In the “Chocolate Cake” episode of the iconic cooking show The French Chef, Julia Child shows viewers how to bake Gâteau au Chocolat l’Éminence Brune—a rich, buttery, bittersweet dessert. The episode progresses in typical Child fashion. Before diving into the recipe, she warns that any cake requires a “battle plan.” Next comes a dash of humor: “If you have a self-cleaning kitchen like mine,” excess flour can be swept right onto the floor. Later, in her effort to beat the eggs, she says, “I think I’ll win because I’m bigger . . . but I don’t know.”
That episode aired on April 14, 1971. Around the same time, Jean Stapleton was starring in the new sitcom All in the Family as the doting wife Edith Bunker. Although television would make her famous, Stapleton was also an accomplished theater actress and had played supporting roles in Broadway shows such as Bells Are Ringing, Damn Yankees, and Funny Girl.
In the early 1980s, returning to the stage after eight years as Edith Bunker, Stapleton, along with the American composer Lee Hoiby, adapted “The Italian Lesson,” a sketch by Ruth Draper, into a musical monologue. They were in search of a short companion piece for “The Italian Lesson” when they thought of setting one of Child’s recipes to music.
In December 1986, Stapleton wrote to Child, asking permission to do just that. Child responded nine days later, with suggestions for recipes. Perhaps bouillabaisse, the traditional Provençal fish stew, would work. It was a recipe with significant “action,” Child noted: “You could have the cleaning of the fish, and the chopping . . . then, of course, you would have the serving, including the red garlic sauce.” Or maybe chicken Marengo was a better option, “with quite an elaborate garnish to it . . . including shrimps and little croutons and French fried eggs.”
The 20-minute opera would eventually be called Bon Appétit! The Schlesinger Library recently acquired a handwritten draft of the score (below), along with a transcript from The French Chef and correspondence among Child, Hoiby, and Stapleton.
For the recipe, Hoiby and Stapleton ultimately chose Child’s chocolate cake. This is no ordinary cake: Cornstarch replaces flour, and whipped egg whites serve as the only leavening agent, producing a delicate soufflé-like texture. It’s a treat that requires some skill—overbeat the batter and the cake will fall, resulting in a dense, tough sponge.
Child herself was undaunted, and she encouraged viewers of the “Chocolate Cake” episode to follow her lead. “Cooking is just a series of the same old thing,” she said. “Sometimes there’s chocolate and sometimes there’s fish in it!”
Stapleton clearly admired this characteristic, writing in her first letter to Child, “Truly you convince the viewer that cooking is a simple art which everyone can undertake and succeed in with glorious results.”
On March 8, 1989, Bon Appétit! premiered at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in Washington, DC. The Washington Post called the performance a “tasty musical morsel.” A month later, Child attended a performance in Long Beach, California. Naturally, at a reception following the show, she and Stapleton served chocolate cake.