“Top Chef,” “Chopped” and “Cutthroat Kitchen” alum chef Antonia Lofaso is the head judge of Food Network and Discovery Plus’ upcoming primetime cooking competition “The Julia Child Challenge.” It’s important to make that title clear up front as, though Lofaso is the vibrant live chef in the room with the contestants, the vibrant Julia Child herself serves as host via a giant screen playing classic black-and-white footage of the food icon hosting “The French Chef” in the center of a kitchen modeled to look just like her own.
And if the show didn’t have that literal larger-than-life component at its core, president of Food Network and streaming food content at Discovery Courtney White tells Variety she wouldn’t have picked up “The Julia Child Challenge.”
“We had been pitched Julia-centric ideas over the years,” White said. “They always felt like they were very technical focused. And we’re really always focused on primetime and always informational. We always strive for takeaway for the viewer in every episode. But we also need to be big entertainment. So we also need to like hold the ratings bar up to a show like ‘Tournament of Champions.’ And so when we got this particular pitch from 3 Arts Entertainment, it was all about bringing Julia to life. That it felt like Julia herself was in the show, that she was a guiding force. And yes, it was through a creative use of footage — but that was just the differentiator, that it felt like it was not going to just be an archival show about Julia, it wasn’t going to just be a show about people talking about and reminiscing about Julia.”
Working in conjunction with The Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts, “The Julia Child Challenge” features eight top-notch home cooks that are Julia Child superfans cooking up recreations of Child’s signature dishes, beginning with sole meunière — a French dish she said changed her life the first time she ate it — in the series premiere. And all the while, Child is there on screen to remind them how it’s done, as they compete to follow in her footsteps and win an all-expense paid three-month cooking course at Le Cordon Bleu.
“We were going to really be able to tap into Julia as a vibrant centerpiece of the show in a really visual, fun, creative way. And that made the difference,” White said. “So it wasn’t that we were not trying to do Julia before. It was just that this idea really felt like it brought a reverence to all she has done in the food world, plus a really fresh, fun, visual, colorful breakthrough approach to it. And The Julia Child Foundation was on board and was in support of this idea. And that was huge, too. We knew that any project that we did, having that partnership was going to be critical. If we were going to do a Julia show, we really wanted access to the footage, her story, people in her life.”
Once “The Julia Child Challenge” had its Julia, it was time to replicate her almost equally iconic kitchen, an historic artifact that is currently on display on the ground floor of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
“We had always wanted to feel like we were in her kitchen,” White said. “The pegboard and the pots and just the utility of her kitchen was something that we really wanted to embrace. And we also, very purposefully, cast contestants who all had a Julia story and a real connection to her work, and for the judges. We didn’t want anybody to be prepared for what they were walking into. And we wanted to extend the premise of the show, which is, we want this show to be as close as you can get to being in Julia’s presence today.”
She added: “That was the mission that was true in every single frame of the show. So we knew we had to, in a very overt way, make it feel like you were entering into a place that you could picture her in and that she was in, via a huge TV set in the middle of the set. I think the biggest challenge was that we wanted to have all of the signature odes to her, visually, but we did need to have multiple cook stations and we did need to have a lighting grid and all of those things. So it was a brilliant pairing of taking the idea and the spirit and the aesthetic of Julia, but also making it practical. And I just think the the team hit the nail on the head.”
With Julia hosting inside Julia’s kitchen, Lofaso has no problem playing sous host.
“It’s Julia Child! And so the fact that she can host this show — and that’s essentially what this is, is that she really is,” Lofaso told Variety. “When all of the home cooks, even myself, walk into the kitchen for every episode, it’s her welcoming us into the kitchen, all of us. I look at it more as the leader of the line in kindergarten when you got to lead the class into the classroom. So it’s more I get to be the leader of the line, and I love it. And the best part about it is where I stand — and I had this moment multiple times where I was filming — where you see the beautiful, old-fashioned set up of a television with the antennas, Julia Child is just smiling ear to ear, like wielding a sword and chickens in front of her. Then I’m standing next to her, coupled with generations of incredible guest judges.”
Those guest judges for “The Julia Child Challenge” include Molly Baz, Stephanie Boswell, Alvin Cailan, Cliff Crooks, Susan Feniger, Dorie Greenspan, Melissa King, Nilou Motamed, Jacques Pepin, Sherry Yard and Brooke Williamson. “They wanted to show this generational continuance of how her work affects everyone,” Lofaso said. “This incredible woman, this mentor, this powerhouse not only continues to influence these generations, she’s timeless.”
When it came to showing off those timeless Julia-isms, White says the Food Network/Discovery Plus team already had a few ideas in mind based on their own time spent eating up “The French Chef” episodes.
“There are those iconic moments that we ourselves as fans knew about. When she takes out the big sword or lines up the chickens. There were moments that just made us laugh out loud,” White said. “So in some cases, we really knew in advance some of those really iconic scenes, moments, episodes that we wanted to launch challenges off of. But then some of it was really what we discovered during production.”
White says there were times on set when contestants would mimic Child in certain ways, like “when they were making a soufflé and they hung the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on the oven door like she did, that was just in the moment,” and the producers ran with it.
“There’s a bunch of the show where it’s split screen and you have Julia doing the exact same thing as the contestants,” White said. “None of that is accidental, that is really the contestants being such big fans and giving their little homage moments on the fly that we were able to then capture. So it was a mix of the famed moments going in, The Julia Child Foundation was obviously a huge resource and help, and then part of it really came from the stories of the personal connection that we drew from everybody who participated, that we were then able to to draw out that footage and make those connections in the show.”
“The Julia Child Challenge” premieres Monday at 9/8c on Food Network and streams the same day on Discovery Plus. See a behind-the-scenes clip from the series below.