In 1961, Julia Child published the first volume of her seminal cookbook “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” spawning a popular PBS cooking show (“The French Chef”) and opening the world of gourmet cuisine to American households.
More than six decades later, we still can’t get enough of Child’s warm, can-do spirit, with a propensity for ribald jokes and making mistakes that endeared her to novice chefs and housewives.
Her groundbreaking foray into public television is the subject of HBO Max’s “Julia” (first three episodes now streaming; new episodes weekly on Thursdays), a delectable new drama that explores the relationship between Julia (Sarah Lancashire) and her husband, Paul (David Hyde Pierce), as she worked to launch “The French Chef” in 1963.
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The show arrives less than two weeks after Discovery+ introduced a competition series inspired by the icon, “The Julia Child Challenge” (also on Food Network, Mondays at 9 EDT/PDT), in which eight home cooks compete to win a chance to study for three months at Le Cordon Bleu, the famous Paris cooking school where Child got her start.
And with an Oscar-shortlisted documentary (“Julia”) released last fall, and old episodes of “French Chef” now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, interest has seemingly never been higher in all things Child.
“A lot of people ask me about this resurgence, but in the cooking world, she never goes away: The younger generation still looks up to her and has all her books,” says Antonia Lofaso, head judge on “Julia Child Challenge.”
“Personally, I think it has to do with what everyone just went through (with the pandemic). People were home, they wanted to learn new skills, and she is someone that we always go back to to learn those skills. There hasn’t really been anyone in history besides her who has taken those classic skills of braising and poaching and fundamental cooking so seriously.”
‘Julia’ explores how she ‘started from nothing’ to make ‘The French Chef’
HBO Max’s “Julia” is hardly the first dramatic depiction of Child: “All in the Family” star Jean Stapleton played her in the 1991 Off-Broadway production “Bon Appetit,” while Meryl Streep earned a best actress Oscar nomination for her performance in the 2009 film “Julie & Julia.” And then, of course, there was Dan Aykroyd’s iconic “Saturday Night Live” impression, in which his clumsy Child sliced a finger and spurted blood during a cooking demonstration.
But the eight-episode first season of “Julia” goes beyond the warbling voice, frumpy attire and bumbling demeanor of past portrayals of Child, who died in 2004 at age 91. In the series’ first three episodes, Julia struggles with menopause and childlessness . It also shows that she had a healthy romantic partnership with Paul, a diplomat and her spouse of nearly 50 years.
“We wanted to explore all the nuances of who she was,” says co-creator Christopher Keyser (“Party of Five”). Child was in her early 50s when she achieved widespread recognition as a TV personality, “and one of the things that drew us to this (project) was telling a story about a second chapter in life. We’re in an era now where people work longer and are more frequently reinventing themselves. But back then, if you were in your 50s or 60s, you were beginning to close up shop. It’s a nice message for everyone that it’s never too late.”
“Julia” also diverges from other Child projects in showing the nuts and bolts of making a TV show. The early part of the season follows Julia as she pitches the idea for “The French Chef” to WGBH, her public station in Boston, and films a pilot episode. Some of the most exciting scenes feature Julia and Paul in their home kitchen, planning camera angles and precooked dishes for more seamless TV demonstrations.
“They were basically starting from nothing,” says co-creator Daniel Goldfarb. “Now, of course, food programming is ubiquitous, between the Food Network and TikTok. But there was a ground zero, and that was Julia. They were inventing techniques that are still used on television today.”
‘The Julia Child Challenge’ wants to give ‘real feedback,’ make cooking ‘less scary’
Child’s boldness and optimism spill over into “The Julia Child Challenge,” which is filmed on a giant soundstage that has been meticulously outfitted to look like her kitchen. Each challenge is based on one of her signature dishes: how to fillet a flat fish, or make clarified butter and soufflés.
But unlike most cooking competitions, contestants don’t exit the stage as soon as they’re eliminated. Instead, episodes end with a “dinner party” with the judges, where competitors get a chance to sip wine and taste each others’ creations.
“We all sit there and eat, and get to share very real feedback about the dish and how it relates to Julia,” Lofaso says. “So if I’m sitting there being like, ‘Hey, by the way, this egg is a little overcooked,’ they’re like, ‘You know what? You’re right, because I’m eating it now, too .’ So there’s a level of harshness that’s taken away.”
Lofaso hopes to instill confidence in the show’s contestants and like Child, prove that cooking is accessible to anyone.
“(‘The French Chef’) really took away the sting of failure, to a certain extent,” Lofaso says. “It was like, ‘So what if you mess up? So what if this didn’t turn out right? Who’s really going to know?’ She had this humor and sarcasm that made cooking less scary.”