Enjoy the sensual delights of cooking with 10 episodes of Julia Child’s The French Chef

Enjoy the sensual delights of cooking with 10 episodes of Julia Child’s The French Chef

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch those 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.

It may seem odd for a show called The French Chef to epitomize the British sentiment of “Keep calm and carry on,” but Julia Child’s dogged perseverance is a major reason for her cooking show’s enduring popularity. During its original run, from 1963 to 1973, people with no interest in cooking watched The French Chef just to see Child confidently make her way through a soufflé or bouillabaisse. Child, who died in 2004 and would have turned 100 this year, was as much about bucking up viewers’ courage as she was about specific instruction. Her ability to triumph over burns, spills, and sometimes her own gangly klutziness could inspire those in much higher-pressure situations. 

The French Chef premièred on Boston public TV, when Child was known mostly as co-author of the bestseller Mastering The Art Of French Cooking. The series was a quick success, spreading to other public stations one by one. At that time, public TV was something like today’s public-access stations, airing mostly locally produced educational programs. That made Child arguably public television’s first national star. 

The French Chef was “taped live,” or done in real time, occasionally with interspersed clips of Child at the market or visiting colleagues in France. This meant that Child had to make just about everything at least twice, so she could put a roast in one oven, then pull a finished roast out of another oven to show viewers what the dish looked like after seven or eight hours of cooking. This also gives each episode a narrative quality, showing the preparation of one dish, or all the components of one meal, from start to finish.

Child connected with viewers because her obvious skill was combined with an earthy attitude that hinted at an appreciation for all things sensual. The show is full of close-ups of her hands doing wondrous things, but her age spots and close-cut fingernails (sometimes adorned with no-nonsense polish in the color episodes) emphasize her point that anyone, with some patience, can perform the same tasks. Viewers also see the show’s deliberate lack of glamour whenever Child loses her train of thought, has to mop the sweat off her face, or lets out a tired grunt when she has to open a stubborn bottle. She makes the same sound—“urrrgh”—whenever an action is taxing, which is weirdly reassuring.

Each episode has some memorable tips about, say, the best way to melt chocolate (rum is better than water), but the constant theme is that a cook shouldn’t give into a fear of failure. Much like Johnny Carson became famous for his ability to “save” jokes that didn’t land with his audience, Child became known for her ability to quickly bounce back from a misstep and turn it into a teaching experience. (Perhaps that’s why French Chef “blooper” reels have never become very popular, though Child did get Auto-Tuned earlier this year.)

Child summarizes her philosophy in the episode “Gateau In A Cage,” when she cheerfully rants against the “awful American syndrome of fear of failure” and defines the art of cooking as “one failure after another.” 

“That’s how you finally learn,” she says of kitchen disasters. “I shall overcome, sort of like women’s liberation,” Child adds, before she smiles, apologizes for the lecture, and gets back to showing the audience how to make caramel.

The French Chef ran until 1973, after which Child did occasional series, in which she shared cooking duties with younger colleagues such as Jacques Pépin. Here are 10 episodes from the original series that best demonstrate her appeal.

“French Onion Soup” (season one, episode two): This is possibly the inspiration for the Saturday Night Live sketch in which Dan Aykroyd plays Child bleeding to death from a knife wound. There’s no such mishap here, but Child pays tribute to her sharp, heavy cutlery, which allows her to chop onions without tears (no juice splatters). “If you laid it across your hand and just drew it across, the weight would cut your hand right down to the bone,” she affectionately says of one knife. Later: “You really have to care for them like a baby,” she says, while applying scouring powder as if sprinkling talc on a baby’s bottom. It’s an early lesson on the importance of the right tools in the kitchen.

“Bouillabaisse À La Marseillaise” (season one, episode 17): Child teaches us how to skin an eel and how to trim the gills off fish heads in this salute to the famous French stew. She laments that gourmets have tried to “fancy up” the recipe, thus intimidating “us ordinary people.” But there’s nothing fancy about Child using a cleaver to separate the head from a hake, and the camera offers a close-up of its huge eye and gaping mouth as the knife comes down. As for the smaller butterfish she throws into the mix, she advises, “Leave the heads on… They look much prettier if you do.” For seafood devotees, this episode is pure pornography; for the less aquatic-inclined, it may provide fish-eye-filled nightmares for weeks.

“The Potato Show” (season one, episode 22): This episode is famous for Child’s failed attempt to flip a large potato pancake, pieces of which land on the stovetop. “You can pick it up when you’re alone in the kitchen,” she says, using her hands to put the errant pieces in the pan. “Who is going to see?” The moment became embellished over the years, but Child did not drop an entire chicken on the floor (as the urban legend has it) and put it back on a serving plate, in this or any other episode. Child has two sound pieces of advice here. First, when trying anything difficult, “You must have the courage of your convictions.” And when a mistake is made, “You haven’t lost anything because you can always turn it into something else… We’ll pretend that this was supposed to be a baked potato dish.”

“Veal Prince Orloff” (season four, episode four). Child makes what will become the most famous creation of Sue Ann Nivens (Betty White), the pretentious TV chef on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It’s a complicated veal dish with a lot of things that can go wrong (don’t let it dry out!), but Child tries to demystify the process. As she does in many episodes, Child offers shortcuts and tips on how to do most of the work a day or two in advance, making the dinner party more enjoyable for the host or hostess. Sue Ann would not approve, nor would she like Child’s definition of haute cuisine: “It just means fancy cooking that takes longer to do than ordinary cooking.” 

“The Spinach Twins” (season six, episode 20): Child goes to France to visit Simone Beck, her good friend and co-author, and lets her finish a lesson on making a spinach turnover. There’s a fun contrast between the gregarious Child and the head-down, no-nonsense Beck, who bristles at Child’s suggestion that a store-bought piecrust would be just fine for this recipe.

“Lasagne À La Française” (season seven, episode five): This is an unusually fast-paced episode, in which Child pretends to make dinner for unexpected guests. Her solution is “an Italiano dish” of the “peasant” variety that accommodates the leftover meat, vegetables, and cheese in her refrigerator. Cottage cheese, for example, subs for ricotta (or “that Italian cheese, I can’t remember the name of it”). Making it in the French style means adding “ a little bit of vermouth.” Child does have time to make more knife jokes, cautioning while slicing onions that, “fingers are not part of this lasagne recipe.”

“Gateau In A Cage” (season seven, episode nine): First watch the making of Sandra Lee’s infamous Kwanzaa cake, then see how Child elegantly approaches the similar task of taking a store-bought cake and making it look festive. The trick is a “cage” made by drizzling caramel over the bottom of a mixing bowl. Don’t rush it!

“To Roast A Chicken” (season seven, episode 14): Thought of in a particular way, this is one of the smuttier episodes, as Child pokes and prods a half-dozen plucked chickens of various sizes and maturity levels. A good candidate for roasting is “beyond the age of consent,” but an old lady hen is “only good for soup.” The lucky one is trussed up with ropes and needles, and there’s a close-up of Child going in deep with her fingers to pull out its wishbone before it goes into the oven. In an aside that might have sounded like science fiction 40 years ago, she cautions against supermarket chickens that have been pumped with growth hormones to make them seem older than they really are.

“To Stuff A Sausage” (season eight, episode 20):  The French Chef is not a vegan-friendly show, nor does it cater to the squeamish. Child shows how viewers can make their own phallic comestibles, reasonably pointing out that it’s the only way to know exactly what’s in them. She prepares viewers for the task of pumping meat into dead farm animals’ intestines by saying, “You’ve been eating sausage casings all your life, and do you know what they actually are? They’re made of pig’s guts and sheep’s guts! So don’t say, ‘Oh, dear’ or, ‘How horrible,’ because you’ve been eating it all along.”

“The Omelette Show” (season nine, episode 18): Looking unusually chic in a scarf and orange blouse, Child is at her giddiest in an episode culminating with a dinner party where she makes omelets for her imaginary guests as if she’s on an assembly line. At 20 seconds per omelet, complete with individualized fillings for each person, Child estimates that five chefs working individual pans could serve 300 people in 20 minutes, or the viewer could handle 60 drop-in guests all by him or herself. This is the episode to watch to get a sense of the pure joy that can come from feeding friends.

And if you like those, here are 10 more: “Beef Bourguignon” (season one, episode one); “Buche De Noël” (season three, episode 17); “Queen Of Sheba Cake” (season five, episode three); “Salad Niçoise” (season seven, episode three); “Apple Desserts” (season seven, episode 12); “The Whole Fish Story” (season eight, episode 10), “The Lobster Show” (season eight, episode 16); “Mousse Au Chocolat” (season eight, episode 18); “Terrines and Pâtés” (season nine, episode six); “Tripes À La Mode (season nine, episode 14).

Availability: Two sets of 18 episodes each, selected from throughout the series’ run, are available on DVD, and all 200-plus episodes are available on Amazon streaming. (A few seem to be duplicates.) Also, WGBH has a blog marking Child’s centennial that includes clips and a few full episodes of the show, and the Archive Of American Television has a lengthy video interview in which Child talks about the making of the series.

Next week: Kyle Ryan attempts to distill The Simpsons down to just 10 episodes. Wish him luck!