When NBC ordered 13 episodes of a show about cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter, the show’s creator, Bryan Fuller, had a difficult task: He needed to find a borderline crazy team to make the show’s food — which is supposed to be human flesh. Oh, and Hannibal is also a gourmet cook.
Hannibal the TV show is a prequel to Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs — that is, before Lecter is found out. So the villain is creepy but cheerful, a show-off cook — braising and garnishing parts of human bodies like he’s Thomas Keller, then serving them to ignorant dining companions with a nice glass of Chianti. which means elaborate meals would be part of nearly every episode.
“One of the fantastic things about working with a character as established as Hannibal is that consumption, whether it be gourmand or something a little more nefarious, is always going to be a part of the occasion,” Fuller says. “Hannibal’s motto is ‘eat the rude.’ He refers to his victims as ‘free-range rude.’ This is a killer who’s not so much someone wearing a hockey mask or hiding in the bushes — this is a gentlemen dandy who sees eating you as an appropriate response to your behavior.”
Fuller needed to put together a team who could find humanlike body parts and turn them into delicious-yet-horrifying gourmet meals. So he turned to world-famous chef José Andrés. “The moment I mentioned I was working on Hannibal, [José’s] eyes lit up, and he did the tube-sucking Chianti sound. He was very passionate and enthusiastic about the characters and the idea of a gourmand who’s a serial killer, some reverence for his villainy that’s appealing to a chef.” Andrés joined the show as a culinary consultant, but they needed someone on the ground in Toronto who could physically prepare the food and help Lecter appear as a sophisticated gourmet.
Enter 62-year-old Toronto-based artist Janice Poon, who was approached by the show’s production staff after they heard she was the “only person in the city who could do the job.”
“We are the silent, the unseen. Everywhere you see food in an image that’s produced professionally, there’s a food stylist at work,” says Poon.
Yes, “food stylist” is a real job. (Those gorgeous, unrealistic Big Macs you see in TV commercials or the perfectly rippled scoops of Häagen-Dazs in magazine ads don’t just happen.) Armed with glue, toothpicks, paintbrushes, spray bottles, and Q-tips — in addition to standard cooking equipment — a food stylist knows how to make food that looks perfect.
Food styling is a lot harder for a TV show when the actors will actually have to eat your food, take after take after take, Poon says — especially when that food is a bizarre cut of meat. “It has to be edible,” she says, “and it has to hold under hot studio lights for hours without going bad because you never know when your scene will come up and how many takes there will be.” Which means: that blood sausage Hannibal is eating is not actually blood sausage, because blood sausage can’t sit for hours on a set without turning into poison. (Toronto’s television sets are governed by a lengthy set of Food Premises Regulations set forth by Ontario’s Public Health Department.) “Safety issues are enforced by the unions,” Poon says. “But the food safety laws are set out by government and are very stringent.”
Consider, for example, the “lung” that Hannibal cooks in the show’s first episode, “Apéritif.” Poon received the script for the episode three to four days before the shoot, as usual, and realized she had to make something that looked like human lung. But she also realized she couldn’t use a real lung from any animal. “He [Mads Mikkelsen, who plays Lecter] cooks it, but he tastes it before he cooks it. Well, that’s not good, because he [Mads] can’t eat raw lung,” she says. (In case it’s not obvious, no one should eat raw lung — just think, pathogens, bacterium, virus, possibly death.) “So I have to find something food safe that looks raw, that will act raw, because he is flipping it around on a cutting board.”
So Poon started experimenting to find her fake-yet-edible lung substitute — first, with bread. “I was thinking something with air sacks. If I cut, like, a giant French loaf and soak it in egg to get that pink color…” she explains, going through the process. “So I did and it was looking fabulous, until I cooked it — because of course he can’t eat raw egg either.” The bread didn’t work. It turned gray. So she tried again. “My mother used to make this Chinese dessert that was steamed and gelatinous and full of holes. I thought that might work.” But, Poon realized, if Mikkelsen had decided to toss it into the pan while filming, the gelatin would have melted in a way lung would never melt. “You have to be prepared for the artistic input of the actor and the director on the set,” Poon says. So she chucked that idea too.
On the day of the actual lung shoot, after 15 takes, Mikkelsen wandered away from the shot to visit Poon’s food station and ask her what he had been eating over and over. “It’s mortadella,” Poon says she told him. “Because after all my experiments I realized it’s flecked with all these specks, and if I colored it correctly with food coloring, it looked just like lung.”
The challenges never stop coming. “In every episode, it’s always something,” Poon says. But she loves the test each episode presents, so she started a blog, Feeding Hannibal, where she shares on-the-job stories like tracking down fake brains and human-sized organs at a Toronto slaughterhouses.
In her first post in April, she wrote: “The script called for close-ups of fresh human organs. Well, almost human. Thank goodness pork hearts, lungs and livers are almost indistinguishable from those of people … Lucky for me, there’s a pork abattoir 5 minutes from my studio.”
Most of Poon’s blog posts also feature a recipe inspired by the food in that episode, along with her hand-sketched illustrations of plating and dish components. She says she’s stunned by the blog’s popularity — fans have been cooking along with her, and requesting more and more recipes — because she started it just for fun, with the help of a friend, and no experience with web publishing.
Poon describes Mikkelsen as easy to cook for (“he’ll eat anything”) and a quick study. “One morning I gave him a class in chopping, dicing and slicing,” she says, adding that she’ll occasionally show him new techniques like flambéing. “He fumbles for like two seconds and then he gets it and he does it on camera as if he’s been doing it for years.”
Other actors throughout Poon’s 30-year career haven’t been so easy. Working on a vampire show, Poon says she once had to make a vegan-friendly substitute for raw meat that ended up looking so much like raw meat, the actor refused to eat it. “I boiled sweet potatoes and beets because she’s vegan, so I didn’t even want to put food coloring in, no extra chemicals,” she says. Then she added rice flour. “Meat is springy, and vegetables aren’t, so I put in the flour. And even though she didn’t say she had a wheat allergy or a gluten allergy, I used rice flour, just to be safe.”
After that she added tiny flecks of white potatoes to mimic the fat in raw meat, and she added olive oil for a raw-meat glisten. “She took one look at that and said no way,” Poon said, even though the actor was reassured the food was vegan. “There was nothing they could do to convince her.”
Cooking for Hannibal might not mean picky actors, Poon says, but the stakes are higher because the food is so crucial to the plot, to character development, and to suspense Fuller aims to build. As the season moves along, the viewer is both disgusted and in awe of the meals Lecter cooks as he feeds tongues en papillote to unsuspecting dinner guests. “If the food doesn’t tell the viewer something more about Hannibal or more about Hannibal’s state of mind, then it’s not doing its job and I’m not doing mine,” Poon says. And so all eyes are on the food.
“The challenges were relatively minimal because we enlisted José and Janice to illustrate and style the food — the recipes that José was giving us,” Fuller says. Andrés would provide the writers with background information on every recipe he suggested, and many of these tidbits would make it into the scripts. “It gives Hannibal something to talk to his guests about,” Fuller explains. “It’s true to the character who wants to share with the world his view of it. He’ll have a philosophy or a background story of each dish he serves.” An example of this can be seen in the show’s sixth episode, “Entrée,” wherein Hannibal serves tongue to Doctor Chilton, a familar character in the Harris canon. “Hannibal talks about how Romans used to slaughter flamingos just for their tongues and tells Chilton that he has a fiesty tongue himself,” Fuller says. The food helps provide “winks and innuedos to the hardcore audience who knows the books and the films, who knows that [Hannibal] will eat Dr. Chilton. To reference this is literally tongue-in-cheek.”
That brings us to drama with the strawberries for episode eight, which featured a dinner party. “A bowl of sausages was the last dish to go out. It was just looking too brown, and the production designer wanted to put something bright or bloody on it to brighten up the dish,” Poon recalls. The only option she had was strawberries — not great, but the only option, and the director wants to move things along. “I’m thinking, not great, but fine, fruit and meat? Maybe strawberries go with people sausages.” But when Mikkelsen saw the berries, he stopped the shoot. “Mads said, ‘What’s this, a gourmet would not put sausages with strawberries?’” Poon says. Because the character is his. He has to care.
“I was asked for one episode to get Norton grapes, but Norton grapes are not in season, they’re only grown in Virginia in one area, and they’re very specific in their looks: a big, round, dark, purple, grape,” Poon says. “In the script it calls for Hannibal to peel the grape to reveal that the grape is the same color as inside. I called everywhere, couldn’t find them to save my life, and I hesitate to tell you, I even learned that Norton grapes are not the same color inside as they are outside.”
But, Poon says, it wasn’t in her interest to go back to writer and explain that Norton grapes aren’t the same color inside and out. “The whole scene hinges on that. So in my little mind, I justified it. I thought, well Hannibal lies about everything — he’s telling you it’s jelly when it’s made from the bones of young women — so he’d lie about Norton grapes too.” And Poon knew she would have to create these nonexistent grapes from scratch. “So I peeled and dipped grapes in food coloring, hung them all around my kitchen studio, dripping dye, and then once they were semi dry, because of course grapes won’t dry, they’re juicy, I dipped them in wax and dusted them with corn starch.” That night she got a phone call from the producer asking about the grapes. He said the plan sounded fine, but she should also have a backup grape made a second way by 8:30 a.m.
At the end of the day for Hannibal’s food stylist, the goal is a dichotomy. “You look at Will [the investigator played by Hugh Dancy, who sees Lecter as a psychiatrist and eventually discovers his secrets]. He teeters between being sane and insane. I want the food to teeter on being appetizing, irresistibly appetizing, and horribly repulsive,” she says.
Fuller agrees. “What I love about what the conversation of eating people brings to the show is a higher awareness of what we put into our bodies on a daily basis.”
Here’s a game to play: Watch the episode of Hannibal and try to cook yourself a big delicious bowl of chili in the same night. Because the food on Hannibal looks so good it makes you hungry. But that chili: You are going to think it’s people. It’s going to be hard to eat.
“I don’t think anybody can be enticed into wanting to eat human parts,” Poon says. “I think you’re squarely on one side or on the other side. There’s no garnish that will make it good enough.”
And yet, Hannibal comes pretty close.
“My wish is that the food looks so creepy, and so foreboding and so menacing, but appetizing,” Poon says. “Because to me, that is Hannibal. He is so interesting, refined, you’d like to like him, but he’s so diabolical, that you can’t. Or can you? At my food styling table on set it’s just a jumble of heaped up stuff and somehow out of all the chaos come these pristine people dishes, and people are always swinging by to see and say, ‘Creepy! Can I taste it?’”
Hannibal airs on NBC (obviously) and is produced by Gaumont International Television, Dino De Laurentiis Company and Living Dead Guy Productions.