SAN DIEGO — As a little girl growing up in the Amazon region of northern Brazil, Jaíne Mackievicz-Cenci had an unlikely hero — French cookbook author and television chef Julia Child.
The Oceanside, Calif., resident said she was around 7 years old when she first saw Child cooking spaghetti on an episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” on Brazilian television. Soon after, she ripped out a cooking magazine ad for Le Cordon Bleu, the Parisian culinary school where Child had learned to cook.
Now, thanks to the Food Network and her own cooking prowess, Mackievicz-Cenci is the winner of the Food Network’s “Julia Child Challenge” cooking contest, and her prize is a three-month, all-expenses-paid scholarship to Le Cordon Bleu. .
Mackievicz-Cenci, 29, said she had been saving money since her teens to attend school in Paris. But now that she’s won a semester-long course at Le Cordon Bleu, she jokes that she can use her savings instead on a good set of copper pans like Julia always cooked before her death in 2004 at 91 years old.
The six-episode series premiered on Food Network in mid-March and the finale, where Mackievicz-Cenci beat finalists Bill Borman from New York and Dustin Hogue from Chicago, aired April 22. But Mackievicz-Cenci had been on the news of his victory for most of the past year. The actual competition took place over a few weeks in August 2021 at a television studio in Los Angeles. Mackievicz-Cenci said it was the hardest secret she’s ever had to keep.
In the nearly 10 months since filming the show, she has bonded closely with the other contestants, all of whom are at-home chefs also inspired by Child, her TV show “The French Chef.” born in Boston and her cookbooks. Mackievicz-Cenci said the contestants chatted frequently via a text loop and many socialized together.
Mackievicz-Cenci said she never imagined she would win the TV show, but the whole experience has convinced her that her dream – to become a food writer and cookbook author like Child – is a realistic goal.
“Winning was a huge surprise. I didn’t expect it,” she said. “But it proved to me that I’m on the right track. I’ve always loved cooking and it validated my dream.”
Mackievicz-Cenci was 6 years old when her father started teaching her to cook. Back then, there was no celebrity chef culture in Brazil, and Brazilian cuisine is more an oral tradition than a written one. But seeing Child cook on TV inspired Mackievicz-Cenci, who was tall like Child and also felt at home in the kitchen. From an early age, she told her parents – her father was Polish, her mother is Brazilian – that she wanted to be a chef like Child when she grew up.
But when Mackievicz-Cenci was in his late teens, his father was killed in a car accident. She put aside her cooking school plans and instead decided to follow in her mother’s footsteps and went to law school in Brazil. For six years she studied law, but her heart was not in it. So, with the encouragement of her husband, environmental engineer Douglas Cenci, she decided to pursue her dream.
Six years ago, they moved together to Massachusetts — Child’s longtime home — where she began studying English and taking weekend classes at Metropolitan College’s culinary school in Washington. At Boston University, which Child co-founded with French chef Jacques Pépin in 1989, she began looking for work, and the only job she could find was at a restaurant in Oceanside.
In the spring of 2021, the couple embarked on a winding month-long road trip through Southern California. But shortly after their launch, she learned that she had been invited to audition for the “Julia Child Challenge”.
Food Network had discovered Mackievicz-Cenci’s passion for children in an article she wrote last year for the women-focused food industry magazine Cherry Bombe. During their travels across the country, she filmed audition videos for Food Network where she cooked some of Child’s classic French dishes on a hot plate in hotel rooms. By the time they got to Oceanside, he was offered a spot on the TV show.
When she first heard the news, Mackievicz-Cenci said she wanted to step down. She was afraid of failure, afraid of not being a good enough cook and worried that her English was not fluent enough. But once again, Cenci convinced her to stay the course.
The series was filmed on a TV set designed to resemble the TV kitchen that Child cooked in for many years at WGBH Studios in Boston. Mackievicz-Cenci said this environment made her feel right at home.
“While filming, I felt like Julia was right there with me,” she said. “As an immigrant, ever since I moved here six years ago, I’ve longed for that sense of belonging. When I walked onto this set and felt like I being in Julia’s kitchen gave me that feeling.”
It was not until the filming of the first episode that the candidates learned that the winner would participate in Le Cordon Bleu. And on that same episode, one of the guest judges was James Beard Award-winning food writer and “Splendid Table” radio host Francis Lam, who is another of Mackievicz-Cenci’s food idols. After that, she said she approached each episode with a sense of pleasure rather than fear.
In each episode, contestants were asked to recreate a dish Julia Child cooked on her TV show, but to reinvent it through their own culinary lens. Mackievicz-Cenci captured the hearts of the judges with her Brazilian-inspired interpretations of classic French dishes.
“On the show, I was still very Brazilian. I cooked like my dad taught me,” she said. “It’s not that I always cook Brazilian food, I just have a Brazilian approach to cooking. It’s more about cooking with intuition than following recipes.”
Mackievicz-Cenci will start at Le Cordon Bleu in September. In the meantime, she is launching both a website and a weekly newsletter, where fans can follow her adventures in Paris. After that, she hopes to find more opportunities to write about food and start working on her Brazilian cookbook. She and her husband have talked about staying in the United States permanently or moving to Paris, as well as the possibility of returning to Brazil to help build that country’s culinary scene.
“Brazil doesn’t have the deeply developed food culture that America has. A lot of their cooking traditions are oral, so cookbooks are just starting to become a thing. I want people to be interested in it. “, she said.
To follow Mackievicz-Cenci on Instagram and sign up for his newsletter, visit instagram.com/mackievicz.