not, isn’t the best time to come. In July and August, Provence is very busy and very hot. Fall and spring are the most beautiful times to be here. The weather is perfect.
How does Courageous Cooking School keep Julia’s spirit alive?
I think the beautiful thing about it is that Julia Child resonated with so many people. Even if you’re not a big Julia fan, it’s a magical little property. It’s kind of like a jewel box that’s frozen in time, a very sweet piece of land with a beautiful view. I love how it happened. This wildly tall, delightfully awkward genius of a businesswoman was also a genius of a cook. There’s something so delightful about how someone can create their own legacy just by being on a property.
Interview has been edited for clarity.