There are so many things that are iconic about Julia Child. His gregarious ways, his penchant for butter, his unique cuisine. But perhaps nothing is more inherent to Child’s personality than the recipes she shared week after week on her beloved show, “The French Chef.”
So how do you take these well-known dishes and bring them to life for a whole new TV audience? That’s what the producers behind HBO Max’s “Julia” must have figured out when shooting the limited series. To anchor the real-life story being told in authenticity, they enlisted the expertise of veteran food stylist Christine Tobin.
Tobin recently spoke with Home and kitchen tool Food about how she got into food styling, how “Julia” differed from past projects she’s worked on, and the day she whipped 750 eggs on set.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
How did you become a food stylist?
Well, I became a food stylist while working at a restaurant in Cambridge. I confided in a friend that I wanted to get into food styling, and it coincided with Ana Sortun, the chef, being asked to write a cookbook which was later nominated for a James Award. Beard. Being her assistant was my first styling job. From there, I focused more on stationary work – therefore advertising and editorial – mainly helping the great ladies of the craft between Boston and New York. For the cinema, it only started when I approached 40 years old.
Related: Exclusive: How the creators of HBO Max’s ‘Julia’ painstakingly recreated the French chef’s kitchen
I had been referred to a prop man in Los Angeles for this film, “Labor Day”. That’s how I got to work in motion. This work was with Susan Spungen, so we partnered on this project. I’ve been working on films here in New England for so long, so it’s been about 10 years.
You’ve worked on movies like “american hustle,” “Little woman” and “Olive Kitteridge.” How was the work on “Julia” both similar and distinct from these projects?
It’s a good question. Well, they’re similar in the sense that I work with the set dressing team and the property team. But what really sets “Julia” apart is how I was hired. I sort of fell into the head of a department; I had my own department – the culinary team. It was very different.
I’ve been fortunate enough to work with prop masters in the past that have allowed me to add scale through food to what’s already scripted because it’s usually just meat and metaphorical potatoes. It’s my job to flesh out or design a menu from there.
“With ‘Julia’, food was central. Working with Sarah and her kitchen was almost like choreographing a dance.”
Whereas with “Julia”, the food was central. Working with Sarah (Lancashire, who plays Child) and her cooking was almost like choreographing a dance. There were days like that, which were very busy with meetings and planning, but on past projects, I’ve never really been brought into that bubble, or as I like to call it, “the stew.” I really understood all the moving parts of doing a series like this from start to finish.
Regarding what you just said about the “meat and potatoes“In the script, I read an interview you did on Backstage in which you said that one of the skills needed to become a food stylist was ‘the ability to understand food as a tool to evoke emotions. “Would you like to elaborate on what this means?
I have food-based memories. I have very happy memories, and I have really tragic and sad memories. Like some of the best meals I’ve ever eaten, it was when someone had just passed away. I think food can be used not only as a storytelling tool, but also to bring out a character’s narrative a bit.
It helps to identify someone’s comfort, background, cravings. With Julia, she loved food so much. The approach here really showed his celebration for it – his love for it.
In the third episode, when she pats these burgers and forms these burgers, [I wanted viewers to think] you will never have a more delicious burger in your life. I mean, it was still a feast. It wasn’t a singular thing – it was always abundant and joyful.
Women, in particular, have a complicated relationship with food. I think that’s one of the reasons why people have always loved Julia Child. She gives herself to food in an unusual way because the joy you speak of is sometimes stripped from food in our culture.
She was so genuine in her approach to culinary education. His goal was to educate, but his approach was so sincere. I think we’ve moved away from that a bit with competitions and so on, instead of people looking at food as a party. I think that’s what Julia Child brought with “The French Chef”, and Sarah delivers it so well.
I read that you had a background in fine art and sculpture. Has there ever been any consideration of creating fake versions of the food featured in “Julia”?
Everything is real food. I’ve never really experienced anything different. The only time I made fake food was to replace a big cake in one of those action movies, “The Equalizer 2”.
I’m definitely intrigued by this. I just think it takes longer to make molds, and here in Boston we don’t have the prop houses like in Los Angeles and New York. As for my fine art background, I used to make papier mache hot dogs and stuff when I was a kid [laughter]. I’ve always found a way to introduce food into something without realizing it at the time.
But, yeah, I don’t even know where to start other than now having a really good relationship with one of our local special effects team members. He actually concocted a ceramic soufflé for us to practice those moves – and you know what? Everyone got one as a wrap gift.
Where do you keep yours?
Oh, I wish I had brought it home! Daniel [one of the crew members] told me he kept one on his coat.
Speaking of the soufflés scene – and I’m probably discrediting myself as a food writer here – but were you nervous about making them? I only made soufflés twice. One attempt was an absolute disaster. The second was a little less so.
What nerves! It’s all about timing. We had the understanding and patience of our manager, because in this case we needed them to work with us. We knew we could deliver something perfect every time we had to shoot it. It was just going to be a little slower, so we could get this thing from point A to point B without it falling off. Honestly, it was more stressful of an idea when it was presented, but then the day of – we had practiced it so many times that it was foolproof and it was fine.
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In total, how many soufflés do you all think you must have made?
I would definitely say over 50 from start to finish – and that’s just testing recipes and things like that. When people ask this question, I feel bad because we never really count anything. But I know, for example, that for the raspberry mousse that day it was 750 eggs. It was the hottest day of the summer. The air conditioning unit malfunctioned that day in the warehouse. Everything was just very intense.
“I know, for example, that for the raspberry mousse, that day there were 750 eggs. It was the hottest day of the summer. The air conditioning unit malfunctioned that day in the warehouse. Everything was just very intense.”
It was almost too humid for things to look pretty. They would literally start to sweat and separate. Then the script supervisor came over and said, “You can always stay with me in front of a monitor so you can point out things that don’t look right,” and I was like, “Can I do this?”
I didn’t know I could do this until this job. Sometimes someone in my line of work is kind of pushed aside, but in this project it was taken very, very seriously, which was a great feeling.
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