Was The Coq Au Vin "French Chef" Pilot Episode Really Such A Disaster?

HBO Max's "Julia" is the latest contribution to the numerous movies, documentaries, and books about the life of American-born, French-trained celebrity chef Julia Child. The series focuses on the first foray by Child (played by Sarah Lancashire) into the world of food television. Through both facts and fictionalized details, viewers see Child record the very first episodes of "The French Chef" for Boston public television station WGBH. 

In the series, the taping of the pilot episode is a complete mess, beginning with Child and her husband, Paul (played by David Hyde Pierce), arriving to find the kitchen set completely changed from what they had rehearsed. Other mishaps during the preparation of her coq au vin dish include Child trying to end the episode too early, forgetting to smile, sweating too much, and dropping chicken on the floor. (In response to this last blunder, Child responds with a variation on one of her famous quotes: "If you're alone in the kitchen ... who's going to see?") 

After the gaffe-filled taping, Lancashire's Child is ashamed and mortified by all the mistakes. Given the liberties that the series takes with the storytelling, viewers might wonder if the real-life "The French Chef" pilot really was that disastrous. The answer: There were probably mistakes, but it wasn't nearly that bad.

Here's what the real Julia Child said about taping the pilot episode

Julia Child's biography, "My Life In France," includes her reflections on the pilot episodes of "The French Chef." (There were actually three pilots, and coq au vin was one of them.) It was definitely a chaotic scene: She and Paul were scolded by a WGBH security guard for their armloads of props, which they had to drag down a flight of stairs to the studio. The station didn't trust their limited recording equipment — or Child's inexperience — to do a live show, so they instead taped one nonstop, 30-minute clip. 

In the "Julia" series, Lancanshire's Child is overwhelmed on set, but the real Child writes in her biography, "It was a bit of a high-wire act, but it suited me." Some elements shown in the series ring true with Child's account, like her "careening" around the unfamiliar set and sweating under the stage lights. But she writes that the taping of the coq au vin pilot actually went smoothly. There's no mention of any disasters so extreme that, as the series suggests, the producers worried that the episode was unfit to air.

Viewers might forgive the "Julia" creators for pumping more drama into this event than may have actually occurred, because doing so allowed the opportunity to shine a light on Child's real-life support network: her husband, WGBH producer Ruthie Lockwood (fictionalized in the series by Alice Naman), her cookbook editor Judith Jones, and friend Avis DeVoto.