If a movie is shot in Massachusetts and somehow involves food, chances are it was styled by Roslindale’s Christine Tobin. Her resume includes “American Hustle,” “Black Mass,” “Labor Day,” and “Little Women.” The 50-year-old’s latest project, HBO’s “Julia,” debuts on Thursday, March 31. In most productions, food is secondary to the plot. Not this time: “Julia” is a scripted series about Julia Child’s emergence as the first food-TV celebrity, thanks to her pioneering show on WGBH, “The French Chef.” Tobin might be the go-to stylist around here, but this assignment was different, both in terms of scope and iconography.
“Julia” is a production where food isn’t incidental. It’s the main focus! Where do you even begin? Where did your inspiration or directive come from?
Yeah, it’s epic. I can’t say enough. What an honor. The first item that I receive is the scripts. I comb them. I highlight them. Luckily, Julia Child’s cookbook gave me everything I needed. She made my job very easy, having this bible to refer to. … The timeline for the show is “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” first edition. Those were the recipes she was doing on “The French Chef.” But we also see her testing recipes for the second volume in her home food scenes, where she’s, for example, making a cake called La Charlotte Africaine.
She’s so thorough in [her] description of technique, including the tools needed for the home chef, the home cook, to execute these recipes. So everything’s right there, which I would then shuttle between either set-dressing or props. … Then I go into visual thinking, where I download hundreds and hundreds of images, because we look at food visually. We eat with our eyes before our stomach. So creating mood boards, old-school style with the big Styrofoam. For each culinary meeting, folks would come into the kitchen, and I would then do a presentation, either showing them how one of her recipes is conducted or all the beats of the recipe, so it can help Sarah [Lancashire, who plays Child] and assist her in the choreography of a food scene when she’s executing a dish.
How was food different in the ‘60s than it is today? Today, there are so many Food Network chefs. TV chefs are ubiquitous, whereas Julia Child was really the first. How are recipes different? Does food look different?
Well, we have to capture place and time more clearly with the set-dressing. You’ve got costumes, clearly. And then the props: We can’t just put in any pan or any spatula. They source either through eBay or vintage shops to get those tools. Her illustrations, which are very few in each cookbook, are more for technique. There’s no beauty. So it was really fun to bring those recipes to life visually and keeping true to just the food as food and not pumping it with Hollywood steroids and making something bigger and better for the camera. It was legitimately her recipes that we were preparing, over and over and over again. These are absolutely her. There are no tricks. The only thing I did was maybe put a little red food coloring in the raspberry mousse, just to enhance the color, because we were using fresh raspberries.
Were there favorite things that you recreated of hers? What did you really love ?
Well, I love this cake, La Charlotte Africaine. And it’s only because it really threw us for a loop. We’re like, ‘What is a cake made with leftover cake?’ I was reaching out to, you know, Dorie Greenspan: ‘Have you made this cake?’ I was reaching out to people who were like: ‘Wait, what?’ It is a fun cake. I want to sell it for everybody at home to make and revisit Julia for something that might not be her most famous dish, but it’s a lot of fun.
I can’t get enough of her roast chicken. It’s just a classic, and you’ll never have a better chicken than Julia Child’s roast chicken. It was just a lot of fun revisiting her books in a different way, having grown up with them and her on WGBH, because I’m a native of Massachusetts. She’s our local hero and beyond. These books and her recipes are timeless.
Why are her recipes so timeless?
She’s just very precise without being snooty. Some dishes, say, duck l’orange, you have a lot more little gadgets and tools that you need to use to execute such a refined dish. But it’s her approach, in her writing and her clarity and focus in execution, in her writing, that just makes it simple. Everything is on steroids now. Her recipes are for you to sit with and read and absorb, and then have hand-holding in execution. There’s never a doubt: Am I getting this right? Time and time again, with each of these recipes, they came out perfect.
Where do you shop for ingredients?
We would go with Ron Savenor. That was part of the fun, too; because I’m local, we just know where Julia went. Of course, we’re going to go to Julia’s butcher. He is just the best. It’s almost full circle to him, too. Sometimes, with certain vendors, we’d be like, ‘Hey, listen, this is for Julia!’ And people would be like, ‘Oh, got it. I’ll take this even more seriously.’ And everyone has a story, and the spirit of sharing that experience with them as food-makers or purveyors just sort of brought a really nice collective spirit to the show. I’d say, ‘Ronnie, you’re part of the Dream Team.’ We all brought this to life for this incredible character who is our beloved Julia Child. And I hope I did her proud.
When you’re cooking on your own, where do you shop?
I love going to the Roslindale Fish Market. Their product is just so divine, their fish and cheeses and Greek specialty things. I love, love going there. That’s my favorite, and I source not just for my family but also for jobs. Tony’s meat market in Roslindale — his steak is the best. It’s just so tender. I love going to Tutto Italiano. I’m Sicilian Irish, but you know, I go there because I follow my stomach, and it always leads to the Mediterranean, Italian European. Anyway! I love going to the Greek market on Washington Street. They have the best tzatziki in town. I feel like I’m giving away my secrets! And we used Russo’s. I’m trying to find a replacement for Russo’s. I love going to Price Rite in Hyde Park to buy the kids’ snacks, because we all have a pocketbook and a budget, and why not get my Oreos there for $1 less than I would someplace else?
As far as field trips, I love Sevan Bakery in Watertown. I go by myself just as a field trip and bring home all the goodies for me and the kids to enjoy. And, for inspiration, I love going to the Eastern European markets in Brookline, because you do feel transported to a different part of the world. I love Bazaar on Beacon Street. I love going to the Jewish markets. That’s a hobby for me.
What’s your favorite restaurant in Boston?
I’m gonna say Oleana in Cambridge.
If Julia Child were alive today, where do you think she’d eat?
I would say the best Chinese restaurant in town. Joyce Chen isn’t here anymore, but she’d be sitting at a big round table with a lazy Susan someplace.
What’s the hardest dish that you had to make from her cookbook?
Her chocolate soufflé, which we see in episode eight. That was the most time-consuming to develop, because it’s such a temperamental food. We really worked hard on executing that scene. And it is a real soufflé. So I think that was the most tedious, but the most rewarding, because it was a trial. We wrapped that scene with a round of applause.
Do the actors actually eat the food that you make, or are they pretending?
They have to be dragged away from the table. … They’re not just eating one bite; they’re eating 30, 50 bites. I mean, they’re eating all day. So yes. And then it goes to the crew.
Any tips for people who love to take food photos at home? What’s a good angle? Is there good light?
I say natural light. Don’t over-touch your food; don’t over-fluff it. You know, don’t overwork it. Just let it rest. Natural light, and I’m going to say a little drizzle of a rich-colored olive oil to give a little shine.
What’s next for you?
I have a little break until the phone rings again, which I’m excited about, because it’s been a busy two years and I’ll just, you know, do some adulting. I’m going to enjoy it. I may become a lady who lunches for a few weeks.