Christine Tobin knows a thing or two about making food look good. Having studied fine arts in university and worked her way up restaurant jobs after, it was at the age of 35 that Tobin was first enlisted by James Beard Award-winning chef Ana Sortun to assist with food styling for Sortun’s cookbook, Spice.
15 years later, Tobin has become one of the best food stylists in Hollywood, lauded for her work on films like Little Women and Ghostbusters. Her latest project is the most exciting one so far—HBO Go’s Julia, a biopic series dedicated to the iconic television chef Julia Child.
Born in 1912, Child was credited with bringing French cuisine to the United States, popularising dishes like beef bourguignon and coq au vin through a series of seminal cookbooks and beloved television shows. Played by critically-acclaimed actor Sarah Lancashire, the Cordon Bleu-trained chef fought sexism and patriarchal notions of what deserved to be on television to earn her spot in the limelight. Ultimately, she served as a beacon of inspiration and hope for women of the time.
At the core of Child’s legacy, of course, is the food she loved so dearly. With her larger than life personality, the chef taught home cooks all over the country French culinary technique. Bringing that gastronomy to life again on screen is a tall order, and the main crux of Tobin’s job. “Julia made it easy for us, because she wrote these brilliant books,” Tobin shares. “Every time I needed to design a dish to make a scene in the script work, I would sort through her recipe books and come up with something she would have prepared.”
Here, Tobin shares the behind-the-scenes of Julia’s most delicious scenes, as well as her best tips for your own food styling endeavours—even if it’s just for a picture on Instagram.
What is a food stylist’s main job?
Food styling for motion picture or television is very different from editorial or commercial work. I usually start by dissecting the script, highlighting the dishes that were being shown and researching the restaurants that were being featured. Then, I curate the dishes that would work best to create out of our commissary kitchen on stage. Day to day, if we aren’t prepping a dish for filming, we are on set presenting foods to the rest of the team.
What is one misconception people tend to have about food styling?
Many people think that food styling is just about making food look good for camera, but when it comes to film, there are so many more moving parts. My work starts with consulting and research. My biggest responsibility is ultimately to be present on set and conduct the food at hand for the scene.
What was your vision for the food on Julia?
I wanted to ensure that the food was period-appropriate and more importantly—something Julia Child would have actually made. My main intent was to bring her legacy to the life. On set we had an incredible team of wonderful women who weren’t necessarily professional chefs themselves, which helped enhance the natural, rustic quality of Julia’s foods. At the same time, I had to focus on simplifying some of these techniques to make it doable for them.
There are beats to a recipe and there is usually not enough time to go through the whole thing on camera. I also worked with the directors and the camera crew to pick apart the process and decide what would be most effective at getting the recipe across to the audience without having to spell every step out.
“I love finishing touches that add depth not just to the food, but also to the negative space around a plate”
What did your day to day on the set of Julia look like?
Typically, I would be assisting Sarah [Lancashire] with resetting the food so she could keep bouncing through her scenes, or I would be going in as a set dresser and fleshing out a space to make it look believable. That was actually one of my favourite things to do on set because I typically did it in the hour or so that everyone was out for lunch, so I got to be in her kitchen alone. That way, when the team came back, everything would be ready to go, looking and feeling real.
We also had a lot of culinary meetings with the director and the crew to help everyone understand the food elements—because food is a very temperamental actor. So we have to always make sure that people in other realms can understand just how it is going to behave, especially since Julia’s food is slow-cooking and her methods are very precise in execution and technique. We finessed those elements to a tee in our kitchen.
What were some measures you took to minimise food wastage on set?
Thank you for asking this question, because the industry can indeed be so wasteful. At the end of each scene—as you can imagine—we had plenty of leftover food, so we would divvy everything up into containers and put them in our communal refrigerator. Crew members and talent could then come by, take all this beautiful handcrafted food home to actually enjoy Julia Child’s recipes for themselves. We also had strict composting and recycling programmes, which helps us establish much better ways of working to eliminate waste.
What are your top food styling tips that we can use to capture our own food beautifully?
I think the least possible handling of food is generally best. Especially with soft foods like pasta or rice, over-mixing is a real problem and can lead to food not looking very appetising. I also love finishing touches that add depth not just to the food, but also to the negative space around a plate. A sprinkle of sea salt or a drizzle of good olive oil works to help food glisten and add motion to a plate. Herbs are also great, but my greatest pet peeve is when herbs are chopped too finely. I always say to just do a quick, rough chop. Then you get all these beautiful sizes and textures that really finish a dish.
As far as actual photography goes, gone are the days of overly-lit spaces with various lights and equipment. Just sit by a really nice window with a coffee table where you get nice sunlight or even soft, gloomy light. The more real it looks, the better.
Stream Julia from on HBO Go.