There are so many things that are iconic about Julia Child. Her gregarious mannerisms, her penchant for butter, her singular kitchen. But nothing is perhaps more inherent to Child’s persona than the recipes she shared week after week on her beloved show, “The French Chef.”
So, how do you take those well-known dishes and bring them to life for a brand-new TV audience? That’s what the producers behind HBO Max’s “Julia” had to figure out when it came time to shoot the limited series. To ground the real-life story being told in authenticity, they enlisted the expertise of veteran food stylist Christine Tobin.
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 early on in Cambridge. I confided in a friend that I wanted to get into food styling, and it so happened to coincide with Ana Sortun, the chef, being asked to write a cookbook that was then nominated for a James Beard Award. Being her assistant, that was my first styling job. From there, I concentrated more on still work — so advertising and editorial — mostly assisting the grande dames of the craft between Boston and New York. For film, it didn’t start until I was approaching 40.
I had been referred to a prop master from Los Angeles for this movie, “Labor Day.” That’s how I got into motion work. That job was with Susan Spungen, so we partnered on that project. I’ve been working on film here in New England since then, so it’s been about 10 years.
That’s a good question. Well, they’re similar in that I’m working with the set dressing team and the property team. But what really set “Julia” apart is the way that I was hired. I sort of fell into being the head of a department; I had my own department — the culinary team. That’s been very different.
I’ve been lucky to work with prop masters in the past who allowed me to add breadth through food to what is already scripted because that’s typically just the metaphorical meat and potatoes. It’s my job to flesh out or design a menu from there.
“With ‘Julia,’ the food was central. Working with Sarah and her cooking 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 heavy in 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 got to understand all the moving parts to making a series like this from beginning to end.
Regarding what you just said about the “meat and potatoes” in the script, I read an interview you gave to Backstage in which you said one of the skills needed to become a food stylist was “the ability to understand food as a tool to evoke emotions.” Would you expand upon what that means?
I have memories based on foods. I have very happy memories, and I have really tragic, sad memories. Like some of the best meals I’ve ever had have been when someone had just passed away. I think food can be used not just as a tool for storytelling but also to bring out the narrative of a character a bit.
It helps identify what someone’s comforts are, what someone’s background is, what someone’s cravings might be. With Julia, she just loved food so much. The approach here was really showing her celebration for it — her love for it.
In the third episode, when she’s patting these burgers down and forming these burgers, [I wanted viewers to think] you’ll never have a more delicious burger in your life. I mean, it was always a feast. It wasn’t a singular thing — it was always plentiful 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 the food in a way that is unusual because the joy you’re talking about is sometimes stripped from food in our culture.
She was just so genuine in her approach to culinary education. Her purpose of being there was to educate, but her approach to it was just so sincere. I think we’ve gotten away from that a little bit with the competitions and whatnot, instead of people looking at food as a celebration. I think that’s what Julia Child brought with “The French Chef,” and Sarah delivers that so beautifully.
I read you have a background in fine art and sculpting. Was it ever a consideration to make faux versions of the food shown in “Julia”?
Everything is real food. I’ve never really known anything different. The only time I did fake food was a stand-in for a large cake for one of those action movies, “The Equalizer 2.”
I’m definitely intrigued by it. I just think it takes more time to do moldmaking, and here in Boston, we don’t have the prop houses like they do in Los Angeles and New York. As far as my background in fine arts, I used to make paper mâché hot dogs and stuff when I was a kid [laughter]. I always found a way to get food into something without realizing it at the time.
But, yes, I don’t even know where to start with that aside from now having a really nice relationship with one of our local special effects crew members. He actually whipped up a ceramic soufflé so we could practice those shots — and you know what? Everyone got one as a wrap gift.
Where do you keep yours?
Oh, I wish I’d taken it home! Daniel [one of the crew members] told me he’s keeping one on his mantle.
Speaking of the soufflé scene — and I’m probably discrediting myself as a food writer here — but were you nervous about making those? I’ve only made soufflés twice. One attempt was an unmitigated disaster. The second was only slightly less so.
Such nerves! It’s all about timing. We had the understanding and patience from our director, because in this case, we needed them to work with us. We knew we could deliver something perfect each and every time we had to shoot it. It was just going to be a bit slower, so we could get this thing from point A to point B without it falling. It was honestly 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.
In total, how many soufflés do you think you all had to make?
I would definitely say more than 50 from beginning to end — and that’s just with testing recipes and things like that. When people ask this question, I feel bad because we never really tally anything. But I do know, for instance, that for the raspberry mousse — that day was 750 eggs. It was the hottest day of summer. The air-conditioning unit malfunctioned that day in the warehouse. Everything was just very intense.
“I do know, for instance, that for the raspberry mousse — that day was 750 eggs. It was the hottest day of summer. The air-conditioning unit malfunctioned that day in the warehouse. Everything was just very intense.”
It was almost just too humid for things to sit pretty. They would literally start sweating and separating. Then the script supervisor came over and said, “You can always stand with me at a monitor so you can flag things that don’t look right,” and I was like, “I can do that?”
I didn’t know that I could do that until this job. Sometimes, someone in my craft gets kind of shooed aside, but in this project, it was taken very, very seriously, which was a great feeling.
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