Julia Child’s secret sauce and the little black dresses of French cuisine

On this week’s episode of “The Julia Child Challenge,” we look back on our eponymous leader’s years as a spy! Good kind of . . .

The extent to which Julia Child actually “spied” during her years in the OSS (the forerunner of the CIA) is much debated. As guest judge Alvin Cailan points out, Julia certainly worked on a shark repellent formula. I wrote about it – it’s a rather delightful anecdote.

Most of the time, however, the spy angle is an excuse to show plenty of footage of Julia doing outrageous things on camera. To which I say, by all means!

The first challenge for the remaining five contestants is to make a dish with a “secret sauce”, which is a real effort to stay on theme. Chief Judge Antonia Lofaso (“Top Chef”) actually refers to the five “mother sauces” of French cuisine: béchamel, hollandaise, velouté, Espagnole and tomato. A fairly standard choice that probably didn’t need to be disguised as spy gear – but whatever.

“Julia . . . refers to mother sauces as the little black dresses of French cuisine.”

All the challengers watch a tape of Julia, who calls mother sauces the little black dresses of French cuisine. Bill bows to Britt, who is indeed wearing a nice black ensemble. Awww, I like these guys. For the challenge, they each have their sauce.

Elena decides to make a flatbread pizza with béchamel sauce and a garnish of greens and lemon. Although it sounds like something I’d like for dinner, Alvin and our other guest judge – Nilou Motamed – are concerned that the hot sauce will make the flatbread soggy.

Jaíne returns the chicken skin so she can use the fat as a base for her hollandaise. I am behind this choice. (As an aside, Jaíne opines that she would make a good spy…and cook for her enemies. Well, that’s kinda terrifying.) She goes the Benedict way, poaching an egg and roasting vegetables – which she tops with a schmaltz hollandaise sauce.

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Bill amps up his tomato sauce with chipotle and pairs it with pork tenderloin. Bill is constantly making smart choices when it comes to his flavor profile, but he seems to be running out of time for pork.

Dustin takes the simple but difficult route, with New York strip and Spanish sauce. He admits he’s never done Spanish before, which isn’t a very difficult sauce. This makes it all the more important to get it there. Plus, the decision to pair it with a simple, perfectly cooked steak puts a lot of pressure on the cook’s perfection.

“That’s a double yawn from me. This chicken is going to have to be perfect.”

Britt gets creamy, which to me is a bit of a gravy yawn. She prepares hers with fresh cream and uses it to garnish chicken breasts. That’s a double yawn on my part. This chicken is going to have to be perfect.

While waiting for the judges, the contestants are asked about Julia’s OSS years. Three of the five remaining challengers – Elena, Dustin and Britt – have served in the military. The show doesn’t do much with it, so I don’t know if I should – but it seems like a weird coincidence.

Indeed, Bill did do not get his tenderloin, but his sauce was on point – with the chipotle considered a great addition. Dustin also gets compliments for his sauce – it’s a bit runny, but the bonito flakes he sprinkled on top wowed the judges. Elena is disappointed, which makes me very nervous. Britt’s dish is under-seasoned – and looks like it – while Jaíne’s Hollandaise dish is, predictably, perfect.

For the second challenge, the cooks must prepare a dish inspired by one of the countries in which Julia worked during her time at the OSS. A small catch is that Julia hasn’t actually worked in that many countries, so there’s a doubling about to happen. Only Dustin obtains his own territory with Sri Lanka (Ceylon at the time of Julia). It could be a great opportunity.

A portrait of American chef Julia Child (1912 – 2004) shows her standing with a piece of meat in her kitchen, late 20th century. (Bachrac/Getty Images)Britt and Jaíne both get China. Britt makes kung pao shrimp, which sounds a bit Panda Express – but we’ll see. Jaíne makes a short rib of beef with lo mein, which I would happily share – authentic or not.

Elena’s trip to Germany involves sweet potato pancakes with braised red cabbage. She hopes to get a schnitzel on top but is worried about the weather. Bill also has Germany, and he makes a very fancy trout roulade with white asparagus.

Dustin doesn’t know anything about Sri Lankan cooking, but the “dossier” he received walks him through the basic seasonings and techniques. He thinks it’s not that far from Indian cuisine, and he opts for a prawn, lobster and butternut squash curry – which I think will be pretty close for this competition.

“This new information about their boyfriend seems disturbing…”

It turns out that Bill and Elena have quickly become friends! They bonded over their shared experience as cooks and members of the LGBTQ community. Somehow, this new information about their pal sounds ominous. . .

Everyone is seated at the group table for the second and final round of judging. Dustin comes clean with his curry. Bill takes a few beatings: the caraway is too aggressive and a few people have found bones in their trout.

Elena’s cutlet isn’t really a cutlet, it’s a lecher. I would like the judges to dig into this a bit more. I assume they are referring to it not being thin enough? They also think it’s a bit of a stretch.

Britt’s prawns are fine – and I will say they are beautiful. Jaíne’s beef soup lo mein sounds like something I’d happily jump into face first. The judges nitpick that the bok choy is a little undercooked, but they love the broth.


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Everyone is still seated around the table when Elena says to Jaíne, “At the end of the day, we entered this competition because of Julia – and no one embodies her better than you.” Now Elena is crying and Jane is crying.

I just have allergies – leave me alone! Also, Elena is burned out.

Sure enough, Elena is out, and I’m a little heartbroken. To be fair, I got attached to everyone, but I can think of one or two people I wouldn’t mind being sent home first. That aside, the challenges were strong this week – even if the spy angle was a bit silly.

But who doesn’t like to think that Julia Child is a spy? I will allow it.

“The Julia Child Challenge” airs Mondays at 9 p.m. EST/8 p.m. CST on The Food Network; it is also available to stream on Discovery+.

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