Food stylist, "Hannibal"
An artist and author, Janice Poon fell into food styling as “kind of a lark,” first as an art director at a prestigious agency, then again at a modestly budgeted food magazine. She built a reputation for being someone bold (and foolish) enough to say yes to ridiculous challenges. Janice was in the middle of battling a frustrating rewrite of her children's book when she received a call from the props department of NBC’s Hannibal offering her the chance to style the food of a very epicurean cannibal.
Janice Poon is the Toronto-based food stylist behind the cannibalistic dishes for NBC’s Hannibal, a television series prequel to the Oscar-winning 1991 film Silence of the Lambs.
H&F interviewed Janice Poon before we learned of NBC’s decision to cancel the show after its third season in August. (Reportedly, there were plans to introduce Clarice Starling, who was played by Jodie Foster in the film, as a character in the fourth season.) Right now, the producers and fans of the show (or "Fannibals") are keeping hope alive by tweeting #SaveHannibal in support. A Change.org petition has amassed over 32,000 signatures and counting.
In this interview, Janice Poon talks about just what it takes to “Hannibalize” perversely delectable and human-looking dishes (got giraffe?), Mads Mikkelsen's skills in the kitchen and how, sometimes, “the real thing doesn’t look as real as the fake thing.”
← Sketches: "That’s so nobody can say Why are you putting feathers on it? Because the show is so fast-moving with so many details and people to sign off on every arcane thing, by the time you get a script, it’s already too late to make changes." - Janice Poon
Images: Feeding Hannibal
H&F: I’m assuming you would need to compare lots of cuts of meat to make it look human.
Janice Poon: You would, but you also need a certain bag of knowledge in terms of how big an animal is, and what would be the longest muscle.
I remember thinking, “If I could just get some giraffe meat.” I did make a few calls, “There must be a zoo that’s lost a giraffe recently. They can FedEx it to me.”
H&F: Is the task always doable?
Janice Poon: I get some extreme requests from Bryan [Fuller]. At one point, he wanted to show Hannibal cutting up a body the way a butcher would quarter a carcass. Where am I going to get an animal that passes as a human being that’s going to be credible?
H&F: Do you Frankenstein different meats together?
Janice Poon: I’m just like Dr. Frankenstein. I’m always stitching things, exchanging, putting one kind of meat on a different bone, patching stuff together. I sew a lot but don’t use a lot of meat glue - transglutaminase. It’s used a lot in the industry for making big pieces of meat out of scraps.
H&F: You use the term “Hannibalize” to describe your process. What does that entail?
Janice Poon: The key is to let the viewer’s imagination do more of your work. You do what you can, but you also put something else on the plate, a garnish or sauce or whatever, that hints at something else. The secret ingredient is imagination, fear.
H&F: Hannibal has a very ornate, decadent sense of taste.
Janice Poon: Yes, because the food isn’t just part of the script, it’s everything. It either has to propel the plot, inform Hannibal’s motive, his mood, or what’s coming next. It needs to hint at all these things. That’s my real job.
H&F: How experienced is Mads Mikkelsen in the kitchen?
Janice Poon: My god, he’s brilliant. I accused him, once, of practicing at home and pretending that he was a quick study. It’s hilarious how good he is. I did give him some lessons, but he doesn’t need them. He’s marvelous. He strolls around like “lah-di-dah, just another day at the office,” but he’s brilliant with everything he does, even the fight scenes. I know that we’re not talking about food, now, but he does his own stunts.
H&F: The show has a big overlap between gore and food; do you work with the special effects department at all?
Janice Poon: Oh yeah. Sometimes, the real thing doesn’t look as real as the fake thing. We did a scene with a heart surrounded by entrails, just a nice little presentation. My real hearts were lovely, but didn’t have large veins coming out of it because of the way they cut them at the abattoir. And the prosthetic one did, so we combined our efforts after arguing about whose blood to use: the real foodsellers blood or the special effects blood. The blood thing is funny. Everybody uses the same formula, but the only difference is that costumers put detergent in theirs so it comes out easier.
Another time, I was making a fake arm with a hand, and obviously I couldn’t fake a hand, so we used a prosthetic arm with a hand and then switched it out for an arm that Hannibal could carve into this… thing, which you’ll see.
The departments are all astonishing. I was getting a coffee, and one of the actresses pulled up her robe sleeve, and it looked like the skin on her arm had been taken off entirely. The makeup people had painted her arm to look like prosciutto. It looked just like raw meat, and the funny thing is that my first thought was, “Exactly! I can use slices of prosciutto!"
H&F: It seems like you have a symbiotic relationship with the departments.
Janice Poon: We work together and feed off each other like crazy. That’s why I was using raven’s feathers, skulls, beetles on the plate, because the set director’s using them on set, and why not? It looks brilliant, dark and scary. Also, I don’t want to be the lamest department on the show, so I have to step up my game if I’m going to move with the group.
H&F: I read that you worked on a vampire show where you made a vegan-friendly raw meat substitute that looked so realistic the actress refused to eat it for her scene. How did you do that?
Janice Poon: I thought, if she’s vegan, she’s not going to want wheat flour either, so I made a mixture of glutinous rice. I used beets for color, and the glutinous rice flour to make the meat. I steamed it, mixed the rice flour with hot water, kneaded it into the dough, and then nuked it. I then chopped it up so I had a batch of red and a batch of white, and mixed the two. Not too early on though, because the beet juice will leach into the white. Then olive oil. That's it.
H&F: It was a hamburger?
Janice Poon: She was making meatballs, so it was minced meat.
H&F: Do you have any other examples of meat-ing creatively?
Janice Poon: I made lamb tongues out of bulgur and water. It’s like making a Lebanese kibbeh. You mix cracked wheat with water and it makes a kind of mush that holds together. The texture is a little 'nubbly,' so I added a pink food coloring, made little tongues out of kibbeh dough, steamed them up, and they were my little lambs’ tongues.
The idea is that Hannibal is always eating people, regardless of what he’s feeding you. So I wanted it to look like something that could be lamb’s tongue but probably was a people tongue. Lambs’ tongues are so homely, and once you cook them they just look creepy and unappetizing, and what I want more than anything is for the food to look so delicious that you want to reach into the screen and try it, even though you know it’s people. It’s the personification of Hannibal. He’s the Devil. Why do you like him? Why do you want to get to know him? Why do you want to eat these tongues? They’re people!
H&F: I really loved that photo of the side-by-side of your leg with the piece of meat.
Janice Poon: I don’t play with the food. It’s a serious job, you know? I wouldn’t have to go to these measures, but I said, “I’m going to use veal shank,” and people weren’t so sure it would look like a human leg. Like, you either trust me or you don’t. I took a glass, put a sock on it, dropped it in the shoe, held the shank up to my leg above the shoe and my assistant took the picture on her phone. We don’t have a lot of time to waste, but a point needed to be made.
H&F: Do you play pranks with this stuff?
Janice Poon: Nope, nobody’s got time for pranks. I did send out a plate of eyeball hors-d'oeuvre once, though, just for laughs. We were shooting a party scene and it was just going on forever, so I made a plate of eyeballs garnished with a tulip. I called it “Four-Eyed Tulips.”
← Sketches: "Sketching what I think everything is going to look on the plate became the fastest way to inform the team of my intentions. Also, once you’ve sent an e-mail and no one replies, that’s as good as a yes. Send an e-mail, wait 20 minutes, Okay. Run." - Janice Poon
Images: Feeding Hannibal
H&F: Do you have a favorite resource for cannibalism?
Janice Poon:: I don’t want to go to any cannibal sites. I think that Google knows everything about me and I don’t want them knowing I have the slightest interest in cannibals. I’m not fascinated by psychosis, I’m fascinated by fantasy.
I don’t think we can separate our emotions from what we eat. I’ll give you a perfect example: I’ve fed people chocolate pudding, and I’ve fed people sanguinaccio, which is a pudding made from chocolate and blood. When they eat the chocolate pudding, they wolf through it. When they eat the sanguinaccio, they pause. They take tiny spoonfuls, roll it around in their mouth, and think about it. There’s a frisson. You can’t even compare it because one is so loaded that it completely changes the experience.
That’s why I’m a huge proponent of food arts, like displaying your food nicely because it’s like gift-wrap. The wrap has nothing to do with the gift, but it’s a way of saying, “I’ve got something special for you, and just for you.” It’s not superfluous, it’s a clue.
H&F: That’s especially interesting when you apply it to Hannibal. It’s gift-wrapped, but more sinister.
Janice Poon: Hannibal’s giving them a gift. He’s letting them live.
H&F: In 2014, British chef James Tomlinson created a burger recipe and claimed it was the closest you could get to eat people without actually eating people. The recipe is 400g minced pork, 400g minced veal, and 200g minced bone marrow. Would you try this?
Janice Poon: I would. It’s an interesting recipe and I can imagine the flavor. I’m not sure people would taste that fatty because marrow does have a fatty quality and most humans aren’t that fat.
H&F: How would you adjust the recipe?
Janice Poon: I wouldn’t. I think he’s very close. The American adventurer William Seabrook said it tastes like veal in his 1931 book “Jungle Ways”, but back when he wrote that veal didn’t taste like the veal that we have now. Veal today has a much lighter taste, I think.
H&F: His accounts have been disputed, though. He claimed that he had tasted human meat with the Guero tribe in West Africa but later confessed that the tribal people never allowed him to partake with them. He did taste people but got his sample from a morgue in Paris.
Janice Poon: And French people would taste different, with all that wine, crusty bread, and Camembert. They’re going to be yummier.
H&F: In 2012, Japanese artist Mao Sugiyama cut off his own genitals and cooked it for 5 people – the 6th was a no-show – as a performance piece. If Hannibal had been in charge of the cooking, what do you think he would have done?
Janice Poon: Frankly, I think he would have killed the guy and made Osso Busco out of him.
H&F: You have a very good relationship with your fans who follow your work on Hannibal. Do you also have a lot of vegetarian fans?
Janice Poon:: Yeah. I know that’s sort of crazy. I love that, actually. None of us are murderers, but we all think Mads is pretty cool. I’m doing a cookbook for Hannibal, and I’m going to put in a lot of vegetarian recipes in, because there’s no difference between a vegetarian and a non-vegetarian except that they’re vegetarians, so why wouldn’t they want to cook something ghoulish and crazy?
Janice Poon: And delicious. Ghoulish and delicious.
H&F: Is there anything from the new season that you can share with us that we can look forward to?
Janice Poon: I think that one of my most beautiful dishes is, in fact, something I can’t tell you about. It’s because it is the last scene of the last episode, and… it’s a cross between the Nine Circles of Hell and a luau.