By Kristina Ensminger

Janice Poon is the embodiment of creativity. Her pursuits as a professional creative have taken her to advertising agencies, butcher shops, television shows, and shopping malls. She’s best known for her work as a food stylist on the hit series Hannibal and the first season of American Gods. However, she’s also worked as an art director, a sculptor, a painter, an interior designer, a dress designer, a set decorator, a florist, a children’s book author, a cookbook author, and an illustrator.

Janice Poon, Food Stylist

For the uninitiated, a food stylist provides all the food that characters interact with in a scene. Whether the actors are cooking, eating, or tossing the food on the floor, the food stylist is responsible for it. The food stylist plans the menu, shops for the ingredients, preps the food, and cooks everything in a makeshift “kitchen” on set, accounting for allergies and dietary restrictions, and estimating the quantities of food necessary for each take.

Poon grew up in a family restaurant, which drove her away from working with food professionally. Or so she thought. She decided to go the artist’s way instead, attending art school, and becoming an art director at an advertising agency. But food seemed to find her wherever she went. At the ad agency, she worked with corporate food clients. Later, when she left the agency to pursue her art, she was tasked with creating giant food sculptures for restaurants and food stalls. Even her work as a florist led her back to food.

She was hired to do flowers for a wedding in a film, and through a series of freelance gigs on set and personal connections, she got a call from the Hannibal team. Poon wasn’t much of a horror fan, but she decided to take the gig. “I tend to stay away from horror because I’m easily frightened,” she explained. “I’m not the kind of person who slows down to see an accident.” (This is from a woman who, years later, would be known as the expert to call when you need edible amniotic fluid for the fictional birth of the devil.)

“[My] First work in film was doing flowers. This is the wedding arch I created for Suits when Megan Markle got married in the finale – before she went off to marry Prince Harry in real life.” – Janice Poon

Poon may not be a horror fan, but she certainly has the artistic eye and creative vision to turn the grizzly and grotesque into something gourmet and refined. And she gave people a window into the unusual world of food styling through the stories she shared from behind the scenes. She started a blog on a whim called “Feeding Hannibal” and her exotic recipes, creative problem solving, and candid tales of life as a food stylist became a huge hit. The blog took physical form with Feeding Hannibal: A Connoisseur’s Cookbook, and evolved into “Feeding American Gods” with her next project.

If you’re a food lover, a visual artist, or you want to be like Janice Poon when you grow up, then read on for some inspiration. Poon also offers some advice to budding food stylists: Become an apprentice. Learn through observation. Always do your best. And get your name on the call sheet.

Kristina Ensminger: You started your career as an art director for an advertising agency. Did you go directly from the agency into food styling? That’s a pretty big jump.

Janice Poon: Each project prepared me for the next opportunity that arrived. As an art director, I managed clients and photographers. I grappled with all sorts of client problems and was challenged to find creative solutions – everything I did was from a visual perspective. It may not seem like it, but that work prepared me for food styling in many ways.

Walk me through the career shifts that occurred between the ad agency and your work as a food stylist on Hannibal.

There were quite a few career jumps during that time. After I left the ad agency, I started an interior design business. Then I opened a small fashion shop and became the couturier designing wedding dresses and things. One of my girlfriends was a caterer at the time, so she’d hire me to design tablescapes for her catering gigs. I also ended up doing a lot of flowers for weddings during that stretch.

How did you transition into working on set?

One day a friend called me up and asked if I could do wedding flowers for a film. That was my first gig on set. It was similar to doing flowers for a real wedding, except there was no mother of the bride to deal with [laughs].

KE: So, it sounds like you got your foot in the door with props and set decoration before you moved into food styling?

JP: Some folks I met doing flowers on that first production called me when they were off doing their own thing and hired me to work on their projects. I was doing more set work and props at first. Sometimes I would get called in to create a buffet display – not the actual food, but the display for the food. So, I got my start as part of the “set dec” crew. I entered the food styling world from the display side, using food in unusual ways – creating landscapes, environments, and tablescapes with food rather than putting food on a plate.

“My start in film was in Set Dec. Portraits that has to look like the actors. For The Kennedys, the Robert Kennedys had a portrait of their boys so to replicate their interior, I had to paint the same portrait, but with the actors’ faces instead of the real Kennedys’.” – Janice Poon

KE: What was your first official gig as a food stylist?

JP: My first credit as a food stylist was on a TV show called Nero Wolfe. That was in the early 2000s, about ten years before Hannibal. I was there from the beginning of the production – designing and budgeting everything and submitting all the proposals. Planning for resets can be a challenge because you may not realize how many takes there will be for a single scene. That’s something I learned from being on set on other projects, so I was prepared for that when I went into food styling.

What were you working on during that ten-year stretch between Nero Wolfe and Hannibal?

I was writing. I was sculpting and painting. I was hired to storyboard a script for an animated film. Learning how to do that was very useful. I also did a lot of work for hotels. Hotels always need artwork or signage or sculptures to act as landmarks. You know, “Meet me by the dolphins,” that kind of thing.

KE: You found so many ways to use that fine art degree! Tell me about your sculpture work.

JP: Strangely, some of the sculpture work I did was creating giant food replicas in malls and restaurants. There was a moment in time when everyone needed a giant sculpture to accompany their food stall or restaurant sign. I think New York Fries started it with that huge container of fries as their signage. This was in the early 2000s, I think. It’s not a thing anymore, but giant plastic food sculptures were trending back then!

KE: Your résumé is epic. What are some of the giant food items you sculpted?

JP: I made 30-foot Subway sandwiches. I did these 30-foot dragons for the kiosks at Manchu Wok. I became an expert at sculpting massive shrimp and broccoli florets. I made individual kernels of rice that were three inches wide for giant sushi sculptures. And I made a lot of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

What did you do when the giant food sculpture trend faded? Did you start making miniature food?

Not miniature food exactly, but I did do some work with miniatures later on! I think I was busy writing children’s books then. I also wrote some cookbooks. And I was doing a lot of murals. I remember being hired to paint a floor mural for a shopping mall because they were changing one of their wings into a children’s shop. The entire mural was more than 70 feet, and I painted the whole thing on my knees with a one-inch brush. I think that job informed my philosophy on life. When I finished and looked at what I’d created, all the ground I’d covered with a one-inch brush, it was pretty remarkable.

Tell me about the miniatures. Was that an art gig or something for television?

Both! Last summer, I made some dioramas for a TV show that were being pitched as part of the title sequence. That was so much fun. I was upholstering tiny chairs and making miniature sinks. I cut up one of my ball gowns because I needed a single sequin that would fit over the hole in the sink as the drain.

It’s amazing how many different ways you’ve found to express your creative energy.

The more things you do, the more you have to bring to what you do next. I find that the more things I do, the more I realize everything is the same. You can take something from one discipline and apply the same idea somewhere else. Same stuff, different name, same skills.

Let’s talk about the differences between food styling for print and food styling on set. I know you’ve done both.

 I started in print, so crazy tricks and fake foods were the key elements of the trade. We used white glue instead of milk for breakfast cereal shots, a lard concoction instead of ice cream, soy sauce instead of coffee. But in film, the food has to be edible, because you never know what the actors will end up eating. For example, the script might call for the host bringing all the food to the table, a fight breaking out, and everyone leaving with the dinner untouched. Just before shooting, the director might decide that scene should open with the food on the table and everyone should be eating as the argument unfolds.

Outside of the visual and edible elements, there’s also a mathematical equation involved with the amount of food you’ll need for each take, right?

You need enough food for all the takes and retakes, and they all need to look the same for continuity. So, based on the number of characters in your scene and the amount of dialogue, you have to calculate food quantities – which is the most nerve-wracking part of the job. The last thing you want is to run out of food. And every shoot has those moments when you question your quantity estimates.

What is one of the biggest misconceptions about food styling?

I teach food styling at one of the colleges here in Toronto, and the students often think that the food needs to taste good – even stylists who have assisted me have made this assumption. The truth is, the food doesn’t need to taste good, it just needs to look good. I mean, it needs to be edible and not kill people, of course, but it’s more about the look than the taste. With food on film, there are no smells or sounds or any of the other sensory dimensions of food that you experience in real time. It’s a flat representation, so the visual has to be very strong to substitute for the layers that are missing on screen.

So, the idea is to create something visually compelling to make up for the lack of sensory experience.

We rely a lot on our visual sense, but there’s a lot more that informs our appetites. That eludes a lot of people who go into food styling – they don’t appreciate it from a psychological, anthropological, or cultural perspective. And I always do. On a deeper level, food can be mother’s milk or polonium tea; it can be your future or your past; it can be what you’re running away from or what you’re trying to embrace. There’s an emotional layer to food – it’s how we connect with each other, how we lure each other, how we comfort each other.

Connecting with emotional dimension of food seems necessary regardless of the project, but I would imagine that element was key on shows like Hannibal and American Gods that have so much psychological and philosophical depth.

For food stylists, whether you’re working on set or in the studio, it’s important to remember that food sends signals. It delivers a message. So, what message are you sending? You’re sending one whether you’re conscious of it or not, so you might as well think about it and make a decision about what you’re communicating. I can’t emphasize this enough for food stylists: think about the story you’re telling and make strong choices.

Would you say that Hannibal was the most intriguing project for you as a food stylist? Food was such a big part of his character and the overall narrative. Did you enjoy finding a way to turn something grotesque into something gourmet?

I think Hannibal was the most interesting because of the scope I got to cover with the food. As a food stylist, I’m always telling a story with food. But with Hannibal there was such a rich story that centered around the food – the food was a character in itself.

“Tablescapes were my specialty when I was a caterer – so it was easy for me to produce huge tables heaped with victuals when I was hired for Hannibal.” – Janice Poon

KE: Back in art school, did you ever imagine you’d get paid to work with a serial killer and find ways to make food resemble human flesh?

JP: I could never have imagined any of this. The other day I got a phone call from someone saying, “Hi, you don’t know me, but I need some edible amniotic fluid for a project. I was told you were the expert!” This was for the birth of the anti-Christ for a TV series, and they needed amniotic fluid and everything that comes with birth. That’s easy, I thought. I’ll use some condensed chicken soup and strain out the noodles and then combine it with something more oil-based to keep the two fluids from mixing. And, of course, I’ll add some chunky stuff.

So, strangers randomly call you up to make amniotic fluid for the birth of the devil? Sounds like quite a gig!

All the young hopefuls imagine food styling is something glamorous and a job that involves preparing these pristine plates of food – not quite. At least not in my world.

Your projects have a certain edge to them – you seem to do more in the human fluids and human parts department than most food stylists. 

My work on Hannibal was incredibly grizzly, lots of blood and guts, and it was a journey of discovery for me because I never read the source material. Horror isn’t my thing. But when Bryan Fuller first shared the phrase “eat the rude” with me, I totally got it. I understood the psychology behind it and what that phrase meant to Hannibal as a character.

“Working on Hannibal was a. ma. zing.” – Janice Poon

I bet you look at meat in a completely different way after your stint on Hannibal. Did you ever run out of clever ways to make regular food items look like human flesh?

Until it’s your job, you don’t realize how many things in the “real” world resemble human flesh – especially in food form. I remember one moment when I was in the craft truck getting myself a cappuccino, and I bumped into an actor. Her hand was all bloody and torn like raw flesh when she reached for her coffee. She pulled up her robe to show me her arm with the skin removed, and I realized it looked just like prosciutto! That helped with my next order at the butcher. It’s these moments of discovery that make the job fascinating to me. How many times have I seen prosciutto? And I never thought about cured ham looking like raw flesh because I didn’t have an application for it.

Once you have a set of confines to work within, it’s incredible how you can see ordinary things in new ways.

Anything can look frightening if it’s unfamiliar. So, if you can look at things as if you’ve never seen them before, then you can find the scary in everything. At that point, it’s just a question of teasing those things out. As artists, life goes on around us and we’re teasing out the lovely bits or the scary bits.

Bryan Fuller was the showrunner on Hannibal, and he was also the showrunner on the first season of American Gods. Was it his idea to bring you on to do food for American Gods?

I love working with Bryan. Bryan loves food, and he loves writing food into the scripts he works on. Bryan believes in the power of food. I remember when I was working on American Gods and he came to me with the Star Trek: Discovery project. He couldn’t wait to see what I was going to do with Klingon food!

You two were a great duo! What was your favorite part about working with Bryan?

Bryan Fuller and just about anybody is a great combination. Bryan seems to get every reference. He has such a breadth and depth of life experience and knowledge. We were talking about Easter’s banquet for the American Gods finale, and he said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could have stop-motion rabbits leaping from one table to another?” Sure, sounds great! But how the hell would we do that? Once my wheels got turning, I thought of a way to arrange the rabbits. I roasted the rabbits into position on an armature to look like stop-motion figures leaping across the tables. That is the kind of magic that happens when you collaborate with Bryan.

It seems like the challenge with Hannibal was finding a way to make human flesh look like a gourmet meal. What was the challenge with American Gods?

The work I did for American Gods was far more fantastical. I think working on American Gods was easier than Hannibal in some ways. The challenge, as always, was to tell the story of these characters through the lens of food. So, how could I reinforce the godliness of these characters through the things they ate? How could I make their food a little bit bigger, more audacious, and more powerful than human food might be?

What advice would you give to someone who has a secret dream of becoming a food stylist?

If you want to be a food stylist, then you need to LOVE food. You don’t have to be a brilliant cook, but you must have a love for food – you must understand it, see it, and connect with it. You must have a feeling for food.

What are the essential qualities of a successful food stylist?

Honestly, the most important quality is to be helpful. For example, I’ve had assistants who intuit that I’m going to need a different knife or another egg before I realize I’m going to need those things. More than anything that shows me they’re going to be successful in this work. And I’m not just saying that because it’s self-serving and it makes my job easier – that’s the job! Being helpful is what I’m trying to do for the actors. I want to put myself in their place and do everything I can to make their job easier.

Where should someone start to get experience in the food styling world?  

First, I’d say practice the fundamentals – cook as many different kinds of things as you can. Educate yourself about different styles of cooking. And also observe the physics of food. I’d also recommend assisting someone who is good at what they do – apprentice with an expert. You’ll get to learn from them, and you’ll also get in on some great gigs and meet people. Observe the food stylist and observe the scenario – get a sense of who does what on set. The power of observation is crucial in this work.

What’s your secret? What’s the hidden thread that connects all these creative, wild, otherworldly projects you’ve explored throughout your varied career?

I have no idea how I ended up where I am. I just woke up, and here I am. But the one constant is that I’ve always done my best no matter what the job was. I have no idea who recommended me for Nero Wolfe or Hannibal. You know the baby fluid that I have to make this week? Some guy I don’t know got my name from some other guy I don’t know. That’s how this world works. You work with people on a project, someone gets your name from the call sheet, and it grows from there. That’s one piece of advice: always get your name on the call sheet! Make up a reason for it to be there if you have to. And always do your best.