Julie & Julia: Food, Glorious Food

“Julie and Julia,” starring Meryl Streep and written/directed by Nora Ephron, is being released by Columbia Pictures on August 7, 2009.

“We hope you leave this movie wanting something to eat,” says producer says producer Laurence Mark.

Bringing in Professional Chefs

With such a delectable subject as French cuisine, the filming of Julie & Julia was marked by the constant presence of food. So many scenes involved food preparation and consumption that matters of quality and authenticity were paramount. This was the domain of culinary consultant Susan Spungen and executive chef Colin Flynn, both of whom brought years of experience in restaurant work and food journalism to this unusual temporary job.  Spungen had served as the founding editorial director for food and entertaining at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia and launched Everyday Food, the company’s first all-food title.  Spungen also authored two cookbooks, one with Stewart, and currently writes about food for several publications.  Chef Flynn graduated from the French Culinary Institute before taking on positions at the prestigious Manhattan restaurants Bayard and Zoe; he eventually became sous-chef at Alison on Dominick.  Their work on Julie & Julia required them to prepare all the food used in the film and to serve as technical advisors. Nearly every day of filming at the studio, the stage would be filled with the aromas of that particular day’s onscreen menu. Spungen and Flynn had their own kitchen area built onto each stage, where they worked wonders turning out multiple versions for multiple takes of everything from bruschetta to boeuf bourguignon to boned duck. “We didn’t get anything sent back,” jokes Flynn.

Ephron says what really impressed her about Spungen’s work was that they had to pull off a form of character-based cooking. In other words, the meals shouldn’t signal to the audience that a trained chef was at hand. “Susan’s a genius, because she made sure the food in the movie looked like a normal person made it,” says Ephron.

Preparing Mass Dishes

Often, Flynn and Spungen were called upon to make gargantuan amounts of rather demodé dishes rarely seen on contemporary menus, such as Lobster Thermidor for a dinner scene involving six eaters. That one required numerous takes over the course of the day. During the scenes showing the prep work for that evening, Amy Adams had to act with live lobsters take after take. When it came time to eat them on camera, Adams begged off, pleading for fake lobster meat instead. “Cooking them in the scene before just traumatized me,” she says with a rueful laugh. “And now I cannot eat lobster anymore.”

Cooking Training

Though Streep is a home cook and Adams took classes before filming got underway, both were coached in French cooking techniques by Spungen, including the deboning of that duck, not to mention the trick of flipping an omelet. “That was a difficult scene to coordinate, because we had to get all these actors playing students in the Cordon Bleu to flip their omelets at the same time along with Meryl,” says Spungen.  “We gave Meryl some on-the-spot last-minute omelet-flipping lessons in our kitchen before she went on to film the scene. But she aced it, she was brilliant. She can swing a fish around in a piece of cheesecloth without anyone’s coaching.”

Streep says the biggest thing she took away from her culinary scenes was the importance of good knives. “Chopping onions is a breeze if the thing is nice and heavy and has a great edge,” says Streep. “As Julia says, ‘Always wash your knives, sharpen them, dry them and put them away.’ A sharp knife is everything!”

Aside from the onscreen food, of which there was plenty, by late afternoon on filming days Nora Ephron and executive producer Don Lee would often have special treats delivered to the set for the entire cast and crew. These could be anything from the best chicken in Harlem to barbecued ribs from Brooklyn to fabulous sweets delivered by pastry chefs. Then, at wrap time, all the leftovers from the day’s filming were brought out for the cast and crew to finish off. Nearly everyone packed on serious pounds during the three-month shoot.