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Murray: A dinner date with a master chef
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It was my first big gig as a wine writer — the Monterey Wine Festival in the early 1980s. And I was late for lunch.

I had convinced my editor at the newspaper in Pennsylvania where I was a resident ink-stained wretch that I should write a regular column about wine for our readers. Why? Because I knew more about wine than he did. It still wasn't much.

But I persevered, studied, hung around with other winos and read ... I read a lot. I also consumed a lot — but in a professional sense, of course.

Finally I was invited to Monterey, a very big deal for a young writer. So I approached my editor who approached our young publisher, who patted me on the head and said, "Sure, we'll send you to California."

So there I was in this huge hall with many hundreds of wine writers, critics, winemakers, celebrities — and I could not find a seat.

The first course was being served. I had a bad case of nerves and my sense of confidence was taking a beating like a rented mule.

Ah, there's a seat. I headed for it like Sonny Perdue to a microphone. The woman sitting next to the empty place glared at me and said frostily, "This seat is taken."

From behind me came a voice that I recognized instantly. It was unique. If a loon could talk, that would be its voice; a high-pitched ululation that radiated a good spirit.

"Here's a seat, if you would like to join us," the voice said.

It was Julia Child.

I was stunned, but stammered a thank-you and slid in. As I did I had a terrible vision of snagging the tablecloth with a heel and off-loading the whole thing onto the lap of one of the world's most famous - and beloved - chefs. But the gods smiled on me.

She merrily introduced me to her husband Paul, who made me glad to be there. In contrast to his towering spouse, Paul Child was small and reserved. I sat next to Julia and we had a marvelous lunch, talking about food and wine; dissecting the meal being served and observing the controlled chaos that such an event produces.

But there was never a nasty or snippy remark. I remember her kindness with one remark: "Oh, yes, the chicken could be a bit warmer, but, after all, those poor people in the kitchen are cooking for a thousand people," she declared. "I have enough trouble keeping my dinners warm for the two of us."

And she chuckled that distinctive laugh that always brought a smile.

Learning that I was a novice in the biz, Julia Child put her arm around my shoulder and gave me advice that I remember to this day: "My dear, everybody was new at something sometime. Just keep at it and you'll make a go of it, I'm sure."

At the end of lunch she and Paul headed off to where she was going to appear.

"Please do keep in touch," she chirped. I promised I would, but, of course, I did not. My loss.

Coincidentally later that afternoon in downtown Carmel, that enclave of the rich and famous on the Pacific, my wife ran into Julia in a little Mediterranean food shop.

They had a lovely conversation there, and did some kitchen shopping, too.

When the bride and I met back at the hotel, we had the same answer to each of our questions: "Guess who I met today!"

Thank you, Julia. You were one of a kind.

Editor's note: "Julie & Julia," a film half about Julia Child, is in theaters now.

Randall Murray is a Gainesville-area resident. Have a question about wine? E-mail him. His Wine Without Pretense column runs on the first Wednesday of the month.