It’s nostalgic to watch amateur cooks tackle Julia Child’s oeuvre—but this “challenge” also irks me

It’s kitchen tech week on “The Julia Child Challenge,” a theme that provides a welcome break from the lovey-dovey overload of the cooking competition’s first two episodes. Though I dig a sentimental journey as much as the next person, a week without tears is a relief. Still, this episode was irksome on a couple of levels. I’ll try not to dwell too much, but I can’t promise anything.

“This is what Julia does to people — we can get defensive about our personal versions of her.”

We begin with a whole spiel on how Julia Child wrote “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” to demystify French cooking but also “teach home cooks the proper way to do things in the kitchen.” This is obviously a universal truth, but also kind of my universal truth? Of course, this is what Julia does to people — we can get defensive about our personal versions of her. I’m just going to breathe through it.

The first challenge is to make a soufflé using nothing but a whisk. No egg beaters or stand mixers to do the hard work of beating those egg whites.

This episode is heavy on archival footage. It’s easy to forget how delightful Julia is if you haven’t watched her in a while. Because I came to Julia through her book rather than her show, my idea of her voice was already in my head by the time I started watching it. When you think about it, it’s remarkable how beautifully her written voice and her TV voice actually match up.

Dustin H. starts with a chocolate soufflé with berry coulis. This is uncharacteristically straight-ahead for him, though the soufflé being chocolate cuts into his time a little. The chocolate makes the batter heavier, and it needs more time to rise in the oven.

Elena cooks up a coconut soufflé with ube sauce. Ube is a purple yam, so this is me learning something new every day. Being “vertically challenged,” she beats her eggs on top of a garbage can, as the countertop is too high. It’s like “Julia Child Opposite Day.”

“Jaíne makes a cheese soufflé, as does Bill . . . He forgets to add the cheese.”

Jaíne makes a cheese soufflé, as does Bill. While Jaíne opts to serve hers with a corn salad, Bill doesn’t seem interested in making an accompanying sauce or side. That is, until he forgets to add the cheese. A mornay sauce goes into production while the soufflé is in the oven. 

Fabrizio concocts a tomato cheese soufflé, meaning sautéed tomatoes are going on top. Hmmm. He has never made a soufflé before but seems pretty confident that he understands the “keys” to success. Honestly, Fabrizio seems to have never made anything, but you haven’t been wrong yet, you little wunderkind, so let’s see. 

Britt’s lavender blueberry compote soufflé sounds interesting, but disaster is brewing because she somehow turned her oven to 450 degrees instead of 350 degrees. This may be the end of her delicate soufflé, I fear. 

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We’re treated to a montage of Julia and the cooks beating their egg whites to “Flight of the Bumblebee.” I’ll admit, it’s pretty cute. Julia, via the archives, warns that the most important thing is not to open the oven once your soufflé is inside. Yet everyone is opening their ovens. It’s a real Orpheus-type situation. The Hadestown soundtrack starts to play in my head.

Judgment time. F**kin’ Dustin H. I keep wanting him to fail just because he’s so damned cocky and handsome, but he sails on through. Jaíne’s soufflés have risen beautifully, as have Bill’s, who is a huge hit despite his worries re: the cheese. Guest judge Cliff Cooks has a mouth-orgasm moment.

Julia ChildJulia Child in her kitchen. (Aaron Rapoport/CORBIS OUTLINE/Corbis via Getty Images)

Fabrizio’s soufflé also looks great, but he didn’t get the tomatoes cooked in time. Antonia didn’t like his decision to add fish sauce. Like, really didn’t like it.

Next, we have a weird pivot from Julia being the one who brought traditional techniques back into the American kitchen to her love of new technologies “at a time when it was frowned upon.” What? Julia brought traditional French cooking to an America addicted to TV dinners, but now she’s pushing food processors on a quaint nation of homespun Luddites? Did she, herself, bring about this change? Life is complicated, folks.

Anyway, I find it contrived that the second challenge is to make two French dishes in an hour and a half by using both “vintage” and “modern” kitchen technology. Lots of people reach for the “vintage” food processor, which just looks like a food processor.

Lots of people reach for the “vintage” food processor, which just looks like a food processor.

Speaking of food processors, Elena has a weird amount of problems with hers. I mean, yes, they can be a little annoying, but this isn’t that hard. She’s making a potato niçoise salad and a mushroom leek quiche, and will also, tech-wise, use a microwave in some capacity.

Bill makes boeuf Bourguignon in an Instant Pot, which is a solid choice, then an asparagus velouté with a blender. How else would a modern cook make a velouté? I still think this technology tilt is dumb.

Jaíne bakes an almond orange cake with vacuum-sealed oranges, which is the first interesting use of tech we’ve witnessed. Also, gâteau de crêpes, which is an insanely challenging dish.

Fabrizio goes classic with steak frites, using a deep fryer for the fries (duh), and chocolate mousse, using a “vintage” stand mixer. God, I miss my Granny’s stand mixer. That thing was the best. KitchenAid can suck rocks!

“God, I miss my Granny’s stand mixer. That thing was the best. KitchenAid can suck rocks!”

Fabrizio goes on and on about how he doesn’t really know anything about French food. Everything he thinks he knows, he learned from cooking videos. This kid is charming, but he may be getting in over his head with the mousse.

Dustin H. makes a chicken liver mousse and herb de Provence rack of lamb, using a deep fryer. I do love me some chicken liver mousse.

Meanwhile, Britt makes vichyssoise with an immersion blender. This is the first time we’ve seen a competitor actually using “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” as a guide. Interesting. Will she have time to chill it? Also, a mixed berry clafoutis. This is all classic Julia.

“This is the first time we’ve seen a competitor actually using ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’ as a guide. Interesting.”

Antonia: “Just potatoes and just leeks.” Dude, you’re like a textbook with arms. I know this! (This feels like subtweeting to me, because potato leek soup was the first recipe I made in “Julie & Julia” and I focused on its simplicity.)

Breathe, Julie. Pettiness helps no one.

Elena calls removing her quiche from its tart pan a “Simone Biles move.” I love her.

“Elena calls removing her quiche from its tart pan a ‘Simone Biles move.’ I love her.”

The judges come out again. Jaíne wins handily. Bill is in the clear, as is Dustin H. Fabrizio and Elena are both in trouble. Fabrizio’s mousse isn’t cooked through, and Elena’s quiche crust is raw at the bottom. Oh, no! My two favorites.

In the end, Fabrizio is out of the kitchen. Damn. Though we could see it coming, it’s still a blow. He’s got what it takes — he just needs some more experience. We’ll be seeing you, Fabrizio!

As I said, this show irks me. On the one hand, it’s lovely — and for me nostalgic — to watch these amateur cooks tackle Julia’s oeuvre. On the other, is there an underlying cynicism? Or maybe I’m imagining it? It sours the taste a bit. This last challenge seems forced and pointless. We’re currently walking a tightrope, entertainment-wise. Let’s see if they can hold on to the essential Julia-ness in coming episodes.

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 on Salon:


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