America's Test Kitchen TV co-host Julia Collin Davison needs no introduction. If you’ve been watching America’s Test Kitchen since season 1, you’re very familiar with our resident knife skills master. When she’s not slicing and chopping her way to culinary perfection on camera, Julia is busy in her role as executive editor for America's Test Kitchen's books team. I caught up with Julia to chat about her earliest forays into cooking French bread, her transition from a psychology and philosophy major in college to the food world, and the most hilarious moment she's shared with her co-host and old friend, Bridget Lancaster, during filming. (Editor's note: This article has been updated since its original publish date in October 2016.)
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What’s the first thing you learned to cook?
One of Julia Child's recipes for French bread. It was in the summertime, and I was home with my mom, who was sick in bed, so I was left to my own devices. My mom says that I would come upstairs every once in a while and ask her a question or two, like “Where’s the cornmeal?” or “Can I proof it in the microwave with the door shut?” and then hours later I came up with French bread. Julia Child’s recipes were really well-tested, and we had the same name so I always thought that was the coolest thing ever. It was at that point when I realized, “I can make whatever I want!”
When did you know that food was your thing?
When I was little, I loved stinky foods: blue cheese, sardines, anchovies, beer. It’s a palate—either you like that stuff or you don’t—but early on I was okay with trying different flavors to see if I liked something. So that was kind of an indication.
But it wasn’t until I was in college that I realized I might like food enough to work in it. I was studying psychology and philosophy, and on the weekends I got a job at a little gourmet food market, and I just liked it. I liked it a lot. And they kept promoting me. I thought, “You know, I must be good at this. It makes sense to me, how to organize all this food and how to sell it.” And when I graduated college, I had no idea what I was going to do, and I realized I should get a skill. And I thought, “Well, cooking is a skill.” So I went to culinary school—and it clicked. “Wow, this is not school. This is fun and I enjoy this.”
What kind of food do you like to cook at home?
Simple. The older I get, the simpler I like the food. I like to taste the actual ingredient. I love anything roasted. And I’m even liking steamed vegetables—you get to taste the essence of the vegetable. I love the simplicity of [America's Test Kitchen colleague] Bryan Roof’s roast chicken recipe: It’s a whole chicken and one pan. The recipe is easy—I know it by heart, my husband knows it by heart. Another one I make a lot is a Brussels sprout salad. It’s a lot of knife work, but I enjoy knife work. That’s my zen time. I put the TV on, have a glass of wine, put my head down, and just do some basic prep. It’s almost like meditation for me. And Fennel and Apple Chopped Salad is my go-to in the summer.
You’ve been working alongside Bridget for so long, but you’d only ever been on camera together once or twice. As co-hosts, you get to share many more scenes. What did it feel like to get so much more screen time together?
Awesome. We’ve been friends for so long. She was at my wedding. I feel like our lives have been pretty close and intertwined throughout the years. It felt so natural. It’s easy between the two of us.
Bridget is a cut up, so I imagine there have been some moments of hilarity during filming. Any stand outs?
The last episode of season 17 was Bridget and I together making sticky buns, and we were punchy. This is where I lost it. We were in the recipe tasting segment, which is the end of the episode. And I look over and she is mowing this thing. She is just shoving it in her mouth. And I start laughing and say, “You’re housing that. You’re going to town.” And I’m starting to laugh so hard, and then she starts making faces. And then it’s all off. I’m laughing and she’s laughing, and then I’m on the ground and I’m beet red. It was fun, it was a good release. That went on for six minutes.
You’ve been on the show since season 1, but I’m wondering if you still experience any nerves during shooting.
Nerves change over the years. That first season, I was so nervous. But it’s just like anything else—you do it enough and it gets easier. But it took six, seven seasons to become completely comfortable.
I think I’m probably totally through the woods with nerves. I’ve screwed up enough on camera—I’ve messed up my lines, I’ve had laughing fits where I’m on the floor, bright red, I’ve dumped chocolate and powdered sugar on myself. I’ve made a mess of anything you could possibly make a mess of on camera, and I’m still here and they still put me on. The hardest thing is all these people are watching you, and the room is silent except for you talking. Once you get used to that feeling, it’s easy.
What’s your favorite part about being on TV?
Makeup ladies! They make me look fabulous when I walk in the door. I basically roll in in my pajamas. Not quite, but close. And there’s wardrobe, there’s hair—they make me look like a million dollars! I’m treated like a superstar and they call me the talent, which is just awesome. Also, I love seeing all the food. Every day is a food parade of the best food the kitchen has put out over the past year.
I also love the crew that comes in—they come back year after year, so it’s fun to see them and catch up. I call filming my “work vacation.” It’s work, but it’s good work and different than my usual day to day. It’s nice to have a break and do something different, but still be working.