There is one scene in Julie & Julia that cracks me up every time I watch the film because it’s so far off from the truth. It’s when Julia Child, Simone Beck, and Louisette Bertholle are (supposedly) shopping in E. Dehillerin, the famous cookware store that has been supplying French chefs with the tools of their trade since 1820. The store in the movie is pristine and light and airy, with lots of room for Julia Child to wildly swing her shopping basket.
That scene wasn’t filmed in the actual store, as anyone who has ever shopped at E. Dehillerin can tell you. The actual store is much darker and dingier and more cramped than the one shown in the film.
In the words of David Lebovitz, the only way to enter E. Dehillerin is to “brace yourself and step inside.” My sister and I stumbled upon it quite by accident one afternoon in December 2010, moments after we had stumbled ― also by accident ― into Saint-Eustache, a magnificent church in the 1er arrondissement.
Here’s how I described my introduction to Dehillerin in the journal I kept that winter:
We came around a corner and there was heaven: E. Dehillerin, which I had read about. It’s the cookware store in Paris where all the pros shop, including (it’s been said) Julia Child.
But it was massively packed; I’ve never been in such a crowded store. The basement was dusty and musty and filled with massive industrial-sized stock pots (and not as crowded as upstairs).
Upstairs, I tried to look at the knives, but you could barely get past anyone to get near the counter where they were displayed. (And “display” is a bit generous. They were simply plunked in wooden bins of various sizes and in various groupings.) We got out of there and decided on lunch in a place in Rue Montorgeuil.
A week later, I returned, this time with a friend who was spending Christmas with my sister and me. Not only did I want her to experience the store for herself, but I had decided I was going to buy me some knives as a Christmas present to myself. We wandered in and out of several cookware and bakeware stores that morning ― they are all congregated near E. Dehillerin because there used to be a giant market nearby where all the Parisian restaurateurs used to shop for their daily menus. The market is long gone, but the shops ― and the restaurants ― remain.
Dehillerin was insanely crowded on my second visit as well and my friend and I quickly gave up on my plan to buy some knives.
But, I was determined. I did some online research and learned that persistence was the only way to get results when shopping at E. Dehillerin. And so, I returned.
Back to my journal:
January 29. Saturday. I still wanted my knives from Dehillerin and, as they are closed on Sundays and I was leaving on Monday, this was the last possible day I could buy them. I’d put it off as long as I could as it seemed so intimidating, given everything I’d read about the place, and how crazy crowded it had been on my two previous visits. But … I persevered. In I went, and it seemed a bit crowded at first, but then all of a sudden it emptied out and I had all the room I wanted to pick out the knives I wanted.
I checked the price of one in the book at the end of the aisle, went back to the bins of knives, decided on another knife and then thought, “Oh, I don’t care how much it costs. This is the one I want.” That was the 20 cm chef knife. I then chose a 10 cm paring knife, and a sharpening steel, and took them to the table where they wrapped your purchases.
The clerk said something to me in French. When he realized I hadn’t understood a word, he said, “English?” “Yes,” I replied. He then explained that the sharpening steel I had selected was too small for the size of my knife. For only a few euros more, I could get the right-sized steel made by the same company. I said, “OK,” he went to grab the right-sized sharpening steel, looked up the codes in his book posted on the pillar at the end of the aisle, wrote them down on a slip of paper and handed it to me.
I took the slip of paper to the woman behind the counter and she took my payment. Two knives and a sharpening steel for 86 euros. Earlier that month, I had checked the prices of knives in the housewares department at Galeries Lafayette and a chef knife there went for 100 euros alone.
So, very pleased with myself, I took the receipt back to the table, another clerk jammed each knife tip into a wine cork and then wrapped the knives in brown paper. Off I went, the happy owner of some proper kitchen knives at last. The fact that I bought them in Paris, and that they have the Dehillerin name engraved on the blade, is a bonus.
That afternoon is one of my favourite shopping memories while travelling.
No, wait. It is one of my favourite shopping memories ever. And the best part? I get to take an imaginary walk through Dehillerin every time I use those knives.
Which is every day.