Twelve Questions

Sarah Daniell poses 12 questions to well-known faces

Twelve Questions with Stephanie Hersh

Stephanie Hersh was 28 when TV cook Julia Child hired her as a PA, and food became the bond in their 20-year friendship. When Child died in 2004, Hersh moved to Christchurch, where she now teaches in a primary school and runs cookery classes.

Julia Child (left) and Stephanie Hersh, who says there's nothing she wouldn't have done for her friend. Photo / Supplied
Julia Child (left) and Stephanie Hersh, who says there's nothing she wouldn't have done for her friend. Photo / Supplied

1. Of all the gin joints in all the world, you show up here?

When Julia died, I came to New Zealand to clear my head. I loved it and decided to stay. The irony is, when I was working with Julia we were based in Massachusetts. But she also had a house in California. When she was 89 she said to me, "I really ought start thinking about my future. I think I'll move to California and stay there." I didn't want to go because I was terrified of earthquakes. But there was nothing I wouldn't do for Julia. So I went and I lived in constant fear there would be an earthquake. Then I end up in Christchurch. But I'm so settled here. It's a little unnerving but it's doable. And you don't often get the chance to witness the rebirth of a city.

2. What do you miss most about the US and what do you least like about NZ?

I miss the people. I go back sometimes, but I really do like coming home here. I don't like that New Zealand is getting so Americanised, in terms of what people value here.

And I really don't like that there is McDonald's, KFC and Burger King. One might be fine. But all of them?

3. When do you recall first being captivated by cooking?

When I was 6, I was given a Betty Crocker Easy Bake oven. It was a green plastic replica ... you could make a cake which probably tasted like cardboard but there was always a grown-up around who would say that was the best cake they'd ever had.

4. Describe your first day working with Julia Child.

She had said to me, "You won't be working in the kitchen." She had office gridlock and she needed a secretary. I lied and said, "I don't want to be in the kitchen." I arrived at her house and it was mayhem. There was a TV crew there filming her and she asked me to make her a lunch using her recipe for fish stew. After filming, we sat down to eat and she said, "This is very good, dearie." I said, "It's your recipe. And I'm glad I'll never be in the kitchen." She said she was glad I had a sense of humour. We cooked together the whole time I was with her.

5. What would Julia have made of the film Julie and Julia about the young woman blogging on her first book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking?

Julia would've been thrilled Meryl Streep was playing her and she portrayed her personality perfectly. She was funny, compassionate and very clever.

6. Julia didn't comment on the blog in the film. What did she think of it, privately?

Julia was one of those people who'd rather say nothing, if she didn't have something nice to say. She had a thing for grammar and punctuation, and it was terrible in the blog. The brilliant editor Judith Jones was invited to the blogger Julie Powell's for dinner and Julia said, "Have you read the blog? The lady can't write." Judith read the blog and cancelled the dinner - but not because it was raining, as the film had it. The blog was also disrespectful. Powell described Julia as a bitch several times. It also wasn't about the food. It was about how Powell could get through the book in the time she'd given herself. She may as well have been a cabinet-maker.

7. What quality, above all else, must a cook have?

Passion. Absolutely. There is a film Like Water for Chocolate and a scene where the lead character is making a wedding cake and sobbing. When everyone eats it they all start crying. It's a beautiful metaphor. I have a weight issue - it's a lovely little vicious cycle. But I am convinced when you eat food, you store the emotion you feel when you're eating ... so if you are happy, you store happy fat. If you are sad, you store sadness.

8. If cooking is one of the ultimate expressions of love - what would you cook for your lover?

A rich, dark, chewy, gooey chocolate cake. But I wouldn't cry into it.

9. What besides food is your greatest love?

Mostly food and wine. Life in general. When I get back from work, I sit on my porch with a glass of wine and think, isn't it lovely, what I have. I am so lucky to live here.

10. Is there anything you won't eat?

I don't like spicy, spicy food. Tripe? I eat all that stuff. I hated lamb as a kid because it was always overcooked chops. Once, when Julia was having a dinner party, she took this roast out of the oven and gave me a slice. I said, "Oh my god, what is that?" She looked at me like I had three heads. "It's lamb," she said. "This isn't lamb," I said. "I hate lamb." I learned that you may not like something but it's usually because it's not been cooked properly.

11. What's the greatest piece of advice Julia ever gave you?

Never apologise for your mistakes. What you present is what you present and don't apologise or make excuses.

12.What abiding wisdom besides culinary do you hold dear?

Julia had breast cancer. Back then they knew nothing and they lopped off her breast and she had a scar from her shoulder to her navel. She got home from surgery and was lying in the tub crying and she said to her husband, Paul, "Look at me." Paul said, "I didn't marry you for your breasts. I married you for your legs." I had breast cancer when I came to New Zealand. I remember Julia would've said you just have to pick yourself up and carry on. And that's what I did.

•October is breast cancer awareness month. Stephanie Hersh is a co-ordinator for Encore, which provides support for women who have had breast cancer.

- NZ Herald

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