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Former Macon resident buys Julia Child's house in France

Julia Child's home in France.
Julia Child's home in France.

As a child, Makenna Johnston was fascinated with a towering woman on public television who prepared dishes such as beef bourguignon and escargot.

Julia Child, a foodie icon known as the "French Chef," inspired her, said Johnston, who used to imitate Child's distinctive voice.

"I think the fact that she was a bold, tall presence is what really drew me to her," said the 27-year-old Johnston, a former Macon resident who is just one inch shorter than the 6-foot-2 Child. "We're both tall, loud, jovial human beings."

The chef, who died in 2004 at the age of 92, introduced French cuisine to the culinary landscape of America, and she's credited with bringing the country "out of the 1950s and '60s habit of mediocre casseroles for dinner," Johnston said.

A lifelong Francophile and lover of food, Johnston felt a kinship of sorts with her haute cuisine heroine.

Johnston has now taken that connection to a whole new level. When Child's summer home in the south of France went up for sale a few months ago, Johnston was determined to buy the place."The ties and how this all came together is really full of serendipity and, for lack of a better word, magic," she said.

Just hours before the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, Johnston read a news article about Child's home in Provence, France, being on the market. It was posted on a Facebook page for Smith College alumni. Child graduated from there in 1934, 73 years before Johnston's own graduation from the same college.

"I saw the listing ... and I went, 'Oooh, let's buy this,'" said Johnston, whose admiration of Child is reminiscent of the 2009 movie "Julie & Julia," which starred Meryl Streep as Child.

But an offer had already been made on the cottage, which Child affectionately called "La Pitchoune," which is French for "the little thing."

However, that offer fell through, along with a second one.

"It was just this long series of waiting and asking and waiting and asking," Johnston said.

The goal, she said, is to give people access to the house.

"My nightmare was that someone would buy it and never let anybody in again," Johnston said.

In early March, Johnston was still closing on the half-acre property, which cost about 880,000 euros, or about $970,000. In addition to using her own money, a few main investors and others have committed in other ways to make the purchase possible.

CLOSELY CONNECTED TO MACON

Johnston's ties to Middle Georgia date back to 2010 when she moved to Macon her wife, Evie Johnston. Johnston, who has a master's degree in private sector development from New York University, taught classes at Mercer University, Wesleyan College and what was then Macon State College. Evie Johnston was a captain at Robins Air Force Base.

The couple lived on Magnolia Street for more than two years until Evie Johnston lost her job due to sequestration.

"I'm still very closely connected to my friends (in Macon)," Johnston said. "It's a place that we love more than life itself in so many ways. It's just not a good fit for what we like to do. There's no skiing, and there's no France."

Creighton Rosental, associate professor of philosophy at Mercer University, lived next door to the Johnstons.

"We became very good friends pretty quickly," Rosental said. "When I heard about the idea that (Julia Child's home) was available, I thought, 'If anybody could make something interesting out of it and make it work, it would be (Makenna).'"

Makenna Johnston founded TedX Macon, a program of self-organized events that bring people together to share ideas that spark conversation.

Chris Nylund, 33, was also a neighbor to the Johnstons and helped start TedX Macon. Nylund said he wasn't surprised to learn the couple is buying Child's French home.

"I was just like, 'Oh, that's completely outrageous and that totally makes sense for (the Johnstons) to be involved in something like that," Nylund said.

Shane Woodall, owner of Main Street Pizza downtown, met Makenna Johnston at a gathering to organize the Magnolia Soapbox Derby.

"She would get everybody's thoughts and be the mediator kind of," Woodall said. "She was like the Jimmy Carter of the group."

Like Johnston, Woodall, 43, shares a love for cooking and remembers watching Child on TV when he was young.

"It's pretty amazing that they got that (house)," said Woodall, who immediately learned of the purchase from reading Makenna Johnston's Facebook page. "It's kind of hard to believe that somebody I know would own something like that, because (Child) is a legend. She simplified French cooking, made it where you could understand it."

In 2013, the Johnstons moved to Colorado to be closer to family. The couple plans to temporarily move to New York City this summer while Evie Johnston studies at the International Culinary Center on a military scholarship. Makenna Johnston will study at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, where Child studied in 1950.

"I'll be taking a number of intensives over the next couple of years, and my goal is to complete the equivalent of the Grand Diplôme," which is the most comprehensive diploma offered by the school, Makenna Johnston said.

COOKING, EXCURSIONS & YOGA

The cottage, built in 1966, became a cooking school in the 1990s when it was purchased by Kathie Alex. Johnston plans to debut her own culinary retreat next year that will include cooking, excursions to local restaurants and yoga.

"We'll focus on techniques required to make some of the more complicated or cantankerous dishes in French cooking," Johnston said, adding that students will learn how to make dishes using seasonal ingredients. "It's primarily kind of an advanced home cooking school. ... There will be some yoga, but that's not the focal point."

Classes will be offered in April, May, June, September and October, and Johnston said about a quarter of the classes in 2017 already are booked. Starting in June, La Pitchoune will be available for rentals on Airbnb, a website to help people find, rent and list lodges. A five-night minimum stay costs about $2,750, according to the website. A concierge lives in an adjacent house full-time.

"The reality is a lot of people, especially chefs and high-end foodies, they don't want to come to the cooking school. They want to cook in (Child's) kitchen," Johnston said.

The cottage is nestled in a medieval hillside village among tourist gardens planted with olive trees and local herbs just north of Cannes in Mediterranean beach country.

"It was built for function and built for entertaining and hosting people," Johnston said of the house Child and her husband, Paul, built. "That was the whole point, so they could have people come and visit them. So many houses aren't built that way anymore. They're not built to support guests."

Though the three-bedroom house has been modernized, the kitchen has been preserved, and Child's utensils still hang on the wall. The house was built to Child's specifications, so the counters were custom-made to be tall enough to accommodate her stature. Johnston said she's most excited about that feature.

While Johnston admits her interest in the house is partially from the perspective of a foodie, she also said Child's legacy as an accomplished Smith College graduate played a part in the purchase.

Child's most famous cookbook, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," remains one of the most widely used French cookbooks, especially in English-speaking countries, and "there's something magic about being the person who created that, so unapologetically and with such passion," Johnston said.

"Part of (Child's) magic was that she went to culinary school at 37, graduated, started teaching (and) wrote the cookbook. And she just did it with such courage and fearlessness."

For more information about La Pitchoune, go to www.lapeetch.com.

To contact writer Laura Corley, call 744-4334 and follow her on Twitter @Lauraecor.

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