In this week's ongoing Mastering the Art of Julia series — partly started in anticipation of this summer's Nora Ephron-directed Julie & Julia, starring Meryl Streep as the food world's warbly-voiced icon Julia Child –we talk to Mozza's Nancy Silverton (who I have known since she was an eight-year-old potato fryer). Here, she gives the inside story on the time she made Julia Child cry:
The first of her series that I was on was called Cooking With Master Chefs. It was not an enjoyable experience. I was their first guest ever and they hadn't really worked out the bugs yet. [Julia] wasn't there, but I was on camera and supposed to be talking to her and teaching her how to make a loaf of bread. The way I am around food, I'm at my best when I'm enthusiastic, sort of stream of consciousness and spontaneous. But they kept saying, “Stop! Your hand is covering such and such,” or “Turn a little bit to the right and then start again where we left off.” Then there was the part where I was supposed to pretend the bread was hot and say, “Oh, GOD. It smells soooo good.” I just wasn't ready. It was a really painful show. Over the next few years, whenever I saw any of the crew, they'd say, “We're so sorry we put you through that.”
So when they invited me to be on her third series, Julia Child's Baking Series, I didn't want to do [the show], but they convinced me, promised me, that it would be nothing like the time before. They said, “This time you'll be in her kitchen, side by side with her, showing her how you're making the dish.”
So the dish I was making was Crème Fraiche Custard Brioche Tart with warm fruit compote. In actuality, it was a BOILING fruit compote that you would never serve immediately, right? You would make it and then it would kind of cool off as it sat, right? The way they tried to film it was not like it was live, but they wanted to do as little editing as possible. We only had a certain of amount of time. If [Julia] wanted you to hurry up, she'd give you this sign — she'd tap you underneath the counter. Just sort of tap you on the thigh. The tap meant that you only had one minute or whatever.
So I made this dessert: I cut the tarts, made the compote, poured it over the dessert, and the way you ended the show was by giving her a bite. Again the compote was made with a really hot syrup and if you were to plate it at a restaurant, by the time the server picked it up and brought it to the table, it would have cooled off. But I got the tap. So I finished it, cut her a piece and she took a bite right away and tears started flowing down her face. So of course my only thought was that she burnt her mouth. I thought, “Oh, my god, I burnt the HELL out of Julia Child.”
Then there was a pause and she said, on camera, with tears in her eyes, “It's a dessert to cry over….This is the best dessert I've ever eaten.”
I don't think I ever saw her that close, face to face, ever again — except at events. But I'm shy. What was I supposed to say anyway, “So I made you cry? You really liked my dessert?”
But there are certain heroes of the food world — she's one and Jacques Pepin is another. They're sort of larger than life and people you've been hearing about forever. I never felt like I knew her. She wasn't a hugger. She was towering, like six feet tall. She was just very opinionated and complementary all at the same time. For her to say “This is the best…” it really meant something to me.
To watch a young Nancy Silverton bring Julia Child to tears, go to https://www.pbs.org/juliachild/meet/silverton.html# and click on the video cut labeled Crème Fraiche Custard Brioche Tart, Part 2.