“My father adored Julia Child. Each weekend morning, he would be found sitting on his reclining chair with a stack of newspapers on his lap. There was always a quiet start to our weekend. The volume was so low that you could hear the pages of the newspaper fold. As I recall, The French Chef would be shown on PBS after Bob Ross’s Joy of Painting. I would sit on the carpet with my pens and paper and draw along with his instruction. Then enters Julia Child.”
This was Christine Tobin’s first introduction to the world renowned culinary figure. Thirty years later, Christine would grow up to be a food stylist for television and movies, eventually landing on the set of Julia, the new HBO Max series about one of the original “celebrity chefs.”
The gig was special on both a personal and professional level for Christine. Normally, she says, a food stylist like herself would be considered part of the props team on a show, but this time she was part of the culinary team. And the culinary team for Julia was a serious operation. Christine told me that all the food shown on the series was real food prepared following Julia Child’s recipes, another rarity in the industry.
“There were no tricks. I didn’t spray polyurethane on anything. There was no shellac. Sometimes I might spritz olive oil or water to freshen up a salad, but there was no trickery,” she says.
The show was filmed in New England, which meant that Christine could visit the local farms, butchers, and fishmongers with whom she had personally developed relationships as a Greater Boston-based resident. Coincidentally, one of the butchers—Savenor’s—was the same one that Julia Child herself frequented when she lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“My approach—not only because of her cookbook and reading her words—but also her time in the Provencal area of France, was using these local elements that could translate to her and her home,” says Christine, who was committed to preparing and styling the food as authentically as possible. But doing so created a challenge.
The French Chef originally aired in the early 1960s and the selection of meat, seafood, and produce was very different than it is today. While roasting chickens today are four to five pounds, Julia (and every other home chef in the mid-20th century) cooked with two to three-pound chickens; therefore, Christine was tasked with working with the butchers to find and manipulate, for example, whole raw chickens to look nearly half their size for the camera. Christine recalls one scene that featured an incredible display of seafood and at the center of it was a whole Dover sole.
“Whole Dover sole is a seasonal fish and it’s not that easy to find, but we were able to source it from a local fishmonger. I never wanted to get called out for taking a shortcut with Julia,” she said.
After all, Julia fans would know. Fifty million viewers were captivated by her six-foot-two stature, seen in black and white week after week. With the streamer’s more than 76.8 million subscribers, it’s entirely possible that there will be more eyes on Julia than ever before with the HBO Max recreation that celebrates her figure.
But this isn’t even close to the first time a major network or streaming service has reintroduced or reinvented Julia—Nora Ephron’s 2004 film Julie & Julia (featuring Food52’s founder Amanda Hesser!) was about a food blogger (Julie) who attempted to cook every single recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking in just one year; in 2020, PBS launched Dishing With Julia Child, a miniseries in which today’s celebrity chefs like Jose Andres, Carla Hall, and Martha Stewart rewatch and comment on singular episodes from The French Chef; and a new documentary about Julia is set to premiere on CNN in a matter of days.
And while we wrap our arms around the chef who was a culinary and social trailblazer decades before we cavalierly tossed around the phrase, she was not without her flaws and critics: John Birdsall recently commented on Child’s alleged homophobia and reporter [Maia de la Baume examined Child’s legacy in France for The New York Times (hint: it wavers between insulting and nonexistent). Both are relevant, yet microscopic blips in her imagery and Julia, a drama series at its core, masterfully acknowledges the social and political climate of the 1960s while serving viewers exactly what they came for: coq au vin, bouef bourguignon, crepes, chocolate soufflé, and so many petits fours.
“For me, preparing food for film brings a sense of responsibility and honor. Food not only brings people together, but it is one of the most telling components of where a person is from or what they are like or how they feel. It is a powerful tool in narration and storytelling. I can get lost in the deep dive of designing menus and piecing together of images to best articulate the purpose of my craft on set. For me, my role surpasses the notion of just ‘food for camera’—it adds breadth and dimension.”
Have you watched ‘Julia’ on HBO Max yet? Let us know your thoughts on the series in the comments below.