Meet the Smith College Alumna Who Bought Julia Child’s France Home

Under Makenna Johnston’s ownership, La Pitchoune will become a culinary retreat center.

La Peetch

Makenna Johnston. / Photo by Catherine Just

UPDATE, April 5: Dreaming of a summertime jaunt to France? La Peetch announced today it’s been quietly accepting reservations via AirBnB for June and beyond.

PREVIOUSLY:

On a Friday morning in November, a post in a public Facebook forum for Smith College alumnae caught Makenna Johnston’s attention. The New York Times reported that La Pitchoune, Julia Child’s home in France, was on the market.

Even before the two women shared an alma mater—Child graduated from the Western Massachusetts school in 1934; Johnston is Class of 2007—the younger Smithie was a huge fan.

“I watched reruns on PBS, and I used to imitate her voice,” Johnston says.

She grew up in Colorado, but her family of Francophiles visited that country a couple times a year. As an adult and a “pretty competent” home cook, Johnston and her wife, Yvonne Johnston, catered their own wedding. She credits her homespun skills to her mother and father, a wine industry veteran, as well as a summer abroad in Nesle, in northern France.

Like Child, Johnston is inspired by that country, and she is motivated in her own kitchen by Child’s fearlessness.

“I saw the article, and I felt like I need this house, but I thought, that’s not going to happen,” Johnston says.

But later that day, things changed. She was eating with her family when they heard that Paris was under attack.

When [that] happened, I started thinking about how Julia Child was a total peacenik. She worked for the government, and the best word from back then is she was very democratic. She was very involved in improving communities through food,” Johnston says.

Her father, who had just retired at the beginning of the month, was already planning another trip to France. While many travelers put plans on hold after the terrorist attacks, “We started looking at the house,” Johnston says.

She’s a self-employed business strategist and life coach. Her wife, a U.S. Air Force Reserve captain, left a full-time military career in 2014, and this series of events inspired them to create new meaning in their lives.

La Peetch

The kitchen at La Pitchoune. / Photo provided, courtesy of Sotherby’s International Realty

They conceived of a project devoted to Child’s legacy of joy, compassion, and sharing the love of food: Yvonne enrolled in culinary school, and they would buy a home in France, preferably La Pitchoune, and open a culinary retreat center. They also involved a fellow entrepreneur, friend, and filmmaker, Wendy Timmons.

When Johnston called Sotheby’s International Realty, there was already an offer on La Pitchoune. But a week later, the listing was still on the website, so she followed up—with a few investors on board, including Johnston’s father, the house that Julia built was theirs. They close next month, Johnston says.

When they originally thought La Peetch was out of their hands, they toyed with naming the project Reviving Julia. Now, the Johnstons are keeping the nickname Child gave to the house she and her husband, Paul, built in 1963.

In the 1990s, La Peetch was purchased by Kathie Alex, who turned it into a culinary school in the spirit of Julia Child, and famously kept the kitchen intact with Child’s well-organized pegboard and her extra-tall countertops.

“[Alex] was very excited I’m a Smithie,” Johnston says. The two didn’t meet; a La Peetch investor represented the project on site, but Johnston has video of their interaction. “It was important to her that it remain a cooking school.”

She clarified, La Peetch will actually be “a cooking retreat with excursions in yoga.” It “will be a home base for a center on culinary exploration, peace, and community,” she shared with the Smith community.

The center will begin hosting retreaters and vacationers in May, but the first cooking sessions won’t be booked until 2017. At that point, Yvonne, La Peetch’s head chef, will be done with her program at the International Culinary Center, and her externship. The couple will host weeklong, Courageous Cooking sessions in April-June and September-November next year.

“The focus is on cooking French food, for sure, and really, on the Julia Child way of cooking: The no-holds barred, ‘Look at that omelet!’ style of cooking,” Johnston says. “Our goal is to really take out some of the anxiety that comes with big messes, especially for new-ish cooks.”

She knows there can be fear attached to cooking—and Julia Child did, too. One of the reasons the world’s first celebrity chef is so revered is because she encouraged her viewers to have courage.

“She’s all about the idea that no one has to know what you did. I think that it’s something we have lost sight of,” Johnston says. “Our goal is to bring good cooking back. So many people spend so much money and time going out to eat. If you can bring it back into the home and entertaining, it’s a very different life.”

While they’re not yet culinary professionals, the Johnstons understand this from experience. Remember, they catered their own wedding. Their wedding guests helped, with a barley-beet risotto, mussels steamed in wine with cream, tarragon, and thyme; and more.

“Each person was assigned to a station, with people they didn’t know. They enjoyed it,” Johnston says, adding that she has friends who met there and still keep in touch. “Cooking makes us human, and it’s a huge thing that brings us together. It’s important that it continues to do so.”

lapeetch.com.

  • Mumbles

    Sounds like a little rich girl buying herself a very nice toy. Also, this:

    **
    When [that] happened, I started thinking about how Julia Child was a total peacenik. She worked for the government, and the best word from back then is she was very democratic. She was very involved in improving communities through food,” Johnston says.
    **
    Give me one example, princess, of Julia Child being a “peacenik.” She worked for the predecessor of the CIA during WWII – patriotic yes, pacifist no.

    “The best word from back then is she was very democratic.” “Very democratic”? What does that even mean? Can someone be a little democratic?

    And again, give me an example of Child trying to ” improve communities” via food.

    I really think Julia Child was great. But this is an example of someone trying to shoehorn a person’s legacy to fit their agenda.

    But hey, like I said, it must be great when Mommy and Daddy can buy Princess a present. (And come on, a thirty-year-old “self-employed life coach” just screams “trust fund baby.”)

    • Peace

      Who cares how she got the house? I’m excited that she did, as a fellow Smith alum, and I believe she’s going to do good work with it.

      As to whether she’s a princess or a trust fund baby, those epithets stem from your own assumptions and biases. And if she is, why the hatred? She’s doing good with whatever funds she has, and she’s not an idiot as you seem to imply.

      Negative words such as yours speak much more about your character than the person to whom they are directed.

      • Mumbles

        Ah yes, Smith College alumnae. Has any college lost more of its relevance in the past 50 years, now that women can go anywhere? What used to be a haven for privileged young ladies looking for Yale husbands, is now a haven for privileged young ladies who can’t get into any other college.

        • Peace

          Wrong again.

          • Mumbles

            What a comeback! Maybe somebody who works for Daddy can write up something for you to say.

          • Peace

            It’s ok. I’ve added you to my prayer list. I’m sorry your life has turned out this way, truly. With love.

      • Genevrier

        For all you folks arguing above about whether “MakJo” (according to web references: b. 1985, only child of a longtime Taco Bell exec, Boulder CO) has been a college teacher or not, or is a fake, or not: there’s enough stuff on the web confirming that she was indeed an adjunct for two years in in Macon GA, teaching Freshman orientations and first-year classes. She talks about the experience in her “TEDx” talk (“local” variant of TED) that she helped organize in Macon before she left, July 2013:

    • Noah

      30? No mention of age in the article.

      Jealous that her family is successful? It’s great when folks complain about those who are succeeding.

      Like her wife who retired from the military. Or the folks that pooled money to buy the house.

      • Mumbles

        Do the math. The article says she graduated in 2007, 9 years ago. 21+9=30. I know that math can be hard, but give it a shot.

        That said, I can understand the confusion. What 30-year-old dresses in Eileen Fisher and requests a post-menopausal-Santa-Fe-pottery-studio-owner hairdo?

        • Murphy1983

          “What 30-year-old dresses in Eileen Fisher and requests a post-menopausal-Santa-Fe-pottery-studio-owner hairdo?”

          I am dying laughing!!

          • MakJo

            Not an inaccurate description of my style! I’ll take it.

          • Genevrier

            (MakJo – No matter who is right or wrong, it doesn’t make you look like an experienced entrepreneur to “engage” with everyone who questions or criticizes. People have the right to think what they think, and not everyone who has a comment or question about your project is “jealous” of you (though some may be plain old mean). Try to rise above it – then take time to tighten up your very revealing blog and parts of your public FB threads. It may seem arbitrary, to realize that some folks will react adversely to what you call, in your blog, your penchant for foul language (not here…but pretty much all over your on-line presence). “Word choice” may not harm your French venture but it could, given the clientele you may need to succeed. Good luck and for what it’s worth, your haircut and clothes look great! So many of us are impressed with what you’re doing!).

        • Noah

          Um, there’s no mention of age, so you can’t do math. Literally. Folks have graduated in their 90s.

          And funny enough, she mentions on her website that she didn’t graduate early because of a cancer scare. And that she taught at 3 Universities by 26.

          I have no idea what you’ve accomplished, but her achievements are impressive.

          • Mumbles

            Wow, you’ve been to her website. Someone seems very invested in spinning this story in favor of this broad.

            I’d like to know what credentials she has at 26 that she “taught” at three universities. Everything I read in this article makes me think she is a big phony. Anyone can call themselves a “life coach” and “entrpreneur.”

          • MakJo

            Hey Mumbles,

            Not a phony, and I am a real individual, who yes taught at three colleges by 26. It’s not magic, it’s called having degrees that qualify you to teach. And living in a place that needs professors. And yes, also had cancer at 16.

            Next time I get my haircut, I’ll think fondly of you and your thoughts on it!

          • Mumbles

            Ever hear of a “phony individual”?

            Where are your degrees from?

          • MakJo

            All of that is public knowledge on the internet. Smith and NYU. Have a good day! Enjoy your mumbling.

          • Mumbles

            Enjoy your life-coaching, whatever that is.

            Also curious what you meant about Julia Child being “very democratic.” What does that even mean? Is there a scale on which someone is “democratic”?

            On your LinkedIn, you say that you have a degree in NYU in ” private sector development.” Interesting that NYU’s website has no listing for such a degree.

          • MakJo

            Apparently you and google are not friends.

            http://www.sps.nyu.edu/academics/departments/global-affairs/academic-offerings/graduate/ms-in-global-affairs.html

            See also: Private Sector, under concentrations.

            No one ever said that my first interview was stellar. I admit it, not my finest moment. And that sentence comes off as flippant.

          • Mumbles

            Yeah, that link goes to a “global studies” program. But hey, if you’re shilling yourself as an “entrepreneur”, a “private sector development” sounds a lot more businessy.

            Isn’t “school of professional studies” just their night school?

          • MakJo

            Sure is! Nothing wrong with that. Had a full-time job, because contrary to what you think I have to work for a living.

            Thanks for the conversation. It’s been a pleasure to engage with such a curmudgeon!

          • Mumbles

            Interesting tho that you got “teaching” engagements with a night school degree.

            I must say the world is full of phonies and frauds and very few of them actually engage when they’re called out on it. This has been quite an unusual experience for me. Thanks!

          • http://nomnivores.wordpress.com/ David in Toronto

            Seriously, mumbles. It rageaholism. I can’t vouch for MakJo, but you’ve got an unhealthy obsession with attacking her.

          • Tra Xander Hartman

            I wish you a forever remission.

          • Noah

            I’m invested? Sure, in facts. Which is why I’ll take things at face value until I know better. So that includes research. Like going to someone’s website.

            It’s a lot easier to comment negatively on some random post about a person you know nothing about, with a fake name, than it is to be written about in a major ‘publication’ about buying Julia Childs house in France.

            Listing ones achievements online puts them up for scrutiny.

            Unless you want to regale us with some personal achievements….it just seems like your comments are from a place of insecurity and jealousy.

          • Mumbles

            Anything on her website about getting her degree from night school?

          • Noah

            Why?

            A ended up finishing my M.A. part time, but there’s no reason to list that.

            A degree is a degree.

            Especially when one is working full time.

          • Mumbles

            Sorry, it’s not true that “a degree is a degree.” Night school degrees have less rigorous entrance requirements.

          • Noah

            A degree from NYU is a degree from NYU.

            I honestly think you are very unaware of higher education. It’s not a certificate program.

            Again, she was working full time, the way many do to earn their degrees.

            It doesn’t matter what time of the day they went to class.

          • Mumbles

            Yeah, ask someone who went to a real degree program at NYU what they think of the School of Professional Studies. Because I have. Hence my comments.

          • Noah

            It’s one of the 11 programs listed for undergrad and one of 18 for graduate.

            Regardless of personal opinion, the program is real and offers real degrees…

          • MakJo

            I don’t know you, but appreciate you sticking up for me. I’ve worked hard to get where I am, and having someone I don’t even know stand up to the trolls made my day. Thank you.

          • Noah

            Thanks! For what it’s worth, I’m often exhibiting troll behaviors. Though, I tend to aim them at trolls.

            I’ll fully admit I’m a bit jealous. I sure wish I could ski all the time, be in awesome areas / travel a ton and have a huge reason to cook!

            But, I’ve skied and traveled more than almost everyone who has ever lived, much of it a result of work.

            Motivation!

          • http://nomnivores.wordpress.com/ David in Toronto

            I think mumbles has some anger issues. Good luck to you and your wife.

            One caveat: Julia Child was not very kindly disposed to gay people. Carrying on what she did well is a great thing, but I’d encourage you to embrace her critically.

          • MakJo

            I’ve heard that! It’s an interesting part of the overall arc of the story. :)

          • Tra Xander Hartman

            yup. I graduated at the age of 35 in 2005. I wasn’t interested in continuing my education at the age of 18, so I never got the Bachelor’s at the common age of 22.

    • Paulette Paquette

      Why would a person have to hide his/her identity on Disqus?

      • Mumbles

        Because we want to. Anonymous speech has a long history in this country. Even the Federalist Papers were published anonynously (nit that calling out some self-promoting phony is equivalent to ratifying the Constitution but thr point stands.) Boards like this allow people to speak their minds with no fear of retaliation.

        • Noah

          Relatively speaking. Of course, if someone is trying to hack and find us…..yikes.

          It also allows us to speak as we might never do in person. Ruthlessly and whatnot.

    • http://nomnivores.wordpress.com/ David in Toronto

      Um. I think you’re bringing some baggage to this.

    • Genevrier

      Makenna’s (and apparently her parents’) purchase of the former Child house in Châteauneuf-de-Grasse, and the huge publicity the project has generated before purchase has even gone through, is courageous.

      This does *not* mean she’s a “trust fund baby” even if her blog of her several failed business launches 2012-2015 allows readers of Makenna’s website, as it stands Feb 4 2016, to wonder how sound the project is (…heads up to M – so many of us want you to succeed!).

      The project is a wonderful idea and many successful women entrepreneurs in the food, restaurant, wine and organic farming sectors, both US and Europe, are watching – and have already expressed their desire to participate in Makenna’s retreat center once it is successfully launched.

      It *doesn’t matter* that Makenna and her wife are not (yet!) chefs, as some have noted: they can happily manage the property, while bringing in high-end “talent” for an ongoing feast of international food-related events and conferences (especially concerning women!). The historic value of the property speaks for itself.

      The biggest problem seems that the small house, including Julia’s large open kitchen, measures 1500 square ft total, with only three bedrooms. This challenge aside, the explosion of publicity about the pending sale to the young Makenna means that if she plays her cards right (…being humble enough to recognize that she does not need to feel she is “reviving Julia Child’s legacy” – as she has publicly stated several times – as there were other homes, still-living collaborators, books, the recent film etc…) – means the project has every chance of succeeding. Good luck Makenna!

      • Mumbles

        Wow. The PR machine on this one is strong. And usually there is an inverse relationship between the PR spin exercised on a product and the actual quality. Else you wouldn’t need the spin.

        Makes me wonder why they’re so defensive.

        • Genevrier

          PS For transparency: I was off on the size of the house, above: total square footage is slightly over 1600 sq ft, if you count the small outbuilding that has one bedroom. In either case, presuming the new owners have to sleep somewhere, a maximum of three small bedrooms are left (two if they end up renting out the guesthouse as they have said they will…) for receiving paying clients for their “retreats.”

          There’s a lovely website associated with the current owner of La Pitchoune, Kathie Alex, who has run the house for private and semi-private cooking lessons since 1993, one year after the elderly Child couple reverted the house to the Beck-Fischbacker estate (Simone Beck, aka Simca, having died in 1991) as per their agreement. The Kathie Alex “La Pitchoune” website features many beautiful photos that the Sotheby’s website didn’t show. The house is in fact a very small cottage that was photographed with wide angle lenses for the Sotheby’s add – featured in the NYT in Nov when all the fuss began. (And, as several people have commented, way overpriced for the value of the property itself – the 800K Euro price tag having mostly to do with the fame of Julia Child). Bigger properties in the immediate area -Plascassier, near Châteauneuf-Grasse, in the rugged hills Southeast of Grasse- sell for less. It would have been hard to sell this house to a buyer not enamored with the Child legacy, given that the small parcel of land it’s on is surrounded on all sides by someone else’s estate (former estate of the late Simone Beck, Julia’s longtime cookbook collaborator, and “Simca’s” late husband). Francophiles and Francophones reading this post might also love the fact that that Edith Piaf died in the same village, Plascassier (1963…same year the Child couple built their little cottage on the Beck-Fischbacker estate)!

          • jmw

            Was the mayor of Plascassier (or perhaps a town near it) a member of the Fischbacher family? I seem to remember hearing (back in the ’90s when I was there) that Jean Fischbacher, or a relative, was the mayor which also had something to with how the Domaine de la Bramafam property came into the family’s possession. But I am working on sketchy memory now….

          • Genevrier

            How interesting.

  • Caitlyn Fallon

    Mumbles needs some Prozac pronto

    • MakJo

      Don’t feed the trolls. :)

  • luckdragon

    Hey, Makenna – this inspired the hell out of me today. Congratulations. I can’t wait to see what La Peetch becomes.

  • A.k. Sullivan

    Mumbles must be off her/his meds.

  • kwte89

    If they are going to keep it a school and focus on retreats it would be great if they did a couples retreat. Julia and her husband were so loving it would be fun for them to do a retreat for couples to reconnect with food.

    • MakJo

      LOVE this idea.

  • jmw

    I spent a week in Julia’s La Pitchoune in the 1990s, studying with Simone Beck, on whose property La Peetch was. I’m happy to hear the house found a good new owner, but I’m disappointed the article made no mention of Simca, her friendship w Julia, and her surrounding compound, Bramafam, on which Julia built La Peetch. What is the status of the compound? Does someone else own it, or is it part of this purchase? Best of luck to you with your new adventure.

    • MakJo

      Not part of the purchase. And I am not sure what Bramafarm’s status is. I’ll find out though! :) My neighbor (to the other side) has been there since the 1990’s. I’m sure she will know.

      • jmw

        If you find out, I’d love to hear. Thank you.

        • MakJo

          Will make sure I put in that due diligence. Gleefully.

      • Genevrier

        Domaine de la Bramafam (n.b. not “Bramafarm”) surrounds the small former Child property entirely – Julia Child’s longtime collaborator Simone Beck and her husband ceded the modest parcel that Julia and Paul built on in the 1960s, with the condition that it (both land and house) revert to them once the Child couple felt they were too old to use it (1992?). The Simone Beck estate later sold it to the current owner, Kathie Alex, who offered it for sale in Nov 2015. How perplexing that you, the imminent buyer, wouldn’t know this as of Feb 4, 2016!

        • MakJo

          I did know that the land was sold to Kathie. Most certainly. We’ve seen the deeds. That is obvious.

          I don’t know the current state of Bramafam. That is what I said. Much different. Thanks for your concern though! Three lawyers, a notaire, two bankers and a real estate agent later I’m aware of the state of La Pitchoune.

          • Genevrier

            :-)

  • http://www.tvangelist.com/ Anthony Smith-Chaigneau

    I have a house in the South of France at http://www.lemasdelarochelle.com It is a beautiful place to visit and learn about French culture. The Childs house was a little over-valued but that was because of its heritage. Nonetheless it looks like a nice place to start a business and a great retreat for one and all. We don’t all get the opportunity to have such glorious PR and you should MakJo milk it … and those who would criticise, well they always will have someone to target and freedom of speech allows anyone to vent their spleen – it happens to be you at this moment in time.

    • Genevrier

      Superb – also love the Gard.