Decades before Americans devoured cooking shows like “Top Chef” and “The Barefoot Contessa,” they learned how to dice, bake and braise with Julia Child. Her pioneering program, “The French Chef,” started in 1963 on WGBH. Now the story behind Child’s journey from Cambridge cookbook author to TV’s first celebrity chef is premiering on HBO Max.
“Julia” was filmed in Massachusetts, and a local food stylist orchestrated every one of the dishes we see on screen. For Christine Tobin the job was both an honor and a dream come true.
As a kid the ’70s and ’80s, Tobin’s Saturdays were like Julia Child marathons. She’d play with Barbie dolls on the floor while her dad read the newspaper, and she remembers how “The French Chef” kept 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 to master Child’s recipes in their Holliston home, including her duck a l’orange. Beginning in the early 1960’s Child revolutionized the way Americans cooked and viewed food. She gave them the confidence to try using fresh ingredients instead of turning to trendy canned soup for tuna casseroles or frozen TV dinners.
“She was very natural and embracing and supportive,” Tobin said of Child, “and all the things that we want in a friend — or as an educator.”
When Tobin started cooking simple dishes like macaroni and cheese for her parents, she would mimic 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 making and creatively arranging dishes for cookbook photography and Hollywood films. Then, in January 2020, she got a call from a producer of the HBO series, “Julia” that was slated for production in Massachusetts.
“Of course I said ‘yes’ and got off the phone,” Tobin said. “I immediately started sweating a bit.”
The opportunity to cook like a local — and personal — culinary hero doesn’t come along everyday. So Tobin got to work, dissecting every food scene and dish in the script with the show’s creators. The biographical drama follows Child’s quest to found and host an educational cooking program on WGBH.
Early in the series Child, played by actress Sarah Lancashire, explains her concept to the editor of her cookbook, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”
“I do think it should be a show that any old American housewife in the country can make whatever it is I’m making,” Child says on the show.
To make all that French food for “Julia,” Tobin assembled a team of chefs she described as “fierce.” During shoots they replicated Child’s recipes in an on-set kitchen, designed by Tobin, that was constructed in a soundstage. It was sandwiched between replicas of Child’s TV set kitchen at WGBH and her famous blue-green home kitchen in Cambridge. This arrangement ensured the food would look fresh for the camera. Tobin said there was a window to her team’s workspace so they could keep an eye on the action.
“We could see the red light if they’re rolling, so we knew to be quiet,” she recalled, “and people could look into our space, and it was always glowing, because we were always in there cooking.”
Tobin’s team of chefs operated the set kitchen like a restaurant. They butchered birds and cracked thousands of eggs to make everything from omelettes to chocolate mousse to souffles — and much more — over and over again.
“You don’t just make one soufflé for camera, you have to make 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 a matter of seconds it just starts to sink,” she explained. “So I’m really excited that we were able to to nail it.”
For Tobin and the heads of the art and props departments the goal was to make every restaurant tablescape and countertop spread in “Julia” look as authentic as Child was in real life.
“All these food moments aren’t necessarily big ta-da moments,” Tobin described. “They’re just really quiet moments of her preparing food, or sharing food, or enjoying food rather than being injected with steroids and super Hollywood.”
The food stylist also prepared meat and produce for actress Sarah Lancashire to slice and sauté, including the chicken and mushrooms for the pilot episode scene at WGBH. “My job was to support her so she could best be Julia,” Tobin said.
That tense but playful scene shows Child sweating under the studio lights as she introduces herself on camera. “I’m neither French nor a chef, but here I am! Que sera sera,” she chirps, “Now today we’re going going to do coq au vin. That’s French for chicken and red wine.”
In her Roslindale kitchen Tobin demonstrated how she made that signature dish repeatedly, over 10 hours, on set. Before scraping small bowls of diced onion and bacon into her pan, Tobin seemed to channel her inner Child. “You can’t get enough butter,” she uttered.
Tobin estimates her team went through hundreds of pounds of butter while “Julia” was in production. She sourced other ingredients from local farms and purveyors to honor her culinary hero’s spirit, including Child’s beloved butcher shop, Savenors.
When Tobin reached out to owner Ron Savenor he was thrilled.
“She’s totally trying to be true to Julia, and do her the justice that she feels she deserves,” he said.
Ron Savenor and his father Jack were close with Child and supplied her with prime cuts for decades. Jack even appeared on “The French Chef,” which helped put his shop on a much larger map. Now Ron Savenor, who took over when his dad retired, feels humbled to carry on Child’s legacy and he relates to Tobin’s sense of responsibility.
“To be in that 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 she was 39. While working on “Julia” she learned more about the challenges Child faced while embarking on a new career as a woman in mid-life. In the series her character says, “At this stage of my life I don’t want to feel invisible, I want to feel relevant. I want to be relevant.”
Child was 50 then — the same age Tobin is now.
“I just find myself identifying with her far more now than I did when I was watching her at 10 years old — and I wish she was around, I would tell her that,” she said.
Child died in 2004 at 91, after four decades of hosting several iconic cooking shows. Tobin still loves how Child ended each “French Chef” episode by sitting down and sharing the final dish with her viewers before signing off with her famous phrase, “Bon appetit.”
And Tobin carried on that tradition in her own way during “Julia’s” production. She said she always made sure the cast and crew were well-fed and that none of that delicious food went to waste.