I’ve wanted to meet Christine Tobin for years and in one week I got to meet her – thank you Cherry Bombe Jubilee for bringing us together – and later to talk to her for a couple of hours about the thing she does so well: making food for film. Most recently and most spectacularly, Christine and her team made all the food (and there was endless food) for season one of Julia, the HBO Max series about how Julia Child became The French Chef. The bushel of baguettes, the roasted chicken, the petits fours and all the wonderful meals that Julia and Paul had at a Boston bistro. Every cup of tea and every soufflé – just think about getting a soufflé to literally rise to the occasion when a cast of dozens, lights and cameras are waiting for it – was on Christine’s to-do list. And she did it. Magnificently.
A QUICK WORD ON THE SERIES
I have been entranced by this series, by the writing, the actors – Sarah Lancashire is a wonderful Julia – the production and the glorious food, but I had to remind myself that these eight episodes, which cover the year that Julia Child made her debut as The French Chef on WGBH, Boston’s public television station, are inspired by Julia’s life. This is not a documentary – for that you can watch the film Julia on Amazon. This is not a true-to-life accounting – for that you can read My Life in France. And it’s not Julia in her own words – for that you should read As Always, Julia (I love this book of letters between Julia and Avis De Voto). Instead, it’s a captivating telling of Julia’s story inspired by her real life. It’s lively, sophisticated, funny and often touching, and it’s a feast! As Christine Tobin said, “The food is a character in the series.” Watching the series, it’s clear it’s also a star.
HOW CHRISTINE GOT THERE
Christine, like a lot of people who lived in Boston, feels as though she grew up with Julia Child. Julia was always around, she’d see her in the markets, on the street, in restaurants. But more importantly, her voice was a daily presence. Christine told me that while her mother and nana were good cooks and bakers, making mostly Italian food, her father was a Julia fan. When he’d come home from work, he’d grab his newspapers, turn on PBS and watch Julia. He stood in line to have her sign his copy of Mastering and he cooked from the book. Christine said, “When my father would cook, he’d go big!” Julia’s duck à l’orange was his dish. But as much as she liked food, Christine went to school as an art major and came to cooking professionally much later, when she worked in the kitchen of Oleana (these wonderful crick-cracks come from the chefs there). Her first job making food for film was as an assistant to Susan Spungen, who was the food stylist for, among many other films, Julie & Julia. Christine has been the go-to person for films shot in Boston ever since, including Greta Gerwig’s Little Women.
“EVERYONE GAINS 5 POUNDS WHEN THEY WORK WITH ME”
People always ask Christine if the food she makes for films is real – it’s what people often also ask food stylists who work on cookbooks. I think the above quote answers the question neatly. Yes, yes, yes. It’s not just real, but it’s perfectly seasoned and sourced from the best producers, food makers and stores. Christine was thrilled to get produce from Allandale Farm, a favorite of hers, and she used their gorgeous lettuces and tomatoes even when the camera only had to pan the table. While technically all of the food was a prop, Christine treated each morsel as part of a grand meal for people she cares about. You see it in every food shot in the series and you hear it when Christine talks about food. I loved talking to her about her work and then listening to her with Kerry Diamond from Cherry Bombe on the podcast Dishing on Julia (episode 7) – you catch her passion for food immediately.
THE FOOD WAS SO GOOD BECAUSE IT WAS JULIA’S FOOD
Almost all of the food was cooked from Julia's books. “When we used a Julia recipe, we followed it exactly.” One of the few exceptions to the rule was the famous Queen of Sheba cake. It appears in the first episode of the series – Julia brings it to the television studio for an early meeting with the less-than-enthusiastic producers. When Christine presented it to her own producers, they thought it was too low. Indeed, the cake is a slender, one-layer torte, but the team thought it would show better if it was “taller, bigger, glossier”. In the end, Christine made the cake just a little higher and it was beautiful.
TEST, TEST, AND THEN TEST AGAIN
Christine felt a tremendous responsibility to the real-life Julia to get all the food right. “I felt as though Julia was watching me,” she said. She knew that Julia had tested all of the recipes – Julia was famous for her rigor and hard work – but Christine also knew that many of those recipes were tested in the 1960s and that ingredients had changed since then. So had ovens and stovetops and pans and mixers and all the small things that can add up to success – or problems. Fortunately, Christine had time to do research and testing before they shot. And, in addition to great working relationships with the producers, cast and crew, she had a great place to work it all out. Christine described her kitchen – she called it a “game changer” – with the same enthusiasm that she talked about the beautiful lettuces from the farm.
INSIDE THE GAME CHANGING KITCHEN
In a rare instance, Christine got to design her dream kitchen for the project. It was a “real” kitchen, with a walk-in refrigerator like restaurants have. It had a window, it was next to the soundstage so that food could be brought on set the same way that we’d bring food from our kitchens to the dining room. There was a full recycling program and they even composted. Best of all, they had a communal refrigerator and to-go containers, so that during the shoot anyone could grab a snack and, at the end of the day, there was delicious food for people to take home. “There was no waste on the show and I’m so proud of that.”
WHAT ABOUT THE RESTAURANT SCENES?
Christine said that she loved the restaurant scenes. When the scene was New York’s legendary Lutèce, Christine and her team followed recipes from the restaurant. When the Childs were at Joyce Chen’s restaurant in Boston, they could use Ms. Chen’s published recipes. Whatever they did for that meal must have been smashing, because Christine said that David Hyde Pierce, who plays Paul Child, ate about 60 dumplings! Christine made up the food that Julia and James Beard eat in San Francisco because the restaurant they eat in, Fables, was also made up. Still, Christine said that she researched what would have been served at that time in the city. And the many meals the Childs have at their favorite local French bistro were “our creative space – we designed all those menus”. She said it was fun to recreate classic bistro fare for these scenes – practical too. “I worked the way a caterer would work – making use of all the food that needed to be used.” Christine explained: We planned all of the bistro meals to take advantage of what we were cooking for the episode and what we had left over. And, of course, we used Julia’s recipes.” Every time there was a dinner at the bistro, I wanted whatever they were having – if the restaurant existed in real life, I’d be a regular.
IT LOOKS EFFORTLESS – BUT SOMETHING HAD TO BE HARD, RIGHT?
The chocolate soufflé was the most difficult thing they did. Christine worked with the entire creative team on every dish, every tablescape, every shot, but that soufflé – it had to be shot the same way you’d shoot a car crash: You had to get it at just the right moment. In the end, the tables were turned – instead of the kitchen team waiting to be told when the food had to be brought in, the cameras had to wait for the soufflé. “This never, never happens,” Christine told me. “And when it worked, we cried.”
Now that the season has wrapped, all eight episodes are up and streaming. There – your next binge is sorted. Bon appétit!
p.s. Thank you Christine Tobin and HBOMax for the wonderful images