“Before we begin, you must all be warned nothing here is vegetarian. Bon appétit.”
One would expect nothing less from Dr. Hannibal Lecter in NBC’s new drama “Hannibal.” After all, the serial-killer psychiatrist, made most famous by Anthony Hopkins in 1991’s “The Silence of the Lambs,” cemented his love for human flesh with the iconic line, “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.”
The love for the forbidden meat is front and center in the primetime series based on Thomas Harris’ novels. Lecter, played by Mads Mikkelsen, is an adept chef with a penchant for unusual ingredients.
“What he eats is what defines him,” explained Toronto-based food stylist Janice Poon who, along with chef José Andrés, creates the stunning, lush and creepy meals for “Hannibal.”
She admitted it’s been an all-consuming project, which is telling for a woman who has her hands in many different pots. Most of Poon's business is sculpting and painting, and her love for art led her into the world of food styling.
Poon attributes her creativity and imagination to her upbringing on the prairies of east-central Alberta, Canada, in the small town of Stettler. “It’s a big sky and green stretches of horizon, everything is very flat,” said Poon. “I was really myopic, so I couldn’t see anything, and I think that is where imagining begins - when you start to embroider and weave a richness in the textures that aren’t really there.”
After commercial art school in Seattle, and a stint in advertising that involved laborious and repetitive food styling, a disillusioned Poon left to become a freelance illustrator, which she acknowledges immediately plunged her to the bottom of the pay scale. Craving structure and stability, Poon borrowed $4000 from her father to opened a small store in Yorkville, Toronto, where she specialized in selling quilts and comforters.
She wrote a cookbook on the side, which led to a Toronto magazine asking if she’d be willing to craft a Chinese winter melon soup for a feature. An elaborately carved melon filled with the special occasion savory soup was right up her alley, and led to her ascent as an in-demand food stylist for the magazine and across the city.
Poon's goal is creating a rich and intense image. “If I have enough imagery on the plate, then it starts transmitting that feeling regardless of whether it’s acknowledged intellectually or not. It’s acknowledged subconsciously – that’s what I’m really going for.”
A rise on a sea of savory winter melon soup netted Poon one of the more curious food styling jobs to come along. In NBC’s “Hannibal,” meals are important. “When they sit down to dinner it’s a respite from the killing, the maiming and mutating," Poon explained.
"Dinnertime is like a truce, even though he’s feeding you people. At the time, it seems like a truce: put your weapons down, we’ll all have tea. It’s a welcome con.”
It’s a gambit that constantly tests Poon’s abilities as a food stylist. Creating food for a cannibal isn’t easy, but her childhood spent working in her family's restaurants may have helped prepare her. One of her jobs was cleaning calf's liver, and as she recalled, "They’d throw the slab on the chopping block and I’d stand on my little Coke box, peel the skin off and clean out all the little veins.”
It wasn’t the baby cow, but rather crustaceans that got to her. “Cleaning crab which was really hard for me because they were alive and my dad would say you cannot eat anything you cannot kill.”
Dr. Lecter certainly doesn’t have a problem with that concept, and Poon is his best accomplice. She taught actor Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal) how to use a knife. “He actually learned really quickly and surprised me to the point where around the third or fourth episode he was complaining the knife wasn't sharp enough.”
Poon came to the set to sharpen knives using the technique her father taught, knife dragging away from the body, and Mikkelsen took exception. “My student turns to me and tells me 'You’re doing it wrong, give it to me.'” Mikkelsen proceeded to sharpen the knife toward himself.
The actor is apparently an intrepid eater. In the first episode, Poon had to create a lung, something that she admits is hard to fake. (She can’t serve up the real deal; pathogens are a big concern for a food stylist.)
“I was doing things like carving bread and soaking it," she said, "making it like a giant French toast thing and steaming it or taking vegetables that I thought had that aerated look and making concoctions out of baking soda and rice flour and just trying everything.”
Mikkelsen’s response to her carefully prepared realistic lung? “What is that stuff? It tastes like SPAM! I was looking forward to tasting lung.”
Poon loves working with him and says he’s open to anything. That isn’t always the case in Hollywood, where many actors have specific diet demands. It creates an even bigger challenge for a food stylist: realistic dishes, no pathogens, back-up versions for numerous retakes, anticipating on-the-fly script changes and doing it all while meeting various dietary restrictions.
Her sense of humor about what she does is evident. Poon seems unflappable even when recounting stories of procuring organs and traipsing through Chinatown to find what she needs for the next show. There was, however, one thing that gave her pause: chicken heads.
She bought a dozen for a recent episode, then boiled them, picked out the flesh and bleached two thirds of them, before passing along the task. “My poor assistant, Ettie, bless her heart, did about four, she’s not squeamish.”
So what exactly bothered Poon about this particular task? “It’s not picking the brains out and cleaning the flesh out of the skull, it’s the initial boiling off of the flesh. When they come out of the water, it’s wretched looking, their eyes are bulging...” she paused and changed the subject.
Those chicken skulls were used in episode eight, along with white asparagus, meant to evoke finger bones, and lotus root. Poon felt like the lotus would pair perfectly with the skull and asparagus to create a salad meant to give even a vegetarian pause.
Yes, there was a vegetarian at Dr. Lecter’s table: Freddie Lounds, a tabloid reporter played by Lara Jean Choroscecki, insisted on being served a meatless meal. Lounds might have dodged the flesh, but not the dread. The chicken skull perched menacingly atop the salad, a macabre meatless accoutrement.
Poon doesn’t have a full kitchen on the Toronto set of “Hannibal.” She works with three banquet tables and a couple of coolers; a silent alternative to a buzzing, humming refrigerator. Anticipating script changes is one of her bigger challenges because “you have to be ready for that big idea that the actor or the director might have.”
While her work plays a major role in the NBC series, there are many little touches that are never seen by viewers. For example, Poon noted, “You didn’t see the crab with his arm upraised, you didn’t see the beauty on the plate, and I know that because it’s like Cinderella, ‘just in case he asks me to dance.’”
Poon shares her inspiration and thought processes via her blog, “Feeding Hannibal,” offering fans an inside look at her work, replete with illustrations, revisions and poetry. Interest in the show’s macabre meals has spawned an unusual pop-up dinner in Toronto, on June 18 at The Cookbook Store with chef Matt Kantor interpreting her recipe ideas.
Meanwhile, she’s painting and working on her children’s books. The show’s first season finale airs Thursday June 20, and has been picked up by NBC for a second season.
The process of feeding Hannibal has certainly consumed Poon, but she’s philosophical about the work. “We all like to complain about it being hard, but if it wasn’t hard, it wouldn’t be any fun at the end of the day.”