Styling Food for the Silver Screen

Whether it’s a pork chop for Frances McDormand or Christmas cookies for Johnny Depp, Tufts graduate Christine Tobin whips up camera-ready food that actors can really sink their teeth into
With gloved hands, food stylist Christine Tobin sets out balls of pink ice cream, an authentic 19th-century treat, for a scene in the 2019 version of Little Women.
Christine Tobin, left, stages authentic 19th-century treats for a scene in the 2019 version of Little Women. Photo: Wilson Webb/CTMG
April 13, 2021

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She’s prepared jam with Laura Dern, roasted chicken legs for Bradley Cooper, and served piccata to Jennifer Lawrence. But Christine Tobin, A08 (BFA), isn’t an actress—she’s one of the film industry’s most in-demand food stylists, bringing culinary authenticity to movies as varied as Little Women, American Hustle, and the upcoming Leonardo DiCaprio satire Don’t Look Up.

On movie sets, she ensures that recipes are authentic (she pored over countless Victorian cookbooks for Little Women, which contains 27 food scenes) and coaches actors on proper eating techniques. Think of her as a costume designer for food, making sure everything looks just so.

But food styling is “more than just tweezer work,” she said, laughing. “It’s a deep understanding of the chemistry of food, how long it can sit before it dies, how to treat it. It’s not as easy as saying, ‘I love food.’”

Food stylist Christine Tobin, A08 (BFA), has worked on 18 movie sets. Illustration by Melinda JosieTobin has worked on 18 movie sets, but she got her start far from the glamour of Hollywood. The Massachusetts native grew up in a Sicilian-immigrant family where life revolved around cooking. She later supported herself by waitressing at high-profile restaurants like Oleana while studying graphic design at Endicott College and later printmaking at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. There, she completed the studio diploma program in 1998 and the fifth-year certificate program in 1999, and earned her B.F.A. in 2008.

Tobin’s aesthetic sense served her well: In 2006, her boss, Ana Sortun, star chef of Oleana, tapped her as a stylist for her cookbook Spice, charged with making recipes look as delicious as they tasted. From there she went on to style for food packaging, magazines, commercials, and eventually films.

She landed her first movie job thanks to longtime mentor and food stylist John Carafoli, a fellow SMFA at Tufts alum, who passed her name to a connection in Hollywood. The rest is straight out of a movie.

“I was literally sitting at the Boston Nature Center as a stay-at-home mom with my two kids, alone at a park, wondering what to do with my life, when the phone rang,” she recalled. In short order, she was on the set of Labor Day helping Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin make peach pie together, the stars’ fingers intertwined in a romantic moment.

From there, she went on to style the food in American Hustle, Olive Kitteridge, and Black Mass with Johnny Depp, who played notorious Boston gangster Whitey Bulger. Depp surprised Tobin by improvising during a dinner scene, devouring Christmas sugar cookies. Tobin’s assistant had to furiously prepare more in the back.

“I had just placed them on a mantel for set dressing, as if kids had made them,” Tobin said. “He ate one after another after another. This is why you should always show up with more food than you need.”

Another favorite moment? Working with Frances McDormand on the HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge, where food had a starring role. In one scene, Olive’s loutish husband, Henry, brought a young colleague home and flirted with her over dinner. Frustrated, McDormand began gnawing on one of Tobin’s pork chops to convey Olive’s anger.

Jo (Saoirse Ronan) presents a homemade birthday cake to Marmee (Laura Dern) in one of the 27 scenes in Little Women that feature food by Christine Tobin. Photo: Wilson Webb/CTMG“With Frances, I was able to really collaborate to use food as an element of storytelling,” she said.

Work has been challenging during the pandemic, though. The Boston resident was shooting an HBO series based on the life of Julia Child when COVID-19 restrictions hit, forcing the crew to evacuate for seven months. It has since wrapped.

Happily, she’s now back on the Don’t Look Up set in Boston, helping stage restaurant scenes while following new safety protocols, including daily COVID-19 testing.

Like so many others, she’s working from home, too. She has been using her sunroom as a staging area as she styles recipes for an upcoming cookbook from food-media company Milk Street.

The pandemic has imbued her work for Milk Street—which exposes home chefs to new dishes, cultures, and cooking techniques—with fresh meaning. She’s excited that so many people, stuck in their homes, have embraced cooking, and she urges fledgling cooks to branch out, even if they’re initially insecure.

“Try it. Share it. Know that you’re making someone else smile or feel good. It doesn’t have to be a lost art,” she said. She sees a harkening back to her own childhood, when her mom used to drop off baked goods for neighbors—“like little jewel boxes,” she said.

Of course, not everyone has her talent. One quick hack to make any home-cooked meal look film-worthy? High-quality olive oil.

She said, “A drizzle that puts everything in a glisten—it should have a greenish hue—is a good trick.”