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Sarah Lancashire becomes master — and teacher — of French cooking as Julia Child

Sarah Lancashire as Julia Child pours a bottle of wine in episode 2 of the new HBO Max series, "Julia."
Sarah Lancashire as Julia Child pours a bottle of wine in episode 2 of the new HBO Max series, "Julia."

Julia Child, the late American chef who is credited for making French cuisine accessible in the U.S., remains widely influential nearly 20 years after her death. In the last few months alone, she's been the subject of a new documentary and the inspiration for a new reality cooking show.

Now, she is having another moment in the new HBO Max series Julia.

Actress Sarah Lancashire plays the woman considered America's first "celebrity chef" and describes Child as someone who "took performance to a whole different level."

"She was like this beautiful bird of paradise with this extraordinary energy and vivacity," said Lancashire.

The show dramatizes how Child was inspired to launch her show, The French Chef in 1963 after an appearance on a sleepy public television show about reading. She was one of the first to host her own cooking show.

"She was bringing a new genre to the screen," says Lancashire. "It hadn't really been done before."

Lancashire was born and raised in the U.K., so she wasn't quite as familiar with Child as American audiences were. Still, she says the challenge of making a cultural icon feel human came easy to her.

"The starting point has to be their humanity and their authenticity," she says. So she focused on the complicated person behind Child's unique voice and exuberant public persona.

"She's naturally very funny [but] I never approached the series as a comedy," Lancashire says. "I didn't really want that to be the launch pad."

"I needed to know specifically who Julia was when she was away from the cameras, when she wasn't on the show," says Lancashire. "The Julia behind closed doors. The Julia when she was with her friends, when she was with Paul. That, to me, is equally as important as trying to portray the woman in front of the camera."

Julia Child's cooking show, <em>The French Chef, </em>became a phenomenon and helped popularize French cuisine.
/ HBO Max
Julia Child's cooking show, The French Chef, became a phenomenon and helped popularize French cuisine.

The French Chef aired on WGBH and became a phenomenon, running for 10 seasons. By the time it ended in 1973, Child had cemented herself as a household name. She had mastered the art of French cooking and even co-wrote a book about it, appropriately titled Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

"She radiated sunshine and optimism, and I think that's why people wanted to watch her," says Lancashire. "She made them feel capable and competent. And she never judged at all."

In fact, Child insisted on keeping her phone number in the phone book so people could contact her if they had issues with one of her recipes.

"This is a woman who had no ego," Lancashire says. "This was not about celebrity. This was Julia as a teacher, and she wanted to ensure that her pupils could access her if they needed her."

Lancashire says, Child lived a "tremendously interesting" life.

"She only followed her own mantra, this wonderful phrase that she has of - find something you're passionate about, and keep tremendously interested in it," says Lancashire. "I don't think she was doing it for any other reason than wanting to impart her knowledge."

Child continued to share that knowledge well after her show ended. In 1981, she co-founded the American Institute of Wine and Food. And in the mid-90s, she established the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and Culinary Arts, which helped cement her legacy of teaching people about cooking.

It is a legacy that Lancashire hopes comes through in the new HBO Max series.

"I think people hold her so dear in their hearts because of the qualities that she had," says Lancashire. "What I hope more than anything is that we've lived up to that."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.
Gabe O'Connor
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.