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.
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.
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.”