The Chef who Cooked for Julie & Julia
New York City-based food stylist Colin Flynn, 36, was the executive chef for the new movie Julie & Julia. He told Food & Think blogger Amanda Bensen what it was like cooking for Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, and the lingering legend of Julia Child.
Amanda Bensen: What’s your background, and why did you get into food styling?
Colin Flynn: I worked in restaurants for about 15 years, I’d say. In 2002, I switched over to food styling, for print at first. I didn’t start movies until a couple years ago. It was mostly luck. I got hired to do a few scenes in Burn After Reading, and the same woman who hired me there was the props master for Julie & Julia.
It’s a slightly more sane lifestyle than working in a New York City kitchen. I mean, New York’s a great city to cook in, but you just work like a dog all the time, and it makes it hard to have a girlfriend or a wife. Movies, it’s still crazy, but it’s an acceptable amount of crazy.
AB: What was your role behind the scenes in Julie and Julia?
CF: I was the executive chef, and a woman named Susan Spungen was brought in as a culinary consultant by (writer/director/producer) Nora Ephron. It was just the two of us, so I was involved in pretty much all of the dishes that appeared in scenes. Everything we used was edible, and almost everything was real—I was kind of a stickler for trying to keep it as close to the original recipe as possible.
AB: So you really followed Julia Child’s recipes?
CF: Mostly. The boeuf bourguignon was essentially the same thing, and so were the pastries. The Queen of Sheba cake was exactly as per the recipe. But then there was a lobster thermidor and we used potatoes instead, because nobody wants to sit in front of lobster and have to eat it take after take.
And there’s a scene in the movie where Julie Powell makes a soufflé. We actually used choux pastry for that, which…looks exactly like a soufflé, except once it’s cooked it never falls. That was the pretty much the only recipe that was completely not real. But at least it was still a French pastry!
AB: There’s also a scene where Julie Powell falls asleep and forgets to take her boeuf bourguignon out of the oven. When she remembers, it’s a blackened mess. How did you achieve that look?
CF: We just essentially burnt the hell out of it! We burned it to a point where we thought it would be burned, and then we had to burn it some more. That was one funny thing about this job; having to make things that were screwed up, when normally, your job as a food stylist is to make things look overly perfect. There was also the aspic that we had to make look disgusting.
AB: How did you do that?
CF: Well, it’s aspic, you don’t really have to try that hard…Maybe that was once an attractive dish, but not any more. I think what we made was mostly Kitchen Bouquet, water and gelatin.
AB: Kitchen Bouquet? What’s that?
CF: It’s essentially heavy brown food coloring. A lot of food stylists use it to paint on meats or color liquids, it’s sort of a caramel goop.
Click through for more about artificial coloring, stories from the set, and Colin's favorite Julia Child recipes...
AB: I’ve heard that food styling often involves putting artificial stuff in or on food to make it look prettier. Was there a lot of shellacking involved in this movie?
CF: The food for the most part was pretty attractive in its natural state, and since they’re eating it, you don’t want to manipulate it too much. You might just spray it with water to freshen it up if it’s been sitting around a while. And you’re constantly replacing the food with fresher versions. There’s always tons of back-up food in the wings.
AB: Was there anything you cooked that didn’t appear in the final movie?
CF: Well, during the restaurant scenes, the camera spends more time looking at the actors talking, and doesn’t necessarily take a close look at what they’re eating. So I don’t think the lobster thermidor was ever really seen. And you have to make food for everybody eating in the background at all of these restaurants in a scene. You make it with the knowledge that people might never see it, but it has to look good in case someone does. I don’t get too broken up about it either way.
AB: Were the actors really eating the food?
CF: Yes, everything was eaten. Which is more work for us, but it’s nice to work on a food movie for a change. Usually, maybe I’m brought in for a scene or two. This was almost every day for three and a half months!
AB: Can you tell us about a particularly challenging moment on set?
CF: There’s a scene at the beginning of the movie where Julie (Amy Adams) makes a chocolate cream pie. That was when we were first starting shooting, so we didn’t really have an idea about how many takes there would be, and we blew through so much more of the filling and crusts than we expected. We ended up scrambling to make more—and be quiet while doing it, since you can’t make noise while they’re rolling!
The overall challenge was just making enough food without going overboard and spending too much money. There were definitely days where we had to send people back into the city to buy more ingredients.
AB: Did you taste the dishes yourself before the actors did?
CF: Oh yeah. In restaurants, you get in the habit of being sure you taste everything lots. And you don’t want the actors to be bummed out by the quality of the food.
AB: Did you get any feedback from the actors?
CF: Well, we never got any food sent back to the kitchen! They were very nice, and liked everything, although I think just the quantity was kind of difficult for them sometimes with all the takes.
AB: I read that you had to bone something like 60 ducks in the course of filming; why?
CF: Yeah. Because there's the scene where Julia Child bones a duck, and the scene where Julie Powell bones a duck, and then we actually had to have the finished product for that outdoor scene at the end of the movie....It wound up being just a LOT of duck.
AB: Were the actors really cutting into raw ducks?
CF: Yep. Over, and over, and over again. And they were really great about it. Cause if that’s not your thing that can make you queasy—duck is a very fatty, slimy animal, especially when its sitting under hot lights. But they were very good little students.
AB: Sounds like the actors picked up some real-life cooking skills by being in this movie.
CF: Yes, they were incredible, and they hopefully learned some new tricks. I mean, I’m not sure if they’re going to be going home and making boneless, pastry-encrusted duck, but hopefully they’ll be better at chopping onions, making omelettes, things like that.
AB: Speaking of chopping onions—there’s a scene where Julia (Meryl Streep) chops a ridiculously large pile of onions. Were those real?
CF: Yes, but they’d been soaked in ice water; otherwise they would really make you cry!
AB: What’s your favorite Julia Child recipe?
CF: The boeuf bourguignon really is fantastic....And that Queen of Sheba chocolate cake with almonds in the exterior is a great recipe. It's elegant enough looking, but not overly difficult to make.
AB: What would you cook for the real Julia Child if you could invite her to dinner? One of her own recipes?
CF: No way, that’s too daunting—I’d probably make her spaghetti and meatballs! The one thing I’ve learned about cooking for professionals is, the simpler, the better. You don't want to attempt something if they already have a pre-conceived notion of exactly how it should be.
AB: What’s your favorite type of cuisine to prepare?
CF: Provincial food, whether it be Italian, American or French; what peasants and farmers cook. I love simple food, which sounds sort of like a cop-out, but I think some of the best food is the least futzed with.
AB: Is there any food or dish you don’t want to see again for a long time after working with it on Julie and Julia?
CF: Definitely aspic. It’s a food I’m not at all unhappy to see has fallen out of grace with the American public.