Hannibal Food Stylist Janice Poon Reveals Her Bag of Tricks

Food Features Hannibal
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If you’ve seen the show Hannibal, then you’ve probably noticed the lavish food that the show’s titular character is often seen preparing, serving, and eating. It’s hard not to salivate, even when you know what they’re made of—often, his victims. The fact that viewers find the beautifully prepared food appetizing while knowing it to be made of human parts serves as a testament to Janice Poon’s talents. She acts as food stylist on Hannibal, and has arguably one of the most unique jobs in entertainment right now. How does one end up with a gig like this, and what’s it really like feeding Hannibal ? Read on to find out.

Paste: How did you get into food styling?

Janice Poon: I was an art director at an ad agency and, even though I’ve shied away from being involved with food professionally (I grew up in a restaurant), I ended up with three food accounts. That’s when I was first exposed to food styling. It fascinated me that if you presented the truth, no one would buy it. You have to kind of lacquer it with lies. Decades later, I got this surprise call from someone in the film industry about a job on Hannibal. Three years later, here I am.

Paste: What was it like starting out on Hannibal?

JP: It was new to everybody because it was the pilot. I was taking my cues from the other departments. I figured, if the costume department could put Hannibal in a plaid suit, then I could do radical things with my food. I saw set decorators put skulls and things around, and I decided I’m going to do that too! I’m going to go for it. To my surprise, there was no push back. We just kept going and going and I just kept loading it on. I thought it was incredible; it was a slow realization that we were onto something spectacularly creative.

Paste: How much direction do you get from show creator Bryan Fuller and others?

JP: There might be nothing in the script but “Hannibal puts a beautiful dish on the table.” That can be the most fun, where you just do whatever. Usually there are phone calls or emails beforehand, a lot of late night emails from Bryan. We have a dialogue in terms of what it could be and various ways it can be prepared in Hannibal’s famous cooking scenes. Bryan always like to think about how it’s going to look when Hannibal is preparing the dishes. Even if we’re working on episode 304, they could be working on episodes 305, 306 and 310 in the writers’ room. All you know is you’ve been woken from your sleep with a phone call with someone asking “what’s a good recipe for fingers?” And you think, should I call the police?

Paste: What’s your process like once you get a script?

JP: On a smooth running series of events for me, I would read the script and get an idea of what I’m going to serve, I’d have a bit of dialogue with Bryan, and then I start sketching. I start thinking about what is going to work, what the actors are going to be able to eat. Then I hit the shops. Sometimes with me running and screaming, and sometimes with them running and screaming. When I go to see the butcher, they view me with a combination of fear, loathing and affection. They know I’m going to ask for the impossible, they know it’s going to be difficult to get, and they know I’m going to be wanting something very specific, but they also know that there is going to be a big order. I’m not going to just order one heart, I’m going to order twenty hearts.

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Paste: What do you think about the unique role food plays in the show?

JP: Anything that appears on screen, any props or wardrobe or food, has to say something about the characters. When I look at the script, there’s always a tone, there are motives. I know who’s coming to dinner and who is dinner, so there’s context there that I want to imbue the plates with. We had a scene where Hannibal was taking something restorative to someone, and I jumped in and said we could do black chicken. It’s a famously restorative dish in Chinese cuisine but very menacing looking. That’s the thing I’m trying to do most with the food, to make it look creepy and unsettling, but so appetizing. So even though you know something about it looks threatening and dangerous, in many ways it’s because Hannibal is the cook and it’s the personification of him. I wanted to embody that part of him: the devil himself, but you can’t help but like him.

Paste: Where do you draw inspiration from for your dishes?

JP: The main inspiration is always the scripts, they are so lyrical and beautiful. In terms of outside inspiration, I’m often trying to evoke the look of a Dutch master. The oil paintings of the bourgeoisie and how much they showed off their wealth. That’s like Hannibal, he’s a show-off. Salvador Dali and the surrealists have also been a great source of inspiration for me. You take inspiration from everything and just pack it in.

Paste: The food is very intimately photographed in Hannibal. Is that a challenge?

JP: It’s a challenge that a food stylist longs for. I can’t tell you how many projects I’ve been on when those pesky actors put their bodies or faces in front of my food! So often you toil with the hope that your food will be seen, but actors don’t want to say their lines with a mouth full of food. And the actors often deserve their close-up, and their close-up is about 14 inches above the dish.

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Paste: What special skills come in handy as a food stylist?

JP: You have to come to set prepared for everything. You may have to do something 50 times for reshoots and be ready to problem solve. At any minute, be ready to make your miracle happen, no matter what it is. After that, you need to understand how something is going to look on screen and in motion. You never know how your dish is going to be presented, so it has to look good from every angle. You have to have that ability to visualize what is cinematic, and know what colors work. It’s not like good old TV, when the biggest screen you could get was 30 inches, and you could do things like use paper towels dyed with green food dye to make salads. Those were the days before digital, and now it has to be major motion picture quality because people are seeing the minutiae.

Paste: Are food skills important?

JP: My chops as a sculptor and painter are far more in action than my skills as a cook. You need to have a fundamental understanding of what happens to food, but not be hemmed in by that. You’re not selling the flavor, you’re selling the look. It’s for the viewer. It’s hard for someone from the food industry to separate what it tastes like from what it looks like. Most people who are food stylists are food industry first, but I’m not.

Paste: Tell us about some of your favorite meals from Hannibal.

JP: The one I’ve just finished is always my favorite, because the challenge was so big but I overcame it and it’s fresh on my mind. The battle is over, and you have triumphed.

Season One

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It was our first food scene, the first time I worked with the director David Slade, the first time I worked with Mads [Mikkelsen], the first time he was eating something I made, and the first time the viewer was meeting Hannibal. So it was a big deal that day on set. And back then, we were just crossing our fingers. I had brought all kinds of lungs to set for this scene. I had my idea of how I wanted it to be, and we discussed how Hannibal might prepare it. When you’re preparing lungs, you have to press any liquid out so that when you’re frying it doesn’t steam, it fries. In the script, it calls for tapping it with a hammer, but it didn’t feel right. Mads suggested that he could press it out just using his hands, and I thought of course! I had brought all these lungs, some grisly ones and gory ones, and my favorite ones were very pink and fresh ones. As lovely as lungs can be. It’s supposed to be his secretary, so they were pretty, petite lungs. And the scene is wonderful, you come up behind him in the kitchen and realize he’s pressing on these lungs.

In many ways, that’s what sticks out in my mind as my favorite food shot, because I knew what the show was going to be. It was going to be elegant and beautiful and scary and sexy. And appetizing! Maybe it’s just me, but I think that the lung looked good. It was scary because you know what it was, but it still looked good. If we had used one of the bloodier, gory lungs it would have been more horror, but it wasn’t horror, it was seduction.

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Season Two

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The Ortolan was difficult—they’re baby birds only about the size of your thumb, and they’re illegal. With other dishes I can use pork or veal or any number of creatures, but with tiny birds—nothing else looks like a tiny bird but a tiny bird. I couldn’t use quail because they’re too big. And I’m not going to go down to Pets-R-Us and order 24 budgies. So I had to make them out of marzipan, which isn’t really hard, but I didn’t really want to do it because it’s very hard for the actors to eat that much marzipan.

When you eat the birds, you’re supposed to put the whole thing in your mouth and crunch down on it. When you bite down, the oil spurts, the lungs spurt brandy because you kill them by drowning them in brandy, and there’s a crunch from the beak and feet. I wanted to make it as real as possible, so I didn’t make it all marzipan, and I filled it with a date and nut mixture. I wanted them to have a bit of a surprise, something’s inside here, but not disturbing. For crunch, I made the legs out of dry spaghetti and the beaks and eyes out of pine nuts. I made like four dozen, so many of those. They were pretty convincing, and everyone thought they were real birds.

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Season Three

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One of my favorites from Season 3 was this leg. Brian said he “didn’t want to do the same old way we always do leg.” So I thought, it has to be slow-cooked, it’s not going to be tasty otherwise. It has to be marinated and slow-cooked. We talked about candying it somehow, and I thought about Hellraiser. If we cross-hatch it like a ham and put sugarcane skewers in it so it’ll be freaky like Hellraiser but delicious like those little beef medallion popsicles they give you at smart parties. I liked that it was so outrageous to roast a whole leg. People were taking me for granted, they weren’t asking how I was going to cook a whole leg in an oven!

Laurel Randolph is a food and lifestyle writer hailing from Tennessee and living in Los Angeles. She enjoys cooking, baking and candlestick making. Tweet at her face: @laurelrandy.