The 1980s and 1990s TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000 was a cult favorite that centered around a man and his robot friends commenting on horror and sci-fi B-movies while they played onscreen. Dishing with Julia Child, a six-episode PBS miniseries premiering locally on WHYY on April 3, upscales that low-budget concept into a delightful culinary romp.
A blazing original
This winning meta-series is built around six classic episodes of Julia Child’s iconic television show, The French Chef (1963-1973). Child’s unusual accent and sometimes-clumsy kitchen ways occasionally made her fodder for farce, and Dan Ackroyd’s satirical Saturday Night Live skit with its chicken-carving bloodbath, edged her closer to an object of camp.
Not so here. This laudatory series features nine cooking stars—José Andrés, Rick Bayless, Carla Hall, Vivian Howard, Sara Moulton, Jacques Pépin, Eric Ripert, Marcus Samuelsson, and Martha Stewart—watching and commenting on Child’s early cooking shows. This clever yet substantive series glories in the early culinary star’s regular-person-hood. But as accolades from these famous chefs pile up episode after episode, Dishing reminds us that Child was a truly accomplished chef, a pioneer, and a blazing original.
True French manner
Each series episode, replete with winsome 1970s graphics, takes its title from The French Chef. The first, “The Whole Fish Story,” opens with Ripert, chef of New York City’s top-rated, James Beard award-winning Le Bernardin, and Andrés, the legendary chef-owner of three dozen restaurants, watching approvingly and with amazement as Child bones and cooks a fish in the true French manner.
Child’s early episodes were taped live and aired unedited. Here and throughout the new series, the watching chefs marvel at her sang-froid and good humor, noting that in their television broadcasts they have a cadre of producers and aides to prep, clean, and assist them, while Child does it all solo.
Bread, soup, potatoes, beef, chicken
In “The Good Loaf” (episode 2), Child throws bread dough around, patting and slapping it in her soon-to-be famous way. Hall, an ABC-TV contributor and Top Chef finalist, talks about the Child cookbook that opened the world of cuisine for her, while Howard, chef-owner of North Carolina's Chef and the Farmer and host of A Chef’s Life, admits sheepishly that filming this series was the first time she had viewed these culinary classics.
In episode 3, “Your Own French Onion Soup,” Ripert and Andrés note with amazement how Child teaches proper knife skills and voice their surprise (“I never heard that!”) at her technique for getting the odor of onions off your hands. Episode 4 is based on Child’s very first French Chef outing, “Boeuf Bourguignon.” Since it’s her TV premiere, the episode understandably starts in a slightly stilted manner, but by its successful conclusion, the Julia Child of legend begins to emerge.
In “The Potato Show” (episode 5), Child makes four classic French potato dishes, noteworthy for her liberal—and constant—use of butter, and this is the legendary episode where she fails to flip a pancake. The series concludes with “To Roast a Chicken,” a master class on the six different kinds of chickens. Child holds them up, slaps them around, and trusses and roasts a bird without wiping her wooden cutting board. (“We could never get away with that,” Samuelssohn says.) And Howard notes that though she’s been cooking for a long time, watching Child categorize those chickens taught her something new: “I’m going to show this episode to my whole staff, ” she says.
Julia Child’s mastery
Some of the chefs, especially Pépin, talk about working with Child on- and off-screen for many years. Lifestyle guru Stewart praises her as “my first teacher.” Bayless, chef of Frontera Grill and an expert on Mexican cuisine, was “almost speechless” when he did a television show with her, the culmination of a youthful dream. In 1963, at age 10, Bayless sat in front of his black-and-white TV with a notebook, taking down every word of Child’s first televised recipe.
Chefs like Howard, Hall, and Samuelssohn have come to prominence too recently to have worked with her. But whether they knew her personally or not, all acknowledge Child’s mastery and ability to demystify complex cuisine and techniques. “It used to be only men in tall hats in the kitchen,” says Samuelssohn, but Child—in a home kitchen with an electric stove—made the mysteries of cooking both fathomable and fun.
"How does she do that?"
One of the best aspects of this series is the surprise and delight with which these enormously seasoned professionals respond to Child. Of course, they all know how to play to the camera—that’s part of their great success. But as they watch Child there are genuine a-ha moments and gasps of surprise that are clearly not staged.
There have been more than 400 cooking shows, but all nine chefs agree that “Julia started it all.” These stars of contemporary cooking praise her technique, recipes, and the ease and joy with which she makes food. Without exception, each one at some point in the series says, “How does she do that? Look how she does that!”
Child’s own credo—voiced inimitably in a 2004 American Masters profile on PBS—was a simple one. “If I can do it, you can do it, and here’s how to do it.” Thanks to her, it’s bon appetit for us all.
What, When, Where
Dishing with Julia Child. Six 30-minute episodes produced by PBS-TV air Fridays at 10pm and 10:30pm on April 3, 10, and 17 on WHYY-TV, and stream with PBS Passport. PBS.org.