Fresh off ‘Julia Child Challenge’ win, Oceanside home chef wants to teach Americans about Brazilian cuisine
Jaíne Mackievicz-Cenci’s prize for winning Food Network show is a three-month stay at Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Paris
As a little girl growing up in the Amazon region of Northern Brazil, Jaíne Mackievicz-Cenci had an unlikely hero — French cookbook author and TV chef Julia Child.
The Oceanside resident said she was about 7 years old when she first saw Child cooking spaghetti on a “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” episode on Brazilian TV. Not long after that, she tore an advertisement out of a cooking magazine for Le Cordon Bleu, the Parisian culinary school where Child had learned to cook.
Now, thanks to the Food Network and her own kitchen prowess, Mackievicz-Cenci is the winner of Food Network’s “Julia Child Challenge” cooking competition show, and her prize is a three-month, all-expense-paid scholarship to Le Cordon Bleu.
Mackievicz-Cenci, 29, said she has been saving money since her mid-teens to attend the Paris school. But now that she has won a semester course at Le Cordon Bleu, she jokes that she can use her savings instead on a good set of copper pots like Julia always cooked with before she died in 2004 at age 91.
The six-episode series premiered on Food Network in mid-March and the finale, where Mackievicz-Cenci beat out finalists Bill Borman of New York and Dustin Hogue of Chicago, aired on April 22. But Mackievicz-Cenci had been sitting on news of her win for most of the past year. The actual competition took place over a couple of weeks in August 2021 at a Los Angeles television studio. Mackievicz-Cenci said it was the hardest secret she’s ever had to keep.
In the nearly 10 months since the show was filmed, she has formed a close bond with the other contestants, who are all home chefs equally inspired by Child, her Boston-born “The French Chef” TV show and her cookbooks. Mackievicz-Cenci said the competitors frequently chat via a text loop and many have socialized together.
Mackievicz-Cenci said she never imagined she would win the television show, but the whole experience 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 wasn’t expecting it,” she said. “But it proved to me I’m on the right path. I’ve always loved cooking and this validated my dream.”
Mackievicz-Cenci was 6 years old when her father began teaching her how to cook. At the time, there was no celebrity chef culture in Brazil and Brazilian cooking 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 a young 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’s was in her late teens, her father was killed in an auto accident. She set 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 the law, but her heart wasn’t in it. So, with the encouragement of her now-husband, environmental engineer Douglas Cenci, she decided to follow her dream.
Six years ago, they moved together to Massachusetts — Child’s longtime home — where she started studying English and taking weekend classes at Boston University’s Metropolitan College culinary school, which Child co-founded with French chef Jacques Pépin in 1989. When she finished school early last year, she began looking for work and the only job she could find was at a restaurant in Oceanside.
In spring 2021, the couple set off on a monthlong meandering cross-country road trip to Southern California. But not long after they got under way, she learned that she’d been invited to audition for the “Julia Child Challenge.”
Food Network had discovered Mackievicz-Cenci’s passion for Child in an article she wrote last year for the women-focused food industry magazine Cherry Bombe. During their cross-country travels 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 arrived in Oceanside, she was offered a slot on the TV show.
When she initially got the news, Mackievicz-Cenci said she wanted to back out. She had a fear of failure, a fear of not being a good enough cook and worried that her English wasn’t fluent enough. But once again, Cenci talked her into staying the course.
The series was filmed on a TV set that had been designed to look like the TV kitchen Child cooked in for many years at WGBH studios in Boston. Mackievicz-Cenci said that environment made her feel right at home.
“During the filming, I felt like Julia was there with me,” she said. “As an immigrant, since I moved here six years ago, I’ve been longing for that sense of belonging. When I walked on to that set and felt like I was in Julia’s kitchen, It brought me that feeling.”
It wasn’t until they were filming the first episode that the contestants learned that the winner would get to attend 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 culinary idols. After that, she said she approached each episode with a sense of fun rather than fear.
In each episode, the contestants were asked to re-create a dish Julia Child cooked on her TV show, but reimagine it through their own culinary lens. Mackievicz-Cenci won the judges’ hearts with her Brazilian-inspired takes on classic French dishes.
“On the show I was still very much a Brazilian. I cooked the way 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 begin working on her cookbook of Brazilian recipes. She and her husband have talked about staying in the U.S. permanently or moving to Paris, as well as the possibility of going back to Brazil to help build that nation’s culinary scene.
“Brazil doesn’t have the deeply developed food culture that America does. Much of their cooking traditions are oral, so cookbooks are just now becoming a thing. I want to get people engaged with it,” she said.
To follow Mackievicz-Cenci on Instagram and sign up for her newsletter, visit instagram.com/mackievicz.
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