HBO Max’s new 8-part series Julia premiered this week, detailing Julia Child’s life as she crafts the first season of her iconic cooking show on Boston public television. Though series creator Daniel Goldfarb (who also serves as a producer on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) takes the opportunity to dive deep into her marriage and friendships, not to mention taking viewers behind the scenes of The French Chef‘s set, he also never forgets the delicious French cuisine that was so near and dear to her heart.
Without a doubt, delectable dishes are an essential ingredient in making the series work, which is why the role of a food stylist is equally essential for the production. Christine Tobin, who has previously worked on Don’t Look Up and Little Womenwas tasked with recreating Julia Child’s recipes for both home and work as well as other meals from the period for restaurant scenes and more.
Tobin spoke with Screen Rant about her personal experience with America’s favorite chef, the preparation she underwent for the series, and the importance of letting food speak to the audience through the screen.
How did the union between you and Julia happen, and what excited you most about being part of this project?
Christine Tobin: I’m a Boston native, so she’s part of our fabric as not only a national treasure, but a local icon. To be trusted to work as a food stylist and bring Julia Child’s food to life, for Sarah to then just work her magic with, was a huge honor.
I grew up with Julia Child, being a native of Massachusetts outside of Boston, so it was always on. Usually, by the time it reached my age, I was on the weekends. My father would sit there with his newspaper before cell phones, and he just would howl. Being from a food centric family, we would cook all cultural foods because we loved it so much.
But Julia definitely inspired mostly my dad more than my mom to cook from her book. His claim to fame was the Duck a L’Orange, so I was very thrilled to see is as one of the dishes highlighted.
I love that the show recreates episodes of The French Chef and lets us go behind the scenes. What was that process like for you? Did you have to do a lot of French Chef viewing, or did you need to add or change recipes to make them look right?
Christine Tobin: I watched all the episodes growing up, but with a different magnifying glass back then. In this situation, we’re really dissecting her actual recipes in the cookbook and actually executing them from our stage kitchen, which was right outside of both Julia’s home kitchen and WGBH.
We operated in this stage kitchen that was an industrial-grade, commercial-grade space. We were preparing all the foods and hopping to one door to get to WGBH for French Chef or going through the other door to get to Julie’s house. In both circumstances everything was, as we say, “restaurants cooked to order.” We were always prepared, and all the food was her recipes down to the twine used for stuffing chickens and ducks and whatnot. It was all real, authentic Julia Child cooking.
There are so many great recipes, but also so many different kinds of food being presented, between the show and her home – and then even going to restaurants. What was your approach to those different types of meals or dishes?
Christine Tobin: That was one of the most exciting parts, because Julie Child was not just an educator, but she’d love to learn and indulge in other cultures. Chinese food was actually one of her favorite cuisines, so [I would] study Joyce Chen’s original cookbook and cook from that.
This experience on Julia brought me into a different chef’s language. In that scene where they’re at Joyce Chen, you’re seeing her authentic Chinese food dishes from her cookbook. And that was such a thrill, as was Lutèce, which is this incredible French restaurant that is no longer in New York City. And then a farm-to-table restaurant that was scripted. Back then it’s like, “Well, what was farm-to-table?” I was designing a menu or foods that reflect restaurants like Chez Panisse, bringing in Alice Waters and her legacy to the culinary world. That was a really wonderful piece to work on.
It was great to assist Julia with her process in preparing foods for camera. It was great doing the set dressing for those makings, like the French bread episode with Paul and Judith, and then switch gears to then doing restaurants. One of the exciting things that Paul and Julia and her friends enjoyed was just sitting and enjoying all the foods and. Nothing’s better than talking over really good food.
You’ve spoken about a food stylist really needing to bring the emotion out of the food. What would you say Julia wants her food to say, and then by proxy, what aspect are you trying to bring out of it on the show?
Christine Tobin: Her approach was to make the food accessible to all, French cuisine is probably the most difficult by far, technically, foods to try to replicate. So, humbling herself in her process on The French chef just made it accessible to us and relatable and comfortable. And that was part of her genius, just her being her authentic self.
As a food stylist, having designed everything to execute on site to then prepare it for camera, what was great is that it’s just the celebration of food in its most natural [state]. My theory is the less you touch food as the food stylist, the better. Just let the food sing for itself.
Because Julia Child was not a fussy chef, she wasn’t a finessed or skilled chef, that allowed for me to style things rustically and simply and organically for whatever was needed.
Was there any point at which a particular recipe or dish did not work out for a scene?
Christine Tobin: Nope. We had the opportunity and the support from the production to work on these recipes. We could do it once and take photos, and I did that right from the get-go with the pilot: videotaping a process by phone or photo, photographing it and taking notes. Then it just like evolved into something like a breath, where that’s very time sensitive. And this is a real dish, it’s not a fake breath.
I was just working closely with, Daniel and Chris and the director – because we have different directors – and the crew and cameraman. Everyone had to understand the temperamental aspect of food itself and just be respectful of the process, because food scenes should be treated with as much care as a car crash. Anything could happen, so I had full support to bring everything to set in multitudes for resets and such.
There were weeks of recipe development, because the ingredients are different here in 2021 than they were in the 60s. So, we were just making sure that her recipes using our eggs and our flour, different from the 60s, would have the same result. And her recipes are completely foolproof. There was never a tweak or change or anything put on steroids to make something look beautiful for camera. Her food is her food, and that was one thing that was advocated.
It just sang for itself, and I have a lot of gratitude for that. Because that’s not always the case with onscreen food styling.
More: 8 Best Cooking Documentaries Like Julia
The first three episodes of Julia premiere March 31 on HBO Max, with one new episode dropping every following Thursday.
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