Julia Child earned her status as an American icon only after she burst onto the small screen in 1963 with her cooking show, “The French Chef.” Although it aired two years after the publication of her hit book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, no biographical detail or specific personality emerges from the cookbook, as Dana Polan astutely points out in his meticulously researched and entertaining book, Julia Child’s The French Chef, which analyzes the rise of Child’s popular cooking program and TV persona and her lasting influence upon the genre of the TV cooking show as we know it today.

Child had a palpable passion for her subject—to make French cooking make sense—which meant that she wanted to import and translate the secrets of French gastronomy for the American housewife, or man. Polan notes that Child...

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