This question has been on my mind a lot lately – most entertainingly in the first episode of the recent HBO Max series Julia about the launch of Julia Child’s iconic public television series “The French Chef”.
If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s a delightfully twee binge and a hit — HBO has ordered up a second season of Julia. Sarah Lancashire’s portrayal of Julia’s resilient, sunny optimism in the face of resistance is charming. And the show sparked lots of commentary, from questioning whether we really need more helpings of Julia Child to quibbles about liberties taken with timelines and characters and legitimate concerns about “pinkwashing” her character (contrary to the show’s portrayal, Julia Child was an unabashed homophobe).
I get that, but Julia isn’t a documentary, so a certain amount of creative license is to be expected. And the part I love best is the secondary storyline as Julia and her collaborator Simone “Simca” Beck sloowwwwly slog their way through the second volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Long before the Zoom era, the pair had plenty of experience working long distance as Julia followed husband Paul to his foreign service postings in different cities.
The Grunt Work
It gives us a glimpse of Julia’s pricklier side, which I love (I’m also a big fan of Judith Light’s crusty Blanche Knopf in the series). I have no idea if this exchange actually took place, but it underscores the hard, often frustrating work and relentless attention to detail that made Mastering a classic.
In the first episode, we see Simca in her sunny French kitchen and Julia in hers in Cambridge, Mass., each turning out a cake they’re testing for volume 2. Simca is played by Isabella Rossellini, unrecognizable in a gray wig and ’60s-chic cat-eye glasses. I mean, look. at. her. I really want a show about Simca now. (Note to Julia’s producers: More Simca in S2, please.)
“Superb,” Simca purrs, as her cake slips beautifully from its mold.
“Sh*t!” says Julia, as hers glops onto the plate. The results are “subpar,” she notes. “Your measurements have not yielded.”
Simca shrugs it off – hers turned out incroyable, Julia’s is missing je ne sais quoi, and it’s just one recipe of many. Julia insists they need to get it right so American cooks, likely unfamiliar with French cooking and lacking je ne sais quoi, will succeed.
Then she hangs up.
Simca plops down in a chair and complains to her assistant about how difficult it is to work on a cookbook with someone who isn’t “intuitive.”
“It’s like making love to a German,” she huffs, puffing on a cigarette (of course).
Intuition vs. Experience
You might think I’d be Team Simca, but I’m with Julia Child on this one. Intuitiveness (or lack of it) isn’t the issue.
Culinary intuition – the je ne sais quoi that led Simca to her perfect cake – comes from experience. Sure, there are people who have a great palate and an affinity for flavors and techniques. But most us learn by having someone show us or following a good recipe and spending a lot of time cooking, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, to earn that intuition.
The more you cook, the better you’ll be able to “intuit” changes needed along the way to get the outcome you want. Ingredients are never exactly the same, and even differences in cookware, a stove top, an oven that runs hot or cool require subtle adjustments an experienced cook just knows to make.
Of course, Julia was plenty experienced enough to figure out that cake. But when testing Simca’s recipe — exactly as written — she was doing so from their readers’ perspective. What Julia and Simca would know to do without a second thought would be a mystery to a someone making a recipe for the first time. One of the things generations of Mastering’s readers treasure most is the recipes’ clarity and the sense that the authors are right there coaching them through the cooking process.
Leave it to Franco-American culinary legend (and Julia Child’s TV partner) Jacques Pepin to bridge that gap in one of the all-time best cooking videos:
You have to put in the time and effort like Julia in order to freestyle like Simca.