Welcome to the finale of "The Julia Child Challenge," a very silly and good-hearted show that has made me roll my eyes and spring tears in roughly equal measure. There are three contestants remaining: Bill, the resourceful and elegant cookware distributor who lives in my neck of the woods and should probably invite me to dinner; Dustin, the enterprising fitness instructor; and Jaíne, who is simply the most delightful woman alive and — as one of the other challengers called her in a previous episode — a near embodiment of Julia in terms of spirit and presence. Only tearier. Julia wasn't much of a crier, from what I can tell.
Speaking of tears, there are going to be some here today — fair warning.
Our three contestants begin by watching a "French Chef" clip in which Julia Child, in discussing the intimidation factor involved with caramelization (the fear is real!), names the "awful American syndrome of fear of failure." I'm not sure why that makes me cry. I think maybe I felt a bit too seen? Julia does that to me.
Dorie Greenspan is the guest judge! After quite a few TV chefs and star cooking show contestants, we're back on my beloved home ground, and I maybe cry a little more. The other judge is Brooke Williamson, who I don't know, but she seems nice.
The first challenge is to take a croque monsieur — a classic fried sandwich of ham and cheese — and turn it into an upscale first course. I'll have to say that while this show has strained credulity at times with its connections to Julia's life and legacy, the challenges themselves have mostly made sense. But folks are running into trouble . . .
Dustin has the idea to make a Vietnamese croque monsieur, which does make some sense. One way to do that would be to go with a banh mi, but he intends to make rice flour crepes. Crepes, however, famously go wrong in front of TV cameras. When they don't work out, he switches his plan up and makes a pretty straight-ahead croque monsieur with herbaceous Vietnamese touches — cilantro, basil, et cetera.
Bill wants to make a frisée salad with croque monsieur croutons, a turnaround on the traditional croque monsieur served with a salad side. I would like to be eating this right now, though I wonder if the croutons are enough to get across the croque-ness?
Well, it turns out it doesn't matter. Bill's sandwiches aren't frozen enough to fry into croutons on time, so he has to make a game-time decision and change his plans. He fries them into what looks like mozzarella sticks. I wouldn't throw them out of bed.
Jaíne makes ham and cheese croquettes. This is very smart. Julia actually has a classic French ham and cheese croquette recipe, but Jaíne takes them in a more Spanish direction.
This Brooke judge is wandering around breaking people's concentration. That's her job, but it's pissing me off.
"I remember standing there, letting it soak in just after I'd finished the Julie/Julia Project. It's corny as hell, but that was a big moment for me. "
As the final three cook, some new footage plays, including a snapshot of Jaíne and her boyfriend at Julia's kitchen in the Smithsonian. I cried the first time I watched it, and I'm crying again now. I'm nearly 50 years old, with a cold, dead heart, but that kitchen still gets me. I remember standing there, letting it soak in just after I'd finished the Julie/Julia Project. It's corny as hell, but that was a big moment for me.
Dustin and Bill both struggle with this first challenge. Neither attempt winds up as elevated as was hoped. Dorie thinks Dustin's sandwich is entirely too much for a first course, while head judge Antonia Lofaso ("Top Chef") compares Bill's rolls to the aforementioned mozzarella sticks. (I don't know what the hell people think are wrong with mozzarella sticks, but OK.) Only Jaíne sails through. Her dish looks elegant and delicious — and all the judges love it.
Before they're given their next challenge, Jacques Pépin makes an appearance via video. Awww, man. His relationship with Julia splits my heart in twain. Anyone who has gotten their fill of "The French Chef" should move on to "Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home."
Host Antonia Lofaso with the contestants of "The Julia Child Challenge" (Photo courtesy of Food Network/Discovery)
Crikey, so this last challenge is a doozy. They are to make a three-course meal, with takes on duck a l'orange, boeuf bourguignon and croquembouche (which is a stack of cream puffs drizzled with caramel and topped with spun sugar). In three hours. This is, in my estimation, technically impossible.
Bill makes a root vegetable orange soup with duck hash, a deconstructed boeuf bourguignon and orange cream puffs with orange chantilly cream. He makes use of two pressure cookers, which seems absolutely necessary.
Dustin continues his Vietnamese theme with a duck a l'orange pho, which makes all the sense in the world. He's roasting some marrow bones, making a short rib marmalade (I don't know what that is!) and braising short ribs for a sort of "Bourguignon Three Ways" concept. His dessert is a Paris-brest, which he calls a kind of French donut, with lime curd.
Jaíne again turns to her native country of Brazil, making plantain gnocchi, pan-fried in duck fat with cracklings and orange sauce. She's going to do her bourguignon ropa vieja-style, shredded with rice and beans. She bunts a bit on the dessert, making what she calls "croquembouche crepes." So, no cream puffs. She's simply working with the orange and cream profile.
Julia Child poses in her kitchen, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1972. (Hans Namuth/Photo Researchers History/Getty Images)The cooks have to present their first courses and then run back to the kitchen. All do well, though there are concerns the duck doesn't come through on Jaíne's gnocchi.
On to the boeuf bourguignon. While they're cooking, another "French Chef" clip plays, in which Julia bitches about grocery store stew meat, which is cut too small. "It looks like cat food, and I don't like it." I start crying again. I don't know why. Somehow, I feel like I'm saying goodbye to her all over again.
Jaíne has managed to burn her meat. Oh no, Jaíne! Everyone is rushing because this is an insane thing to ask people to do. Dustin exhorts everyone to "breathe, organize and push through." For the record, this is why I don't do spin classes — I would totally have a misdemeanor assault charge by now.
In the end, Jaíne somehow manages to save her boeuf — and the judges all love it. Dustin's fancy-dan bourguignon three ways lacks the winey sauce that defines the stew. Dorie says the marmalade isn't really marmalade, but since I was never sure what a short rib marmalade was supposed to be, I feel no loss. Bill's sauce is fantastic, even if his concept is not incredibly note-worthy.
"Every once in a while, there is some justice in this world. "
The dessert stage is freaking everyone out — and me along with them. But then they get to finally sit the f**k down and relax. The judges like all of their dishes, which man, thank you, give them a damn break already.
Jaíne wins, and she's going to Paris because every once in a while there is some justice in this world.
I've gone on too long here, but I have to give in to my emotions here for a second. Contestants and judges alike have spoken over this short season of hearing Julia's voice in their heads, which was of course the starting point of my blog and book. Watching this has reawakened that voice for me, much to my distress. I have never liked sharing her. No real Julia-head does. So, recapping this has been a little tough. But it's worth remembering that beneath the dumb corporate exploits, there's a genuine bond. Jaíne feels it, and I guess my cold dead heart still does as well.
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A fond look back at "The Julia Child Challenge":
- Weeks 1 & 2: "The Julia Child Challenge" and the mystique of one of America's most iconic chefs
- Week 3: It's nostalgic to watch amateur cooks tackle Julia Child's oeuvre—but this "challenge" also irks me
- Week 4: Julia Child's secret sauce and the little black dresses of French cuisine
- Week 5: Omelets are hard to master and more lessons learned from "The Julia Child Challenge"