The Food Styling Secrets Behind the Hit Show 'Lessons In Chemistry'

Food consultant Courtney McBroom explains why the Perfect Lasagna had to be perfect for 20 takes in a row.

Brie Larson as Elizabeth Zott in "Lessons in Chemistry"

Michael Becker / Apple TV+

Overseeing the food for a cooking show takes a lot of finesse. You’ve got to come up with a stellar menu — one that looks good on television and that viewers will actually want to make — stock the ingredients, deal with demanding sponsors, and of course, make sure that the star knows exactly what they’re doing. 

Elizabeth Zott, the protagonist of the novel-turned-Apple TV series, Lessons In Chemistry, probably would have appreciated a trusted chef by her side while filming her television show, Supper at Six. Lessons In Chemistry centers around Zott (portrayed by actress Brie Larson), a chemist living through the late 1950s and early 1960s. After being forced to endure constant gender-based discrimination while working in a lab, she is pushed out of her career and stumbles into the world of food television, becoming a more technical, Julia Child-esque host. 

But unlike Zott’s show, Lessons In Chemistry has a food consultant behind the scenes, developing the dishes featured on screen and working alongside Larson to accurately represent how someone like Elizabeth Zott would cook. Courtney McBroom is a chef, cookbook writer, and founder of Ruined Table, a newsletter and messy dinner party event series. She  shared with Food & Wine what it was like working as a food consultant for Lessons In Chemistry and, in a way, Supper at Six, a food show within a food show.

The following interview was edited for length and clarity.

What about being a food consultant for 'Lessons In Chemistry' intrigued you, and why did you decide to take it on?

Well, I am good friends with Brie [Larson], so that's how I came to be involved in the show to begin with. And I am obsessed with vintage cookbooks. I have all of the classic ‘50s, ‘60s, the Betty Crocker recipe card collection — I love them so much. I think the food of that time is so interesting and weird, and Brie knew that. 

So, she called me one day and she was like, “Hey, Courtney. I'm going to be doing this show where I play a chef and it's set in the ‘50s and I know you have all these cookbooks. Could I come over sometime and check them out?” And I was like, “Anytime. Come on over.” And then I didn't hear from her about it for three months. She was off shooting a blockbuster film, as she tends to do from time to time. When she came back, she called me, and said, “I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot, and I really think you'd be the perfect person to work on the show. What's your schedule like for the next few months? Is that something you would even be interested in doing?” And I was like, “Yeah, of course. I would be very much interested in doing that.” 

So I ordered the book and read it in one day. It was so good. I felt like I related to Elizabeth Zott in so many ways. I met with the producers, we hit it off,  and I was on set the next week.

Brie Larson as Elizabeth Zott in "Lessons in Chemistry"

Michael Becker / Apple TV+

What were your main responsibilities in this role?

I worked with Brie, the producers, and the writers to figure out what we wanted the food to be and how we wanted it to look. We wanted it to pop off the screen. We want people to be hungry when they watch the show. So [I was] figuring that out and how we wanted food to tell the story, and then working with the food stylist to actually make the food that was on the show. I had my hands in everything and it was so fun. I also worked with Brie directly for the cooking scenes, and I was the hands in the really closeup shots — it's actually me cooking, which was really fun. I had a hand cameo.

What was it like channeling the late 1950s and early 1960s, and accurately representing what the food would look like then from Elizabeth Zott's hands?

We made a decision from the beginning that, yes, Elizabeth Zott is a woman of the ‘50s — she's a woman of her time. But she's also a woman ahead of her time, and we wanted that to be represented in the way that she cooks. So she makes everything from scratch and she does everything with the freshest ingredients, which wasn't necessarily happening in the ‘50s. There were a lot of canned foods going on. There were a lot of Jello salads — beautiful, but that's not how we wanted Elizabeth's food to be represented. 

So we kind of did a mashup of modern [and vintage]. A lot of the dishes were food that I have cooked for myself, but then looked at with a ‘50s slant. You'll see things like a classic ham with pineapple rings on it. It's a really nice combination of the two styles.

What kind of research went into that portrayal?

Well, I have all of those vintage cookbooks, so they very much informed a lot of the dishes. And then there's a whole beef tallow story with Swift & Crisp [vegetable shortening]. Shortening was a big thing going on in the ‘50s, and there was a lot of stuff going on then about marketing it like it was healthy for you, and it turns out, no, actually, it was really bad for you. And that's something that Elizabeth Zott would've known when she saw the ingredients. So I thought that was a really cool storyline to put in.

Crown Roast of Lamb

Jordan Provost / Food Styling by Thu Buser

What were some other characteristics that you wanted from the food in order to fit into the color scheme and atmosphere of the show?

When I think about the food from the ‘50s, it was pot roast and a lot of really brown foods. That's delicious, but we also wanted the food to pop off the screen, so we wondered how we could add bits of color here and there. There's a pork chop scene with delicata squash, and we really thought about what the colors were going to be and how it was going to look the most delicious, and getting the perfect brown color on the pork chops. It's all about color — it just has to look good. It's very important to know that this is something that I would make for myself. It looks beautiful and it also tastes beautiful. 

Most of the food in 'Lessons In Chemistry' was from the book, but were there any dish ideas that you contributed?

There's a strawberry shortcake with beef tallow. For the Crown Roast of Lamb, I told the producers that one time I made a crown roast and I did a cute little curtsy and it was really weird. They were like, “Oh, let's put that in the show.” So it was funny to see things that I've done that are on my Instagram actually being put in the show.

Brie Larson as Elizabeth Zott in "Lessons in Chemistry"

Michael Becker / Apple TV+

How much of the food on set was real?

All of it. All of Elizabeth's Zott's food is real, because [the actors] are going to eat it, or they might eat it. Like for the crown roast, although it may not have been written [in the script] that she slices it and takes a bite, you never know. She might. And so we always wanted to be prepared for those last-second changes, but also I think that food looks best when it is represented as real as what it is. So we didn't do any weird tricks. The biggest tricks that we would ever really do would be to brush some oil on it to make it glisten. 

There is one scene where she has to take a bite of the Oyster Zott over and over again. We weren't going to make her just eat oyster after oyster, so we did a mushroom. 

Did any dishes require some trial and error?

A lot were things I've made so many times. So there weren't really that many surprises. With the vegetable galette, the first time I made it I didn't take into account how much the vegetables would shrink in the oven, so I had to do it again and really stuff them in there so it looked nice and full and beautiful.

What was it like teaching Brie Larson how to look like an excellent home cook?

That part was really easy because she is such a good home cook and she does her research, too. I think she knew she was going to do the show for a while, so she was cooking a lot to really learn all the techniques. I think my favorite memory of that in particular was the scene where she's assembling lasagna in the first episode. And that was one of my first days on set, so it was all very new to me. But I was standing behind Sarah Adina Smith, who was the director and who was also very talented and amazing, and I was kind of directing Sarah as she was directing Brie. I was like, “Okay, that's enough of the bechamel! She can move on!” And then she'd be like, “Move on!” I felt like I was directing Brie, in a way. 

Tell us about another small detail that was key to bringing the food to life.

For a split second, Elizabeth is making a blackberry pie that she ends up using to take to a block party, and she uses a refractometer. I used to use those when I worked in pastry, [while] making gelato. You have to make sure that the sugar content is correct so it has the right mouthfeel. I thought that would be such an Elizabeth Zott thing to do, but can we find a refractometer from the 1950s? Although Elizabeth Zott's food was ahead of her time, the equipment could not be — it had to be from the ‘50s. So we found one and I'm really glad that it made it into the show. 

What were the most challenging parts of your role?

The amount of takes that we had to do. I've done cookbooks and photo shoots before, and you don't have to keep changing the food out. But with film, you have to think about how Calvin's taking a bite of this lasagna and that we need to have enough for 20 takes. So you have to have the exact same piece of lasagna — and it has to look exactly the same for continuity — over and over and over again, to reset quickly. That was something that I knew was going to happen, but I didn't really know until it was happening. 

And then there was also the flambé scene where we were using live fire on set. That was a very stressful day. You never really know how big the flambé is going to be or in what direction it’s going to go. There's always a chance something could go awry. But Brie did it in one take. There were people with fire extinguishers, there was a guy with a fire blanket ready to tackle her in case something went down, but she didn’t flinch. She was such a pro.

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