A Fresh Look at 'The French Chef': HBO Takes on Julia Child

The new TV series streaming on HBO Max stars Sarah Lancashire as Julia Child and David Hyde Pierce as her diplomat husband, Paul

A Fresh Look at 'The French Chef': HBO Takes on Julia Child
David Hyde Pierce and Sarah Lancashire star in HBO's Julia. (Seacia Pavao)
Apr 1, 2022

Julia Child is back, but did she ever really go away?

It’s been more than 60 years since the publication of her seminal cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Her Emmy- and Peabody-winning cooking show The French Chef debuted soon after. Now, 18 years after her death, she remains in the public firmament, the rare home cook on TV who has both the respect of professionals and the abiding love of her audience.

Her newest homage comes in the form of HBO’s Julia, which premiered March 31 and stars Sarah Lancashire as Julia Child and David Hyde Pierce (Frasier’s Niles Crane, a noted wine aficionado) as Julia’s husband, U.S. diplomat Paul Child. The eight-episode series focuses on the early 1960s, as Julia is entertaining and then fulfilling her idea to star in a television program about cooking.

Over the course of the season, Paul is nearing the end of his career as a Foreign Service officer just as Julia has published her groundbreaking first cookbook and is entering menopause. After surprising the host by cooking an omelet on a WGBH book show, she gets the idea of making a cooking show. “Maybe TV’s not a fad,” she says to Paul. “Good lord, it has to be," he replies, "I know I’ll never buy one.”

 Sarah Lancashire stars as Julia Child in HBO's Julia.
Wine is oft seen but rarely mentioned in HBO's Julia. (Seacia Pavao)

Producers at first reject her pitch because public TV is supposed to be for intellectuals, not housewives, and anyway it’d be too expensive. She foots the bill. There are plenty of wrong turns and challenges along the way, and Julia is helped by her book editor Judith Jones (Fiona Glascott), friend Avis Devoto (Bebe Neuwirth) and people within the station, as well as Paul once he’s convinced it’s a good idea. (The supporting cast is uniformly excellent.) There are fun scenes of how they got a not-ready-for-TV person ready for TV, and solved early food TV practical problems. Some level of fame comes quickly, and some criticism too.

Books and productions about Julia Child are proving to be nearly as successful as her own. Meryl Streep won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Julia Child in the 2009 film Julie and Julia, about the life of Julia Child and food blogger Julie Powell’s (Amy Adams) determination to cook her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking. In 2012, an auto-tuned remix of clips produced for the PBS Icons Remixed series went viral, capturing more than 3 million views on YouTube. A documentary, also titled Julia, was released late last year, and The Julia Child Challenge, a cooking competition show, debuted in March on Food Network.

HBO’s Julia has advantages over some of the other recent productions: With a runtime of about six hours, it can go deeper into detail and character. And while Streep expertly mimicked Child in Julie and Julia, here we have British actress Lancashire in the lead role. The character is written with more depth, and Lancashire goes all in; her Julia feels less like imitation and more like occupation. Likewise Hyde Pierce as husband Paul presents a more complicated and compelling character.

It's a drama (and sometimes comedy), so it doesn’t have to stick to the facts as much as the documentary. For example, one character, Alice Naman (Brittany Bradford) is a composite: “We tell what we call the Amadeus version of the story,” said Christopher Keyser, executive producer along with creator Daniel Goldfarb, in an interview with Wine Spectator.

”We couldn’t be in those rooms, but we had a lot of touchpoints,” said Keyser, “and then we’re telling the story in and around those things. [Naman] is an amalgam of people who allowed us to tell a more complex story about the way American workplaces changed throughout the ’60s and ’70s.”

If the show gets renewed, let’s hope wine is given more prominence. For all the drinking they do, it's little discussed. One of the few moments goes to Paul early on: “More Riesling, Anders? It’s a little fruitier than I expected, but it’s still got balls.”

But after so many books and movies, do we really need an eight-episode series covering just the first year of Julia Child’s break into TV? When it’s this well made, the answer is yes.

The first three episodes of Julia are now streaming on HBO Max.

 Promotional poster for HBO Max series Julia, about cookbook author and TV chef Julia Child.

Hungry for more Julia Child coverage?

1991: Julia Child is featured on the cover of Wine Spectator’s June issue, for which she invited Harvey Steiman to her home in Cambridge, Mass.

1998: Julia Child earns Wine Spectator’s Distinguished Service Award

1999: Julia Child and Jacques Pépin reunite for a third television show, Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home

2000: Julia Child receives France’s National Order of the Legion of Honour

2002: Julia Child celebrates her 90th birthday at Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts

2004: Julia Child dies at age 91; read Harvey Steiman’s tribute

2009: Wine Spectator’s Sept. 30 issue cover story includes Steiman’s feature on Child’s life and legacy, essays by leading chefs who knew her well and four of our favorite Julia Child recipes

2009: Wine Spectator produces the Celebrating Julia video series starring Emeril Lagasse, Thomas Keller, Jacques Pépin and more

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