Lately, when I want to shut out the world, I turn on an episode of “The French Chef.”
Yes, in addition to being my reality right now, this is also the plot of Nora Ephron’s last film, “Julie & Julia.” I didn’t know anything about Julia Child when I first watched the movie, but I loved Meryl Streep’s performance so much that it sparked an ongoing interest in Child and her 58-year-old cooking show.
Actually, my introduction to the real Julia Child came not from “The French Chef” but from the show she did in the late ‘90s called “Julia & Jacques Cooking at Home.” Both of these shows are available through Amazon, by the way, though only “Julia & Jacques” is included with Amazon Prime.
I watched my first episode of “Julia & Jacques” a few months ago and fell in love with its pace, its quirks and its hosts.
Child cooks in tandem with the adorable Jacques Pepin. Since she goes out of her way to throw in the correct French pronunciation of most dishes and techniques in “The French Chef,” it’s amusing to hear her refer to Pepin as “Jack” like he is an American that she pulled in from the street.
Though separated by a generation, the two had a genuine friendship, which comes through onscreen. At 87, Child seems content to let Pepin do most of the heavy lifting.
If I were cooking along with them, his instructions would be much more helpful. Of course, she was a living legend by this point, so I imagine her response would be something like, “If you want the fine print, dearie, you’d better buy the book.”
Child comes across as a woman who both knows her place at the top of the culinary world but also isn’t afraid to poke fun at herself.
She cracked me up in the first episode when she mentioned that she liked her hamburgers more on the rare side. Pepin pointed out that people were being advised against eating rare hamburgers and asked Child for her thoughts. “I don’t listen to that,” she said.
Another episode opens with her wearing a fire helmet and holding a fire extinguisher because Pepin is about to set something on fire. There is also a more famous opening in which she is waving a pistol.
Child and Pepin prepare separate dishes based on the same ingredient or course. I’m more familiar with a format in which the host presents a meal from beginning to end, so it fascinates me to watch them pull between four and six separate meals out of their hat in each episode.
Of course, there are some cutaways to allow time for cooking, but for the most part the show has the feel of sitting at the counter in Child’s New England kitchen as two professional chefs do their thing for a half hour.
What Child and Pepin are doing seems very different from what I have witnessed on Food Network while channel surfing. It doesn’t feel scripted or stylized. To inform is more important than to entertain.
As revolutionary as it sounds, they actually talk about the food in front of them. In the beef episode, Pepin spends the first five minutes or so discussing the various cuts that are going to be used. He seems to be telling the viewer that yes, there will be a beautiful dish at the end, but you can’t appreciate it fully unless you first have the appropriate reverence for the ingredients that went into it.
After enjoying “Julia & Jacques,” I went in search of old episodes of “The French Chef” and found a very different version of Child. This version is obviously 30 plus years younger but also slightly less comfortable on screen.
If I’m not mistaken, she’s working live in the black and white episodes, which makes for some delightful moments like when she goes to crack an egg and it flies out of her hand. She just shrugs it off and reaches for another one.
This is part of Child’s appeal – her acceptance of her own mistakes, which gives viewers permission to forgive themselves for their own goofs in the kitchen.
Though she died in 2004, Child’s presence in American culinary and pop culture hasn’t diminished and was possibly even renewed by the release of “Julie & Julia.”
Amazon has a recent PBS show called “Dishing with Julia Child,” in which famous chefs sit down and discuss episodes of “The French Chef.”
I also enjoy the podcast “Inside Julia’s Kitchen,” which is produced by The Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and Culinary Arts. The third episode is an interview with the curator who was responsible for bringing Child’s kitchen piece by piece to the Smithsonian. Without that, we wouldn't have the beautiful ending to the film that introduced me and many others to Child several years ago.
Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle's features editor.