Julia Child’s secret sauce and the little black dresses of French cuisine

On this week’s episode of “The Julia Child Challenge,” we tackle our namesake chef’s spy years! Well, kind of . . .

The extent to which Julia Child was actually “spying” during her years in the O.S.S. (the precursor to the CIA) is much debated. As guest judge Alvin Cailan points out, Julia did for sure work on a formula for shark repellant. I wrote about this – it’s a rather delightful anecdote.

Mostly, however, the spy angle is an excuse to show lots of footage of Julia doing outrageous things on camera. To which I say, by all means!

The first challenge for the five remaining competitors is to make a dish with a “secret sauce,” which is a real stretch to stay on theme. What head judge Antonia Lofaso (“Top Chef“) is really referring to are the five “mother sauces” of French cuisine: béchamel, hollandaise, velouté, espagnole and tomate. A pretty classic choice that probably didn’t need dressing up in espionage accouterments – but whatever.

“Julia . . . refers to the mother sauces as the little black dresses of French cuisine.”

All of the challengers watch a tape of Julia, who refers to the mother sauces as the little black dresses of French cuisine. Bill gives a bow to Britt, who is indeed wearing a sweet black ensemble. Awww, I like these guys. For the challenge, they each get their own sauce.

Elena decides to make a flatbread pizza with bechamel sauce and a topping of greens and lemon. While it sounds like something I’d like for dinner, Alvin and our other guest judge – Nilou Motamed – worry the warm sauce could make the flatbread soggy.

Jaíne renders chicken skin so she can use the fat as a base for her hollandaise. I’m behind this choice. (In an aside, Jaíne opines that she would make a good spy . . . and that she would cook for her enemies. Well, that’s a little terrifying.) She goes the Benedict route, poaching an egg and roasting vegetables – which she tops with a schmaltz hollandaise.

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

Bill amps up his sauce tomate with chipotle and pairs it with a pork tenderloin. Bill consistently makes wise choices when it comes to his flavor profile, but it looks like he may run out of time on the pork.

Dustin goes the simple, yet challenging route, with a New York strip and espagnole sauce. He admits that he hasn’t previously made espagnole, which isn’t a terribly challenging sauce. That makes it all the more important to get it spot-on. Moreover, the decision to pair it with a simple, perfectly cooked steak places a lot of pressure on the perfection of the cook.

“This is a double yawn from me. That chicken is going to need to be perfect.”

Britt gets veloute, which to me is a bit of a yawn of a sauce. She makes hers with crème fraîche and uses it to top some chicken breasts. This is a double yawn from me. That chicken is going to need to be perfect.

While we wait for the judges, the contestants are interviewed about Julia’s O.S.S. years. Three of the five remaining challengers – Elena, Dustin and Britt – served in the military. The show doesn’t make a whole lot of this, so I don’t know if I should – but it does seem an odd coincidence.

Indeed, Bill did not get his tenderloin done, but his sauce was on point – with the chipotle considered an excellent addition. Dustin also gets compliments for his sauce – it’s a bit thin, but the bonito flakes he sprinkled on top wow the judges. Elena underwhelms, which makes me very nervous. Britt’s dish is underseasoned – and looks it – while Jaíne’s hollandaise dish is, predictably, perfect.

For the second challenge, the cooks have to make a dish inspired by one of the countries Julia worked in during her time with the O.S.S. One little wrinkle is Julia didn’t actually work in that many countries, so there’s some doubling about to happen. Only Dustin gets his own territory with Sri Lanka (Ceylon in Julia’s time). This could be a great opportunity.

Julia ChildA portrait of the American chef Julia Child (1912 – 2004) shows her standing with a cut of meat in her kitchen, late 20th century. (Bachrach/Getty Images)Britt and Jaíne both get China. Britt makes kung pao shrimp, which seems a bit Panda Express – but we’ll see. Jaíne makes a beef short rib with lo mein, which I would happily partake of – authentic or not.

Elena’s trip to Germany involves sweet potato pancakes with braised red cabbage. She hopes to get a schnitzel on top but worries about time. Bill also has Germany, and he makes a very fancy-looking trout roulade with white asparagus.

Dustin doesn’t know anything about Sri Lankan food, but the “dossier” he’s given walks him through the basic seasoning and techniques. He figures it isn’t that far off from Indian food, and he decides on a shrimp, lobster and butternut squash curry – which I reckon will be close enough for this competition. 

“This newfound information about their buddy-hood feels ominous . . . “

Turns out Bill and Elena have become fast friends! They’ve bonded over their shared experience as cooks and members of the LGBTQ community. Somehow, this newfound information about their buddy-hood feels ominous . . .

Everyone is seated at the group table for the second and final round of judging. Dustin comes away clean with his curry. Bill gets a couple of knocks: The caraway is too aggressive, and a couple of people found bones in their trout.

Elena’s schnitzel isn’t really schnitzel – it’s a paillard. I’d love for the judges to dig into that a bit more. I guess they’re referring to the fact that it isn’t thin enough? They also think it’s a bit overdone. 

Britt’s shrimp goes over well – and I will say it looks beautiful. Jaíne’s beef lo mein soup looks like something I’d gladly jump into face-first. The judges nitpick about the bok choy being a little underdone, but they love the broth.  

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Everyone is still seated around the table when Elena says to Jaíne, “The bottom line is we went on this competition because of Julia – and nobody embodies that more than you.” Now, Elena is crying and Jaíne is crying.

I’m just having allergies – leave me alone! Also, Elena is toast.

Sure enough, Elena is out, and I’m a bit heartbroken. To be fair, I’ve grown attached to everybody, but I can think of one or two people I wouldn’t have minded being sent home first. That aside, the challenges were strong this week – even if the spy angle was a bit silly.

But who doesn’t like to think about Julia Child being a spy? I’ll allow it.

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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