The Julia Child Documentary
Coming soonish to a screen near you is the much-anticipated documentary film Julia (working title), about the life of everyone’s favorite American French chef, Julia Child. Distributed by Sony Pictures and Imagine Entertainment, the documentary will feature, among other things, “cutting-edge, mouth-watering food cinematography.”
So in addition to my excitement about this upcoming documentary, I was beside myself when I learned that behind the camera, filming those cutting-edge food scenes, was none other than my friend Nanda Fernandez Brédillard!
The first time I met Nanda was at a party – remember parties?? But slightly more recently, I crossed paths with him at the Pompidou Center. In 2010, he screened his first film, Vía Láctea, as a participant in the Center’s Hors Piste Festival.
The 8-minute movie, as you’ll see below, definitely demonstrated Nanda’s ability to create avant-garde food images. His Vía Láctea or “milky way” was conceptualized and constructed (or could we just say “cooked”?) by none other than Iñaki Aizpitarte, chef-owner of the famous Parisian restaurant Le Chateaubriand.
Vía Láctea is starkly detached from the world of actual eating and the humans who do it. Through Nanda’s macro lens, a mushroom’s gills are a menacing alien landscape, and caramelizing a hazelnut under the flame of a blowtorch resembles the forcefield attack of a foreign planet. The soundtrack reminds me of those movies about the solar system I saw as a kid in the Imax theater at our local Science Museum.
In the film, you’ll also see other almost-unrecognizable ingredients in the Nanda/Iñaki duo’s milky way. It’s only at about 6 minutes into the film that you’ll see the actual food on a plate, which is slightly back-lit and revolving. The final dish is the real heavenly body in this stunning video! So in Nanda’s hands, the camera transforms ordinary foods into landscapes, and his decontextualization of the elements on our plates is destabilizing at best (or, for some, might merit a Viewer Advisory Warning).
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Returning food to its place
So how did this cinematographer/director/producer/editor go from contemporary gastronomy and cutting-edge camera angles to traditional French dishes? When I chatted with Nanda a couple of weeks ago, he told me he was hired for the documentary by Julia directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West (well-known for their recent documentary on RBG) precisely for the specific talents he demonstrated in Vía Láctea.
But if Vía Láctea decontextualizes contemporary food and its preparation, Nanda’s subsequent short films Vitamina T and 2012’s Piece of Heaven fully return food to its place among the culture of people who make, share, and eat it.
Market shopping in France
When Cohen and West saw those more recent films, which place human beings squarely in the camera’s lens, the directors asked Nanda to accompany them to different areas of France to film their outdoor scenes as well. The scenes that that take place in Mediterranean markets, for example, are full of life, and of the purveyors, customers, and street scenes that make market shopping in France so exciting.
The markets, the people, and the food are all part of Nanda’s vision, because they’re inseparable. According to his website
, Nanda is “a tireless traveler or unbiased social witness, he scans the horizon or his immediate vicinity systematically with the same genuine eager interest, focusing on them without preconceived ideas, sometimes taking a moral stand, but always with great sensitivity, to highlight the subjects of his films.”
The Street Food Revolution
Julia Child’s ground-breaking work was to introduce classic French cooking to an American audience. But it certainly didn’t involve dishes that revolved in space. For the documentary, Nanda used a slightly less macro lens than the one he used for Vía Láctea – he laughs when he says that he didn’t take off into space for Julia! Most of his macro-lens work happens in the studio, with specialized lighting and equipment, as pictured here.
Nanda’s most recent work was for the French-German television channel Arte. A six-part series entitled Fast and Good: The Street Food Revolution
, the food featured within is a far cry from the Boeuf Bourguignon and Bourdaloue Pear Tart of the Julia Child era. But the series captures the people and places of today’s food, and I’m sure that Child would have been fascinated to watch episode 6, on French street food!
Nanda Fernandez Brédillard lives in the French part of the Pays Basque, but his home overlooks the mountains of Spain. Originally from Saint Sébastien, one of his favorite recipes comes from the city’s well-loved restaurant La Viña. It’s a Basque Burnt Cheesecake, which The New York Times recently named 2021’s “Flavor of the Year.” This cake is crustless – so it’s extra-easy to make – and it’s dense, but lighter than a New York cheesecake.
- 3 pounds (600 g) cream cheese, room temperature
- 1 scant cup (180 g) white sugar
- 4 large eggs, room temperature
- 1 level tablespoon of flour or cornstarch
- 1⅓ cups (300 g) heavy whipping cream, very cold
special equipment: a stand mixer with whisk attachment, or hand beaters, but you can also make this using an ordinary whisk; a 9-inch (23.5 cm) springform pan which closes very tightly
how to make it:
- The day before you want to eat this cake, preheat the oven to 400°F (200ºC). In a large bowl, or in the bowl of the stand mixer, beat the cream cheese just until you get a smooth consistency.
- Add the sugar and beat again until well blended. Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition.
- Add the flour and beat just until it disappears into the mix. Finally, add the heavy cream, and mix well.
- The mixture will be quite runny, so make sure your springform pan is quite airtight. I placed mine on a baking sheet before pouring in the mix, since I wasn’t sure about leakage. Pour the mixture into the pan and bake it for as little as 40 minutes and as long as 55 minutes, depending on the texture you want to achieve. I wanted a dryish cake, so I left mine for the full 55 minutes. The cheesecake is supposed to get quite brown (hence the “Burnt” in the recipe’s name), but if it looks too dark and is still very jiggly in the middle, you may cover the top with a piece of aluminum foil after about 30 minutes of baking.
- When the cheesecake is done to your liking, leave it in the oven with the door slightly open and let it cool this way for an hour or two. When the cake reaches room temperature, let it rest overnight in the refrigerator.
- To serve, remove the cheesecake from the refrigerator about an hour beforehand. This cheesecake is even better the next day, and keeps well for 3-4 days in the refrigerator. Bon app’!
Well this Basque cake looks delicious! It reminds me of a dish from my father’s land, Corsica, called “fiadone” and made from “brocciu”, a sheep’s or goat’s milk cheese. Nanda’s cake looks fine too, please give him my regards!
As for Julia Child, I discovered her recently in “Julie and Julia” screened on the French-German TV channel Arte. Merryl Streep brought her special charm to the character!
Yum, fiadone! I remember eating that in Corsica many years ago, it was delicious. I’m also thrilled that you were introduced to Julia Child by way of Arte. That movie was so much fun to watch! Thanks for commenting.