COMMENTARY

"The Julia Child Challenge" and the mystique of one of America's most iconic chefs

Does this cooking competition engage in some exploiting and some pussy-footing around? Absolutely

By Julie Powell

Published March 22, 2022 4:59PM (EDT)

The contestants and judges sit down for a family style meal to taste the dishes from the second challenge, as seen on The Julia Child Challenge (Photo courtesy of Food Network/Discovery)
The contestants and judges sit down for a family style meal to taste the dishes from the second challenge, as seen on The Julia Child Challenge (Photo courtesy of Food Network/Discovery)

In "Julie and Julia," Julie Powell embarks on a mission to cook the 524 recipes in Julia's Child's seminal 1961 cookbook in 365 days. Before Julie's journey was immortalized in a bestselling memoir and Oscar-nominated film starring Meryl Streep, it was chronicled as "The Julie/Julia Project" on a blog hosted by Salon. Now, Julie is back to break down every episode of "The Julia Child Challenge."

Hello, this is Julie, your friendly neighborhood recapper. Together, we're going to dive into "The Julia Child Challenge."

Because this isn't going to be a bitter or petty commentary, I should probably get the bitter pettiness out of the way at the get-go. I'll admit that I feel more than a little possessive of my small role in the Julia Child story. "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" did, after all, hit the bestseller list for the first time in decades after my book, "Julie and Julia," came out in 2005. (Of course, Julia got an even bigger boost after Nora Ephron's movie came out in 2009.)

So, am I a little resentful? Sure. Does this cooking competition engage in some exploiting and some pussy-footing around? Absolutely. But that isn't what I'm here for — so we'll put that all behind us, bygones be bygones and all that.

"Does this cooking competition engage in some exploiting and some pussy-footing around? Absolutely."

Unlike a Gordon Ramsey kill-fest, "The Julia Child Challenge" is a show very much in the vein of "The Great British Bake Off" or "Making It." Everyone is exceedingly happy to be here and supportive of their fellow home chefs. Additionally, some of the contestants have day jobs that make me feel like I'm 82 years old. Dustin H. is a fitness instructor, who looks the part — I mean dayum. Christine is a marketing consultant, Britt a social media manager. Fabrizio, the youngest of the group at 24, is a "TikTok creator," and I honestly don't entirely know what that is . . . Like I said, 82.

All the competitors are introduced to their new cooking digs, a rather twee version of Julia's famous kitchen (you know, the one that's in the Smithsonian Museum). Everything is robin's egg blue, and there are pots and pans hanging from pegboard on every wall. Everyone is entranced. Suspiciously entranced. (OK, I'll stop now, for real.) They begin to watch footage of Julia — and I start to weep. 

Julia ChildChef Julia Child poses with assorted rolling pins. (Lee Lockwood/Getty Images)

My emotions are complicated. Also, I'm pre-menopausal. Give me a small break.

Our judge is "Top Chef" veteran Antonia Lofaso. Each week, she's accompanied by two different guest judges. In Episode 1, we have Francis Lam and Michael Voltaggio to help introduce the first challenge: sole meunière.

"My emotions are complicated. Also, I'm pre-menopausal. Give me a small break."

Now, Julia-heads know that sole meunière is famously the first dish Julia ate with her husband Paul when they arrived in France together. It's a meticulously filleted dover sole (which is a really fun thing to do, BTW), dredged lightly in flour and sautéed in butter with lemon and parsley. Simple. Each of the contestants is asked to do their take.

Most of the cooks go classic, which seems to be the right choice. Some folks, however, go a more ambitious route. Jaíne, a tall and smiling Brazilian woman whom I already love, decides to make sole meunière quenelles, a sort of poached fish mousse ball, which worries me. Christine tops her fish with roasted grapes in simple syrup, which I'm also concerned about. Elena, who I also immediately adore, wants to serve gnocchi with hers but runs out of time. Fabrizio's decision to add chorizo to the brown butter seems really smart.

Meanwhile, my heart breaks for Dustin R. He is deeply phobic of fish, to the extent that he has to cover their little heads with a towel before he breaks them down. This sweet man throws elaborate dinner parties for his friends (which are seemingly as much about the costumes as the food, according to his backstory). I suspect that he usually has more time to put everything together because time management is proving a problem. He had plans to meticulously plate his deep-fried meunière with aioli, but he's out of time. 

Judging for the first round is now complete. The judges are so nice that I almost long for a Simon Cowell or Paul Hollywood. Almost, but not quite. Bill, Dustin H. and Fabrizio come out on top, which makes sense — they took smart but not crazy risks.

Next, we have "The Dish That Changed Your Life." In other words, what made you decide to be a cook.

"This show is heavy on the corn, which to some extent I can get behind. Who doesn't like an afternoon cry with Julia Child clips? But it's a lot."

This show is heavy on the corn, which to some extent I can get behind. Who doesn't like an afternoon cry with Julia Child clips? But it's a lot.

Next, everyone has to make a meal from several ingredients apparently chosen at random: oysters, shallots, fromage blanc, red wine, and baguettes. I mean, sure.

A lot of the competitors go nostalgic with comfort food. A couple of them go nuts. Dustin H. does charred octopus with coffee-rubbed fried oysters. I mean, what?! Bill makes duck breast with an oyster "escargot." 

They both kill it, as does Fabrizio, who is rapidly winning my heart despite my reverse ageism. Dustin R., bless his lovely soul, is out, based only on time management.

***

Episode 2 continues the schmaltz. Coq au vin, a sentimental favorite, is the first dish. Susan Feniger and Molly Baz are the guest judges this week. Fabrizio has never broken down a chicken before. Watching Molly stand over him while he's trying to do it makes me very nervous — not least because he clearly has a crush on her.

"We never witness anyone getting cut, but I've seen at least four cooks with bright-blue finger cots . . . and it's freaking me out."

May we talk, BTW, about the finger cots? We never witness anyone getting cut, but I've seen at least four cooks with bright-blue finger cots — often more than one — and it's freaking me out. Also, there have been multiple grease fires — but no one seems the least bit disturbed.

Also, in the BTWs, Elena begins an interview by saying there's no way anyone is confident enough at this point in the competition to think they have a handle on winning. Then she says, "Well, Dustin H. could." That is some shade I can get behind. The dude is pretty and he's talented, but man, the ego . . .

It's fascinating to observe who goes classic with this signature French dish and who doesn't. We're beginning to get a feel for the characters here. Fabrizio, who is the only one to choose white wine, brings in ginger, scallions and umami notes of anchovy and miso. Bill makes the simple and smart choice to replace the bacon with andouille and up the spice. Dustin H. may be going insane with his coq au vin ravioli, as well as Elena with her coq au vin burrito.

The Julia Child ChallengeGuest judges Susan Feniger and Molly Baz check in on contestant Bill Borman during the first challenge, as seen on "The Julia Child Challenge." (Photo courtesy of Food Network/Discovery)We're then treated to a clip of Julia flambéing her own coq au vin with brandy. "I don't know if this does much of anything except make people feel good." Again, I start to cry. 'Scuse me.

"Judge Molly Baz, who I have a vague distrust of, thinks these two things are delicious separately but too much together. I'm prone to disagree."

We're just going to keep on with the waterworks here because the second challenge is to make a recipe that represents a special relationship. The requirement? It has to include wine.

Everyone cooks for a family member or partner. Dustin H. declares he's cooking for Sarah, his "on-again-off-again, it's complicated girlfriend," which is deeply suss. Judge Susan Feniger aptly responds, "We need to talk to Sarah." He pairs a french onion soup with sherry, which is classically Julia, alongside a grilled cheese sandwich with bacon and an apple pear chutney. Judge Molly Baz, who I have a vague distrust of, thinks these two things are delicious separately but too much together. I'm prone to disagree.

Fabrizio's "drowned sandwich," or tortas ahogados, look amazing. He's replacing the cola his family traditionally braised the meat in with reisling. Also, he's using a pressure cooker for the first time in his life. "All I've heard about pressure cookers is that they're terrifying and can explode." He ultimately decides that "this pressure cooker is like my grandmother," you just have to step back and trust. This kid.

"I love that this show is so kind. I do wonder about the mystique around Julia."

I know Britt is in trouble when there are less than 15 minutes left, but she hasn't started frying her chicken yet. I'm enough of a Southerner to know that's a problem. Sure enough, both she and Christine have serious issues with their cooks. Christine is out, while Britt is saved by her excellent first meal.

I love that this show is so kind. I do wonder about the mystique around Julia. She changed my whole life and I love her, but so many of the competitors quote her talking about how mistakes are fine and part of the process. This is true, but Julia was also a stickler — and this is a competition. There's a lovey-dovey aspect here that I'm susceptible to but also slightly leery of . . .

"The Julia Child Challenge" airs Mondays at 9pm EST/8pm CST on The Food Network; it is also available to stream on discovery+

Read more stories about Julia Child and Julie Powell:


Julie Powell

Julie Powell is the author of the memoirs "Julie And Julia," based on a widely popular blog and adapted into a feature film, and "Cleaving."

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