It's not impossible that you haven't watched Hannibal. The NBC drama based on Thomas Harris' Red Dragon is not, unfortunately, knocking the socks off those miserable people who have to calculate viewing figures.
And that's a pity, because Hannibal is probably the first fictional series to center almost entirely around food. An episode does not pass without Hanibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) producing something as ridiculous and brilliant as a lobster emerging from a cantaloupe or wine-cured foie gras decorated with butterflies and peacock feathers.
Hannibal has always used food as measuring stick of refinement—but his latest incarnation has shifted the emphasis away from the act of consumption toward the art of production. It's a fascinating way to approach the character, and now every dish represents him, his contradictions, and his vices.
While Mikkelsen, Hugh Dancy and the fantastic Laurence Fishburne may take top-billing for the show, it's food stylist Janice Poon who actually creates them. Poon, a Toronto-based artist by trade, gave me some insight on exactly what goes into planning the mad doctor's table each episode.
MUNCHIES: Hi Janice. Right. Let's get the boring bit out of the way first. What's the difference between a food stylist and a chef? Janice: Can I get all snarky there?
Please. Well, I don't mean to be rude, but—for God's sake, a chef used to be a vaunted position, where you had to claw your way to the top, but now you just need a prison tattoo to qualify. But don't quote me on that!
Too late. It's crazy how all the celebrity chefs have transformed cooking into a vocation par excellence, but before it wasn't considered a career path. And neither was food styling. In that way they're similar.
Food styling isn't all about cooking. Not really. It's really a lot more about problem solving. It's usually, "How do I make something that isn't X look like X?" Film is a cooperative art form, everything plays off the other. A lot of times I'll be chasing wardrobe for a steamer. Coming from a very insular way of working, it takes some getting used to. There's no control. Your moonscape is shared.
Hannibal's food certainly looks delicious, but it's also meant to be grotesque, and you pull that off very well. How? Food is just like that and, quintessentially, Hannibal is like that. I try to inform his character through the food. There's no point in food if it isn't adding to the story. It must have a deep subtext. You've got to put your mind into the diner. Think about the first person who ate an oyster or the original egg sucker, even. A) You've got to be pretty hungry and B)...
Open-minded? Yes. The underlying message I try to put across with the food is: THIS CAN KILL YOU. How on earth was the first oyster-eater to know they wouldn't die? It's a risk. Food must be risky. There's a pact between the cook and the diner—one of trust. Hannibal subverts that. To this day I do not how people can go to restaurants and live. It should be killing them.
Is this how you get your ideas, then? Through fresh eyes? I'm in the grocery store, pretending to look at things as if I've never seen them before. You should try it, because a lot of it is pretty creepy-looking stuff. It's just that we're conditioned to think that it's yummy. It might not be.
I'm fascinated by the liminal space Hannibal's dishes exist in—food not to be eaten, but admired. Would you consider your creations in Hannibal as works of art, then, rather than food? In the books Hannibal is a great gourmand. He uses it as a measuring stick as how rude someone is. Food is refinement. Fire civilised us, says Levi Strauss. The more sophisticated the food preparation is, the less raw or rude it is. Hannibal's thing is to eat the rude—if you're rude, he'll eat you.
When I'm staring into the middle distance, I think of the dishes as works of art, but the truth is, when I'm in the studio, pounding out the dishes for the next, next, next, next take... I become a line cook. Just get the slop on the table. Wait. No. It's never slop, though. It functions on screen as art, but like all art it's a matter of perspective.
I've often wondered whether the food you see on television is real or not. Is it even edible? It's real. My job is—primarily—to not kill the actors.
What happens to the vast amount you must use? Is it thrown away or eaten? The vultures—the crew—love food. And I love them for it. So I try to feed them the slack as we go along. But the reality is that, as we shoot, the food is in coolers. Not refrigerators, because the humming would interfere with the sound.
I don't just turn up, wave my magic wand and have food ready. I have to wait. So by the time we wrap up, most of the food cannot be eaten. That's health and safety concerns. There's a hell of a lot of sitting around. But in the end, usually, I've been through pretty much everything I had prepared.
You said that food styling is problem solving. Do you often use one piece of food and tart it up to make it resemble something else? Quite often our food is a lie. I'm going to tell you a terrible story. Way back in the day, when dinosaurs were the DOPs [Directors of Photography], we used to say, "The food doesn't matter because it's going to be the size of a pea." The biggest television you could get was the size of a dinner plate. Food went by in a flash on screens.
Food styling evolved with technology? Well, precisely. And let's not forget shops were never open 24 hours, back then, so if my director said, "We're going to pull way back and do an establishing scene that shows the whole restaurant," we were stuck with what to feed our actors. And you can't say no. It's a rule in TV. Nothing is impossible.
What happened? We decided to give everybody salad. It's easy to pick up on screen. Iconic. The problem was: We had no salad. No lettuce, cabbage, tomatoes, you name it. We didn't have it.
Yikes. So we got some food coloring—green—and loads of paper towels and colored them green and stuck them on the plates. Ta-da. Salad for everybody. That's food styling.
I assume that's impossible to do now? Absolutely. Food on television has changed forever. It's a purely technological thing. People can download it, watch it in HD, take screenshots. Food must be real. Or as close an imitation as art can be. However—a little admittance—if you spot a side dish in Hannibal that's not in focus or eaten from, there's bound to be some mash potato in there, propping it up.
Okay, I've been dying to ask you this. If you were at Hannibal's table, would you eat human? I would consider it. If I walked away from the table, having not partaken, I like to think a large part of me would be full of regret. We all regret things, otherwise we'd all be in jail or dead.
I remember a New York Times journalist [William Seabrook], who was doing research for a book and wanted to know the taste of human flesh, so a friend of his at the Sorbonne, in Paris, acquired him a slice of loin from a fresh cadaver (of natural causes, we hope), and this journalist proclaimed it to taste just like veal. So, I suppose... in a case like that ... I suppose.
What about secretly? I can tell you're from a small family, where you can have a secret. I'm from a big family where everything is discovered. Perhaps, as food is for the sharing, if I had a cohort, and we'd all agreed—including the dead person—then, oh. You know. There's no law for cannibalism. It's so taboo you don't need one. There's queasiness about it. We all have the lines we draw.
If it were a question of survival... If it was for science!
Thanks a lot for talking to me. Let's cook sometime.