Decades before Americans devoured cooking shows like Top Chef and The Barefoot Contessa, Julia Child taught them how to roll, bake, and stew. Her groundbreaking show The French Chef premiered on WGBH in 1963. Now the story behind Child’s journey from Cambridge cookbook author to television’s first celebrity chef premieres on HBO Max.
Julia was filmed in Massachusetts and a local food stylist orchestrated each of the dishes we see on screen. For Christine Tobin, the job was both an honor and a dream.
As a kid in the ’70s and ’80s, Tobin’s Saturdays were like Julia Child marathons. She played with Barbie dolls on the floor while her father read the newspaper, and she remembers The French Chef keeping them company.
“It was just always on in the background,” Tobin said. “Her voice and just the softness of the black and white set.”
Tobin’s father worked at their home in Holliston to master Child’s recipes, including their Duck a l’Orange. Beginning in the early 1960s, Child revolutionized the way Americans cooked and viewed food. She gave them the confidence to use fresh ingredients instead of using trendy canned soups for tuna casseroles or frozen TV dinners.
“She was very natural and hugging and supportive,” Tobin said of Child, “and all the things that we expect in a friend — or as a parent.”
When Tobin started cooking simple dishes like macaroni and cheese for her parents, she mimicked Child’s methods and quirky voice. “I just wanted to be Julia,” she said.
In her 20s, Tobin studied art but eventually pursued her own culinary career as a food stylist, preparing and creatively arranging dishes for cookbook photography and Hollywood films. Then, in January 2020, she received a call from a producer of the HBO series Julia, which was scheduled to be produced in Massachusetts.
“Of course I said yes and hung up,” Tobin said. “I immediately started sweating a bit.”
The opportunity to cook like a local – and personal – culinary hero doesn’t come along every day. So Tobin got to work, analyzing every food scene and dish in the script with the series creators. The biographical drama follows Child’s quest to create and host an educational cooking program on WGBH.
At the beginning of the series, Child, played by actress Sarah Lancashire, explains her concept to the editor of her cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
“I think it should be a show that every old American housewife in the country can do, whatever I do,” Child says on the show.
To prepare all of the French food for “Juliet,” Tobin assembled a team of cooks that she described as “heavy.” During filming, they replicated Child’s recipes in an on-set kitchen designed by Tobin, set up in a sound stage. It was sandwiched between replicas of Child’s TV kitchen at WGBH and her famous teal eat-in kitchen in Cambridge. This arrangement ensured the food looked fresh to the camera. Tobin said there was a window to her team’s work area so they could keep an eye on what was happening.
“We could see the red light when they rolled, so we knew we had to be quiet,” she recalls, “and people could see into our room, and it was always lit because we were always cooking there.”
Tobin’s kitchen team ran the set kitchen like a restaurant. They’ve slaughtered birds and cracked thousands of eggs to make everything from omelettes to chocolate mousse to souffles — and more — over and over again.
“You don’t just do a soufflé for the camera, you have to do 16 to 24,” she said. “You just keep going until they say cut.”
Tobin said the soufflé scene was the most stressful of the season.
“A soufflé is just one of those things that if it sits for seconds, it just starts to sink,” she explained. “That’s why I’m very happy that we made it.”
For Tobin and the heads of art and props, the goal was to make every restaurant tablescape and countertop in Julia look as authentic as Child was in real life.
“All these food moments aren’t necessarily big ta-da moments,” Tobin described. “It’s just really quiet moments where she’s making food, sharing food, enjoying food instead of being injected with steroids and Super Hollywood.”
The food stylist also prepared meat and other products for actress Sarah Lancashire to cut and roast, including chicken and mushrooms for the pilot episode scene on WGBH. “My job was to support her so she could be Julia at her best,” Tobin said.
This tense but playful scene shows Child sweating under the studio lights as she introduces herself in front of the camera. “I’m neither French nor a chef, but here I am! Que sera sera,” she chirps, “now we’re going to make coq au vin today. That’s French for chicken and red wine.”
In her Roslindale kitchen, Tobin demonstrated how she repeatedly prepared this signature dish for over 10 hours on set. Before Tobin scraped little bowls of diced onions and bacon into her skillet, she seemed to channel her inner child. “You can’t get enough butter,” she ground out.
Tobin estimates her team used hundreds of pounds of butter while Julia was in production. She sourced other ingredients from local farms and suppliers to honor the spirit of her culinary hero, including Child’s beloved butcher Savenors.
When Tobin contacted owner Ron Savenor he was thrilled.
“She’s totally trying to stay true to Julia and give her the justice she thinks she deserves,” he said.
Ron Savenor and his father Jack were close to Child and provided her with quality haircuts for decades. Jack even appeared in The French Chef, which helped push his shop onto a much bigger map. Now Ron Savenor, who took over when his father retired, feels humiliated to carry on Child’s legacy, and he references Tobin’s sense of responsibility.
“To be in the position to do that, well, that’s an honor in itself, isn’t it?” he asked, “And I don’t think they could have put it in better hands than Christine.”
Tobin didn’t start styling food for films until he was 39. While working on Julia, she learned more about the challenges Child faced as she began a new career as a midlife woman. On the show, her character says, “At this point in my life, I don’t want to feel invisible, I want to feel relevant. I want to be relevant.”
The child was 50 at the time – Tobin is the same age now.
“I identify with her a lot more now than I did when I was watching her at age 10 — and I wish she were there, I’d tell her that,” she said.
Child died in 2004 at the age of 91 after hosting several iconic cooking shows for four decades. Tobin still loves how Child ended each French Chef episode by sitting down and sharing the last dish with her viewers before concluding with her famous phrase “Bon appétit”.
And Tobin continued that tradition in her own way with “Julia’s” production. She said she always made sure the cast and crew were well fed and that none of the delicious food was wasted.