Mashed Potato For Ice Cream: Why Food On TV Is Never As Tasty As It Looks

Imagine a day job where you're tasked to create alien whale meat and drizzle Peking duck sauce over prosthetics. That's the life of Hollywood food stylist Janice Poon. She honed her chops in the early 2000s on A Nero Wolfe Mystery, and after time away as a writer and children's book illustrator, she returned to the food styling world, creating the decadent creations of Hannibal Lecter on NBC's Hannibal. We caught up with Poon to chat about her interesting career and her current work on Star Trek Discovery.

The Takeout: How did you end up working on Hannibal?

Janice Poon: As they say, "Life is what happens when you are making other plans." I was staring at my [computer] monitor trying to do another rewrite of my latest manuscript, but nothing was blossoming in my mind except resentment toward my publisher. So when the phone rang and it was the Hannibal people asking if I'd food style their show, I leapt at the job. I hadn't food styled a show for over a decade but it sounded like fun. Doing something completely different from writing kids books was just the thing I needed to blow the cobwebs out of my brain.

TT: What exactly does food styling entail? 

JP: It starts with looking at the food scenes in the script and imagining what type of food would be most cinematic and most in keeping with the tone of the episode and the characters involved in the scene. I think about the motivations of the characters and any underlying tensions or affections, which I tried to imbue in the food. Like everything in a film—whether it be costumes or set dressing—the food should inform the viewer about the characters and the story, otherwise it's merely superfluous fluff.

Then I make sketches to email to the heads of departments to get approvals. Everyone is usually too busy to answer my emails, so I take their silence as a "Yes!" and start prepping the food. I make enough of it to last through dozens of takes and shlep it to the studio where I set up a little cooking/prepping station. I stand around in the dark for hours until they finally get to my scene. Then I race around getting my plates and platters out to show the director. They start shooting and I start praying that I have brought enough of everything. Some directors and actors get very creative at the last minute and decide they need a type of food I didn't bring. After hours of setting up plates, somebody yells, "Check the gate!" and I gather up my stuff and try to drive home without falling asleep at the wheel. It's actually a lot more fun than it sounds.

TT: Where do you draw inspiration from, or are you given specific instructions?  

JP: Different shows have a tighter control of creativity, others have a climate of collaboration. Luckily for me, food often flies under the radar and is considered a niche so the heads of departments tend to let me make the food suggestions. Everything inspires me—art, literature, fashion, nature. Paintings by Dali or the Dutch Masters; passages describing food in books like Belly Of Paris or Gargantua And Pantagruel; the play of shadows in the trees or the menacing face that appears sometimes when you slice open a bell pepper. But most ideas come from shopping in ethnic grocery stores where the shelves are full of unknown stories.

TT: Are you ever inspired by other food stylists or shows?

JP: Top of my list is film maker Peter Greenaway. I love his visceral imagery. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is one of my absolute favorites. Babette's Feast, of course and Eat Drink Man Woman. Food stylists I admire include the U.K.'s clever Bompas & Parr and Japan's stunning Ayaka Suwa.

TT: Is there ever overlap with your own diet?

JP: My favorite meal is probably Peking Duck and coincidentally, my favorite meal to style could have been Peking Roast Hannibal but, no. The director asked if I wanted to style the dish with the real Mads Mikkelsen or would I rather dress a prosthetic replica of Mads. An easy choice one might first think. Sadly, I chose the prosthetic. I knew it would take me at least three hours to drape the body with fruit and flowers then brush it with Peking sauce and drizzle on a few bottles of honey, then another hour to shoot it and I couldn't imagine asking Mads to lie still on the table and endure that stickiness for half the day. There is sadness in my work—it's not all cookies and cream! But at least I was able to console myself by playing catch and taking selfies with Mads' prosthetic head.

TT: Because it couldn't be a real man, what are you most proud of styling? 

JP: My finest effort to date has to be Easter's buffet in American Gods. In the concept meeting, our beloved showrunner, Bryan Fuller, suggested—with faux innocence—"Wouldn't it be fun to have roasted rabbits jumping in an arc like a stop-motion sequence." And of course, you can't say no to Bryan so I said "Fabulous! And we can have them leaping over the campfire!" Why not? If I'm agreeing to do the impossible, I might as well double down and go for the unimaginable.

It didn't go smoothly. We were on location way up in locust country in the middle of a heatwave with no refrigeration and the two-day shoot turned into a five-day debacle, but I still consider it a triumph: I was able to keep things beautiful—looking right; smelling wrong—and crawl back to the city to cook another day.

TT: Speaking of difficulties, what are some of the most difficult foods to portray onscreen?

JP: I'd say ice cream is the hardest in film work. It's the easiest in still photography because you can use fake ice cream—no one is going to eat it. But that's the challenge in film work—the food has to be real. No spray varnish and wired armatures—it's all propped up with mashed potatoes.

TT: So the actors actually eat the food?

JP: I make vast amounts of food for each scene—sometimes enough to repeat each plate for 15-20 resets since the plates have to be replenished/replaced for each take. Surprisingly, most of the food gets eaten, or at least nibbled on and coughed into a napkin or spit into a bowl when the camera isn't looking.

TT: How much consideration goes into the actors' dietary restrictions then?

JP: Their dietary restrictions are the second most important thing I have to consider, especially lately. The food I am making often has to be vegan and/or gluten-free. It's very challenging when most of the times the script calls for meat or cake. I'm making slabs of alien whale meat for Star Trek Discovery right now, but it has to be vegan because of the actor whose character eats it. The barbecued street food that I made last week for a Star Trek shoot had to be vegan. Thank goodness for gummy bears and marshmallow squares.

TT: Back to those resets, how is continuity shown throughout multiple takes? Does the food being consumed keep getting smaller and smaller?

JP: That's exactly what happens. If five guys in a scene are sitting around playing poker and eating different sandwiches for four pages of dialogue, I have to keep track of who has got which sandwich and how much each are each getting bitten down and in what sequence. That can go on for about 30 takes.