Heads turned and forks remained suspended in midair as the tall, familiar-looking woman in a Kelly-green suit walked into Pronto Grill in South Coast Plaza during the dinner hour.
"Is that Julia Child? " called out an incredulous woman at one table.
"Julia Child!" shouted her equally amazed dining companion. Child, in Costa Mesa on Monday evening for a book-signing at Rizzoli International Bookstore & Gallery, continued walking toward the back of the restaurant where a hostess escorted her and her party into an empty dining room for privacy.
The woman whom Newsweek magazine calls "America's favorite chef" had just arrived by limousine from a book signing in La Jolla, and the plan was for Child, her publicist and Rizzoli manager Allene Symons to grab a quick bite to eat before the signing.
Although the 7 o'clock autograph session wouldn't begin for another 45 minutes, the line outside the bookstore was already snaking past several store fronts. By the time the 6-foot-1 celebrity sat down at a small table to scrawl her first signature, the line was nearly 200 strong, with each enthusiastic Julia fan clutching a copy (or two) of her new 511-page cookbook, "The Way to Cook" (Knopf), a hefty tome containing more than 800 recipes and costing as much as a full-course gourmet meal: $50.
But first there was food to order.
Child, 77, charming and as unpretentious as a pot of stew, dug a pair of reading glasses out of her black handbag and began scanning the menu.
"Homemade pies, I see," she observed in that patented oven-warm trill first heard on a Boston public television station in 1962.
The waiter approached the table.
"Would you care for a cocktail or wine before dinner?"
"Well, I think a little red wine would be very nice," said Child. "How is the Sebastiani Merlot? Is that nice?
Waiter: "Uh, it's a little sweet."
Waiter: "Yeah. . . . I don't like it a lot myself, to tell you the truth."
Child: "Which one do you like the best?"
Her wine order in, Child broke off a piece of dinner roll and began talking about "The Way to Cook," the first cookbook ever to be designated a Main Selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. It is Child's seventh contribution to the nation's kitchen bookshelves.
"It's quite different than the others in that, for one thing"--she laughed--"it weighs 5 3/4 pounds, and it has over 600 color photographs, and it sure is beautifully laid out."
Child's first two books, including the best-selling "Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I," which has sold 2 million copies and is in its 34th printing, dealt with French cuisine.
"The rest have been my cooking--a little bit of everything," she said, taking a bite of roll. "But I think the French techniques are what are important because they're the techniques of good cooking anywhere. And once you know them you can really do anything, and what I'm trying to do with this book is to get people to use their heads about cooking so they don't have to keep following recipes all the time."
As she sees it, "if you know how to make a beef stew, all the other stews are just about the same."
General cooking isn't difficult anyway, she said, "but it's the things that you add to it. It's kind of an assembly job. To poach a filet of fish in white wine is about the easiest thing you can possibly do, but then you can make tremendously elaborate sauces with it or be very, very simple. If you can get that across to someone, then it (cooking) begins to make sense."
The drinks arrived and Child picked up her wine glass.
"Here's to us," she said.
Are all the recipes in the new book her own?
"Well, they're my way of doing things--what we call 'cooking my way,"' she said. "But they're based on the general techniques of good cooking."
Her book, she said, "is for people who like to cook and like to eat." And, she maintains, it doesn't really take that much time to cook a good meal: "You just sit down and have a glass of wine and dinner's practically done.
"My theory is the more you know about it (cooking), the faster you can do it. It's very important to get all the dog work done--so that you can chop very fast and peel very fast and get down to the cooking. It just depends on how much time you have, how much labor you want it to be."
The waiter returned to take orders.
"What can we do that's fast?" Child asked.
"The linguine fresca is very nice," said the waiter.
"Hmm, good. OK," Child said, turning to her companions: "What are you going to have?"
They both said they were going to have the minestrone.
"That might be a good idea, I think," said Child. "I'll have the minestrone too. That might be easier. And it comes with a lot of cheese, does it? Or you can put some in?"
"Well," said the waiter, "we can put some in. . . ."
Taking a sip of wine, Child said, "It's a very nice wine."
"Thank you," said the waiter.
With so many Americans eating on the run, Child was asked if "microwave" is a bad word in her vocabulary.