‘Julia,’ about the TV chef, serves up just desserts with elan and a smile

Julia Child has been in the popular imagination for so long – the memory of her charms and achievements revived in the 2009 Meryl Streep-starring film “Julie & Julia” five years after Child’s death – that it’s briefly startling to be reminded of the extreme unlikeliness of her professional trajectory, or that she had one at all.

The child was 50 years old when she began her TV career as the 6-foot-2 host of “The French Chef,” the pioneering and long-running cooking program that would eventually earn her multiple Emmys and a Peabody Award. She received training at the Cordon Bleu in Paris, where her diplomat husband, Paul Child, was stationed for a few years. The budget for her show was initially so low it probably wouldn’t have made it to air without her paying for the food out of her own pocket. To debut, “The French Chef” needed not just a talented and knowledgeable star, but also a wealthy one restless and confident enough to bet on herself.

La chef français, who was neither, is newly ubiquitous. More than a decade after Streep garnered an Oscar nomination in the Nora Ephron-directed biopic, the public-television icon has become the subject of a 2021 documentary, the inspiration for a Food Network competition series and now, the patrician protagonist of the HBO Max comedic drama “Julia,” about the first year behind the scenes of “The French Chef.” And yet the eight-part season is often bracing, particularly in its tale of middle-aged self-discovery and newfound drive. Like a slice of chocolate cake, it doesn’t have to be particularly challenging or ambitious to be mighty satisfying.

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