When you see a juicy hamburger or a luscious pie lighting up a film screen, chances are you can thank Christine Tobin. The 47-year-old lives right here in Roslindale, but she’s served as food stylist on 16 movie sets, including “American Hustle” and “Black Mass.”
“Little Women” is her latest project, and it was a biggie: There were 27 food scenes in the film, each historically accurate. Many workdays lasted 16 hours. That’s a lot of time, even if you’re spending it with Laura Dern.
Tobin first impressed directors as a food stylist for “Labor Day,” the 2013 Jason Reitman film based on the Joyce Maynard novel.
“I think they really liked the idea of my having this background in food styling, but I’m also a mom and not a ‘stylist-stylist.’ There were supposed to be a homespun products to be seen on camera, so why not have someone who might not have all the finesse but can execute something that we’re looking to have?” she says. (That “something” was pies. Lots of pies.)
When she’s not preparing sweets for Josh Brolin or helping Dern make jam, Tobin is the food stylist at Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street. She talked to the Globe about “Little Women,” movie dining — and a few on-set surprises.
I bet a lot of people are saying, “How do I get to do that?” Give us your biography! How did you get to this place?
I grew up around incredible cooks. My mom and her mother, from Sicily, lived with us. So my whole life, I’ve been surrounded by beautiful food. And my mom was like the Martha Stewart of our street and still is the most meticulous person when it comes to everything, but most importantly, food.
I grew up on a street [in Holliston], Pinecrest Road, and my parents and a bunch of other parents started this gourmet club. Once a month, they got together and cooked a feast, based on a different country each time. So growing up, I had all of this experience of food and sharing and presentation.
When did you embark on a professional food career?
What catapulted me into food styling was working for Ana Sortun from Oleana.
I’m a graduate of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts. My background is in fashion design. I went in with a degree in graphic design and came out with sculpture and video performance, because that’s what you do at the Museum school.
I worked through school at various restaurants, throughout college and beyond, then as an artist living in Boston. I was with Ana for about 6½ years, front of the house. … There’s an open kitchen there. We would just stand there and stare at her. And she was plating these beautiful colors and textures. So it just made me go, “Wait a second. There’s this thing called food styling?”
At my father’s wake, everyone from Oleana came to pay their respects. Such incredible friends and people and employers and supportive humans. And it was at the table that Ana said, ‘I have to find this thing called a food stylist.’ … Once everything got settled and I came home, I found this lovely e-mail from Ana, asking me to assist her on her cookbook, “Spice.” If you’re going to start somewhere, you start with Ana Sortun.
I studied by working in restaurants for over 20 years and asking a lot of questions. And at Oleana, for example, just having that open kitchen format! Because usually in kitchens, you’re shooed away — the swinging door, in and out. I would have a teeny notepad. I would ask questions, and I would go home and make [food] for my then-husband and my family and friends, because I was inspired, and I was basically learning on the job.
What’s it like to be on the set of a real movie?
You’re sort of on this deserted island with another large group of people, and you’re all working together, which is so fabulous, and the camaraderie of all of it. But when you’re making a pie, you’re not making four pies. You make over 100 pies.
The operation is like a caterer. I show up with my Cambros and one or two carloads of food. You baby-sit it for pretty much the whole day, until the food scene is up. And, throughout that time, you have visitors, and you always have a little bit or something little on the side to share with them.
They all really appreciated it. A lot of film sets don’t use real food!
What type of food did people eat during the “Little Women era,” and how did you teach yourself how to make this stuff?
I was going to go for a hike in Concord. And I [thought], “Let me just parachute into the Alcott House and revisit it.” I just happened to meet Jan Turnquist, the executive director of the Alcott House. I ended up having a four-hour conversation with her. She gave me a grand tour, and we sat and talked and talked and talked about food, the Alcotts, and “Little Women.”
I started on a creative note, going and looking at recipes from the 19th century. I mean, their ingredients were the same as what we use now. The eggs, the cream, the milk — but they’re just a different quality. So a cake might be denser than our cakes now, just because of leavening agents. So you’ll see a Victoria sponge [cake] at the Christmas feast. There’s lots of scones. Scones were being made then.
I turned to “Savory Suppers and Fashionable Feasts: Dining in Victorian America” and “The Violet Bakery Cookbook.” We used their Victoria sponge recipe for a cake — and Tartine out of California for their scones and other baked goods, because I’m just a huge fan, and they look beautiful. And they’re really not different than what would have been served or prepared back then.
What might surprise fans about the Alcotts’ dining style?
You know, Mr. Alcott had built crates, wooden crates, to store their apples and their pears. Each layer has a layer of sand to preserve the fruit. And he built a hot water contraption for Mrs. Alcott to have warm water. So the fact that they had that luxury opened up opportunities for me to look at how they were preparing food. They had an abundant garden. They had apples and pears. They had tons of chickens, so we knew we could throw in some chicken here and there. And, really, their love of granulated sugar! And so I made sure that the cookies and the cakes that the March family made had a generous sprinkling of granulated sugar, just as an homage to the Alcott family. The Alcotts baked all the time, hence the March family baked all the time. So there’s always something being kneaded or stirred or in background, as a set dressing.
Do you have a favorite food scene?
I think it’s going to be really hard to miss the Christmas feast scene that the Laurence family gifted, and that’s where pink ice cream comes in. The pink ice cream was made locally at Puritan’s Ice Cream in Roslindale.
What was your interaction with the cast?
Oh, I called them my naughty nibblers! On my first meeting with Greta Gerwig … I went with a book on Monet and Monet’s table and a book on Renoir’s table, where you see these paintings, photographs of picnic scenes and table-scapes, and also a blueberry buckle cake for her to have and a box of various types of scones for her to try.
So that opened up a really nice rapport with the director. … I would always bring little baking boxes. I had a baking assistant, whom I poached from Clear Flour Bakery, which is the best bakery, in my opinion.
In the jam scene, Laura Dern is stirring. … She’s so lovely, and she introduced herself. She said, ‘I took a jam-making workshop yesterday. Tell me what I need to do.’ I said, ‘Oh! That’s so great that you did that. I think you just need to stir the pot.’ … So that’s an example of someone who knows that there’s a process and wanting to make sure that she’s covering her end of things, if there’s something that she needs to do for the camera.
Any other memorable movie moments — even from your other films?
Expect the unexpected happened a lot on “Black Mass.” In the Christmas Eve scene, Johnny Depp wanted to improv. He stood up and he grabbed a sugar cookie, and we baked hundreds of cookies. And luckily, I had hundreds of cookies, because he kept doing that same scene over and over and over again. … You really don’t know until the camera rolls what anyone’s going to do when they’re sitting at the table or when there’s food around. Because, after multiple takes, if they’re taking a bite of something that’s going to make them feel sick, then they’re kind of in trouble. That’s why, in a lot of films, you see green beans. You see someone nibbling on a cucumber. They keep it light.
On “American Hustle,” Bradley Cooper had it to beef up a bit. So he was eating chicken legs. You know, the chicken legs scene in the beginning, when there’s curlers in his hair? I can’t tell you how many chicken legs I baked off for that scene. And he washed it down with whole milk. He had a gallon of whole milk.
This is a fun job.
It’s a very fun job. [“Little Women”] was a very rewarding job. I think it’s because of the director. You watch interviews with her; she is who she is. How she presents herself is true. She’s just lovely, and all the cast members were just really good people who got along — and you’re spending hours and hours and hours and hours and hours in the cold.
Interview was edited and condensed.