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ORANGE COUNTY CALENDAR: ARTS, ENTERTAINMENT, LEISURE
| SETTINGS: Stops on a Tasting Tour of Orange County

Mother and Child Reunion

Being in the company of 'The French Chef' gives comfort to a man who watched her work her magic during a summer of upheaval.

Zov's Bistro, 17440 E. 17th St., Tustin. (714) 838-8855. Lunch: Monday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner: Tuesday-Thursday, 5-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m.

May 19, 2000|DAVID LANSING | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I had dinner with Julia Child last Saturday at Zov's Bistro. I meant to tell her this silly little story of how I used to pretend she was my mother when I was a kid, but I never got around to it. The timing wasn't right. Dean Koontz was shuffling her around to meet his friends and restaurant owner Zov Karamardian was running around making sure Julia got more walnut caviar, more Greek olives, more hummus.

I just couldn't find the right moment. Plus we always seemed to have food in our mouths. There were trays and trays of Zov's eggplant cannelloni and stuffed grape leaves, and the champagne, all yeasty sweet, flowed like baby tears.

So when was I to find the right time to tell this 87-year-old culinary legend that, unbeknownst to her, her matronly, telegenic presence kept me company the summer I turned 13 when my father moved to Oregon, leaving the family behind, and my mother took advantage of the new domestic arrangement to have a long-overdue nervous breakdown that resulted in her being hospitalized for two months?

Or that my sister, who was three years older and ostensibly in charge of me, was otherwise occupied that summer making banana splits at Dairy Queen during the day and whoopee with a boyfriend named Preston at night? Which left me fending for myself with not much to do, other than teach myself to cook by watching shows like "The Galloping Gourmet" on public television. But the Galloping Gourmet was always using exotic ingredients such as saffron or bay leaves that my mother didn't stock in her pantry (she leaned more toward tuna casseroles with potato chip toppings and a meatloaf whose secret ingredient was ketchup), and he talked faster than I could write. So most of my half-baked culinary experiments were fed to our black lab, Tammy, who didn't much care for my version of raspberry chicken breasts.

And then I came across Julia--The French Chef--who seemed amusing and very down to earth in a way the Galloping Gourmet was not. She was on television, yes, but somehow seemed familiar and homey as she poked her fingers into a copper bowl to fish out flecks of broken egg shell or huffed and puffed as she squeezed out lumpy mashed potatoes from a pastry bag.

Her imposing size, her sensible outfits (Hey, Julia, remember the little stitched-on Ecole Des Gourmandes patch you always wore on your blouses, like a Brownie patch?), her pearl chokers that made her look like Donna Reed preparing Christmas dinner for Jimmy Stewart--they all matched some sort of unspoken stereotype of what I thought a mom should be like.

But most of all there was Julia's voice. It was high-pitched, yes, but it was also melodic and vigorous and reassuring. It was comforting and made me trust her. So when, standing alone in our darkened kitchen staring at a sauce pan of smoking, burnt butter, I heard Julia say, "One of the secrets of cooking is to learn to correct something if you can, and bear with it if you cannot," I just automatically replaced the word "cooking" with life.

It worked. That summer I learned how to clarify butter, bake a rum cake called Queen of Sheba, and make the most out of the meager ingredients that constituted our household. All from a larger-than-life woman and her little cooking program broadcast from the basement of the Gas Co. in Boston.

Well, that's what I wanted to tell Julia last Saturday, but like I said, the timing didn't seem right. Instead, I sat across from her, secretly admiring the way she hunched over her chicken strudel, like a cat over a snared sparrow, oblivious to the table-side bon mots being tossed back and forth among her dining companions, myself included, who were more interested in chattering than tasting.

But not Julia. She was here to eat. Which made Zov, a beautiful dark-haired woman whose face is dominated by her smile, exceedingly happy. After all, Zov, who is of Armenian descent and loves to introduce the uninitiated to the Near Eastern dishes she remembers from her childhood, had spent weeks preparing this special Mediterranean-themed menu.

They were like a mother and daughter, these two. Julia slicing into a delicate piece of rare lamb, marveling over its flavor and tenderness while Zov, delighted, placed a hand on Julia's arm and told her where she'd gotten the meat and with what spices she'd roasted it.

We were all there for the food, I suppose, but these two--Julia and Zov--seemed to have something else going on. Like they were sharing the secrets of life.

Finally, just before the dessert came out, Julia slowly rose from her chair and, standing in that signature way she has with one hand on her hip and the other leaning against the table as if she were a teacher surveying her students or a mom wondering when you were going to clean up your room, she gave a little toast. To Zov, to the wonderful food, and to the pleasant company of the evening.

"It's been absolutely wonderful to be here tonight," she said in her oh-so-familiar, fluttery voice, "and I want to thank all of you for inviting me here to be a part of this lovely, lovely evening."

What I thought to myself as Zov took her arm and gently helped her sit down was, Thank you, Julia. For everything.

David Lansing's column is published on Fridays in Orange County Calendar. His e-mail address is occalendar@latimes.com.

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