Monday 3 December 2018

Toronto’s Vegan Food Stylist: Movie Monsters made me do it.

I confess. I was a Gluten Vegan Skeptic 

As a food stylist, I first gained a world-wide reputation for my work on NBC’s Hannibal, so meat has always been my métier. Easy for me - after all, I’m an avid omnivore. I’ve always ordered off the whole menu and cooked the same way.
On the set of "Hannibal" sawing off a few choice cuts for our cannibal's kitchen.

But things change 

More and more, in film and tv, thirsting Vampire Queens are scripted to lick blood off a raw steak…cannibals must nibble on raw liver to please the director…aliens have to hunger for squirmy wormy snacks…and zombies must eat brains. The writers' room insists.

Actors, however, do not have such appetites. Enter the food stylist who must create edible replicas of these fantasy/horror victuals. And they must be tasty for the actor who is likely to do 5 to 8 takes.

The Shape of Water -- the Shape of Things to come

The “hero” green pies in the Shape of Water movie were eaten on screen by the lead actor who has a vegan non-gluten diet. The movie was shot in Toronto, so I was brought in as food stylist to supply gorgeous food that met her strict dietary requirements. 
The selection of pies rotating silently in Dixie Doug's display case in Shape of Water.  

I made eight different kinds of pie for the pie shop. The background actors were not on diets and so the background pies contained unrestrained quantities of dairy, gelatin, eggs and flour.
My production sketch of pies for Shape of Water (Hero pie bottom right)

Food styling in Hollywood North (Toronto)

Hollywood stars are increasingly adapting diets that are Vegan. Or Paleo. Or Raw. And it seems now all of Los Angeles is gluten-averse. In Toronto, considered by many to be Hollywood North, most of the lead actors in the productions I work on are from LA. So I upped those factors in my food styling.

At first, vegan requests were simple: Raw hamburger for a vegan, gluten-averse actress who, as Vampire Queen (Hemlock), needed to sneak a red-blooded snack as her neighbor was making meatballs. Easy-peasy. Beets, rice flour, potatoes all riced together.  I made three vats of it. Trouble is, it looked so much like raw ground meat, the actor wouldn’t touch it.

I was still busy concocting my usual fare: extravagant fantasy meals for fairy queens (Shadow Hunters), elite afternoon teas (Handmaids Tale), fake mouldy food for time-travellers (In the Tall Grass, Fallingwater), when I started getting increasingly urgent calls to concoct food for Star Trek that was really more like food from Planet Vegan.

Space whale, anyone?

An episode of Star Trek called for the actor (vegan, non-gluten of course) to slice a sample taste off a slab of freshly caught Gormagander (gigantic space whales of course) and eat it raw, like sashimi. So I made twelve of these sliceable slabs out of pulverized chestnuts.
Vegan, Gluten-free floppy slabs of raw whale meat scripted to be flung about, sliced and eaten raw.

More fun stuff for the Star Trek Discovery tv series for a vegan gluten-averse actor to munch on. Pistachio eyes, though, so no nut allergies, please. I made six of them with dozens of spare tentacles:
These chewy creatures had extra tentacles that the actor would pull out and chow down. 

Also for Star Trek, also vegan and gluten-free: Food styling late into the night making Space Snacks for a scene at Orion’s raucous alien market scene.
Made from agar, these roasted creatures would be served on skewers in Orion's night market.

Raw fake (rice flour) steaks oozing fake (corn syrup) blood for yet another thirsting vampire (movie Rabid) – played by a vegan actor of course.
Blood-oozing raw steaks the actor was scripted to pull out of the refrigerator and lick. Delicious.

And a nicely grilled NY Strip for a vegan actor to chomp on while four other actors in the dinner scene enjoyed the real thing. I made this vegan version with tons of porcini mushrooms which made every take delicious. And to my delight, they kept mistaking the fake steaks for real ones: I had to garnish the fake steaks with mushrooms so the on-set prop guy could distinguish the fake from the real.

Vegan New York Strip steak: Seitan made me do it!

Vegan BBQ spare ribs for an actor who couldn’t eat pork or meat of any kind – I developed a delicious gluten/soybean recipe that the actor would be able to enjoy eating.
These were really tasty! Made from gluten-soybean dough formed on plant-based "bones"

Raw organs? Would that be Small, Medium or Large...

For tv series Hemlock, I made kidneys and hearts (human-sized) out of agar-coated brioche for a vampyr prince to eat. He wasn’t vegetarian, but devouring raw hearts and kidneys is sort of out of the question.
Cake-y on the inside, jelly on the outside. Like a reversed jelly donut only a lot more gruesome.
Dystopian tv series "Incorporated" required actors eat "road kill" so I made tiny lungs, hearts, guts to stuff inside plastic rats, crows and other things too unsavory to mention in a food stylist's blog about vegan food.

...or BRAINS?

Cooking up brains on the set of Disney’s Zombie High School Musical seemed to be a never-ending job keeping me and two food styling assistants busy cooking and colouring cauliflower for three days. Those teenage zombie street parties require a lot of brain burgers.
Food styling on Location in Hamilton: Lining up brains and buns to make burgers for a zombie teenagers' street party.
...or BUGS?

And sometimes, if you’re food styling for American Gods, some actor is going to need to projectile-vomit maggots/grubs or bugs or both.
Dead Wife got a bit nauseous drinking magic potion and (oops) burped up maggots.

or perhaps your actor is just a picky eater...

Then there was seafood I had to food style for the fish-averse actor (in the tv series Shadow Hunters) whose character was being seduced over an extravagant seafood buffet dinner: 

(top) Potatoes carved and painted to look like lobster tail medallions; 
(middle) Eggplant carved into clams which I tucked into clean clamshells; 
(lower) Pumpkin gnocchi which I used to replace mussel meat in the shells.

That seafood faking went well but reminds me of a dinner party shoot (tv series Damion) where I was assured no one would eat the oysters until the director decided it would be fun for EVERYONE to eat oysters. I had only brought 6 dozen and so I made fake oysters out of bananas I snagged from the craft table.

Sometimes it’s not about being edible…it’s about being non-toxic. 

 These "roots" had to shoot out of an actor's mouth as she was being attacked by a tree (just another day in filmland) The production company didn't want the actor to have anything toxic in her mouth, so instead of making plastic prosthetic roots, they called on me for some food styling trompe-l'oeil. I made them out of taralli dough so it would be like chewing on breadsticks - well, monstrously hideous breadsticks.

Or it’s about  being organic... 

These cellphones were being ditched in a lake - but the location was in a protected woodland so the film company wasn't allowed to throw anything into the lake that wasn't organic. It also had to dissolve completely in 24 hours. So I made them out of candy. 
Pouring the candy onto a warming pan to make black glass screens.         The finished iPhones for Stephen King's 11/22/63.

Regardless of the craziness, it’s always a fun challenge being a food stylist working with actors in a movie world increasingly horror-filled and meaty with fantasy. And it helps a bit to be a mad scientist.

Vegan Food Styling Secrets to come!  

In future posts I’ll share some of my behind-the-scenes vegan food styling secrets with you: How I made Escargots, Osso Bucco, Oysters and Eggs for my vegan/vegetarian/gluten-averse Hollywood stars. And more!

All text and photos copyright property of Janice Poon/FeedingHannibal/JLPoonDesign. Janice Poon Food styling
Reproduction without documented permission strictly prohibited.
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Janice Poon Vegan Food Styling Toronto 

Sunday 25 June 2017

AMGods Ep 108: Come to Jesus /pt 1

Harsh winds
May toss the darling buds
Uproot the shooting sprouts 
When Spring clouds over 
Thundering vengeance
On silly Summer's love.

Food glorious food! 
The scene where Shadow meets Easter in Gaiman’s book is a fun picnic on a blanket in a park. This, however, was to be no picnic; no walk in the park. It was a pull-all-the-stops FullerStyle Feast-o-rama. I came to the meeting with little sketches of a pretty buffet dotted with bunny sculptures.

My early sketch for Easter's banquet

This is one of a series of sculptures by Jordan McLaughlin that I wanted to use on the buffet but sadly, we couldn’t get them released from the Burlington Art Gallery in time for the shoot
              At the meeting we began by discussing culinary extravagances one might find on a lavish Easter buffet - such as cucumber-covered whole salmon, big hams and coloured eggs. But this was all way too normal for Bryan. He turned to me and casually said: wouldn’t it be fun to have roasted rabbits leaping over the table as if they were captured in stop-motion?

FUN !!!????
Well if I had a walk-in oven and 2 weeks to order an iron armature, it might be fun. But the shoot was in four days so fun was not part of the formula. The idea, however was irresistible. 
My sketch for Easter's Banquet - revisioned

            Back in my studio, I steampunked an armature together out of flexible pipes anchored to a huge gnarled grapevine root on which I balanced roasted rabbits that I had wired into different positions.
            Transporting this contraption out to the countryside location was probably the greatest challenge of all but luckily for me, my brother volunteered to help and together, we wrangled the thing into his van. Cushioned between Styrofoam and ice packs, it made the 2 hour journey out to the countryside retreat where we were filming.
Setting up my leaping roasted rabbits at the location
Artemis eats!
On the central table, I created a little hunting vignette with the roasted rabbits leaping over a charcoal grill – as if the Goddess of Hunt herself had arrested wild hares mid-leap and was enjoying a little cook-out in an abandoned overgrown vegetable patch in the middle of a forest.
I used corn husks to make roasting masks for the rabbits (their charred faces looked too Chilton-esque to be appetizing) and ears (because rabbits’ ears come off when they are prepared for cooking; they are just skin and fur)

The Seafood Challenge
The markets are full of gargantuan lobsters waiting for their close-up…whole salmons are a classic chaud-froid buffet presentation…giant shells and seaweed create a gorgeously dramatic tableau. 
            But the seafood table presented the biggest challenge because hot summer days and the shifting sands of shooting schedules and a country location smells like trouble. A smell that no amount of aerosol spray, air cleaners, fans or prayers could erase. 
             Our scenes kept getting delayed and delayed and delayed again. I was prepared for a 2-day shoot but we were there for 4 days trying to keep everything fresh. We stuffed the display with towels soaked in Fabreeze, poured lemon juice over everything, disassembled, froze and reassembled the food displays over and over each time but the smell returned like zombie breath, much to our dismay. 
             Somehow we mitigated the situation each time the crew returned to our set and our scenes were shot MOS - “mit out smell” (actually MOS means "without sound") 
Smells like the sea -- until Day 3 when it starts to smell like Death's sneakers
Quiet on Table Three! Those chicks are cute, but...
Thorny Crown Roast of Lamb, Cabouchon Gem Eggs and Antique birdcages filled out the third tablescape. Everyone agreed with me that it would be so cute to have real chicks in the cages. Until it was time to shoot the scene – they would not stop peeping. Loud obnoxious peeping. 
            The chick wrangler gave up trying to quiet them and the chicks were asked to leave. Thank goodness we had marshmallow Peeps and they stayed in the picture. Until they were decimated by hungry wasps. A sad sight indeed.
Crowns and cages - chickless.

Chocolate Bunnies and Stigmata Cookies
When I was a schoolgirl I loved Easter because of all the decorated sweets. I remember making panorama eggs – large pastel-coloured sugar egg with a hole in the side that revealed a scene made of tiny marzipan bunnies hiding jellybean eggs in green coconut grass. 
          So, great: we’ll do the same idea in chocolate. It has been done in magnificently by Choccywokkydoodah. But for American Gods, the camera may only flash by – if at all, so not so much exquisiteness required.
It's not Easter until the chocolate bunny shows up.
      My assistant Melodie assembled a bunny carrying a cross along a path of rose petals (de la rosa as in “Via Dolorosa) to put inside a huge chocolate egg. She spent hours covering the egg in a gold ribbon and pearl lattice but alas, our big chocolate Faberge egg was never seen.
Stigmata Cookies                                                                            Blue Cross Faberge Cookies
       Nothing says Easter like bloodied shortbread. Everyone at the tone meeting was enjoying the “Jesus eating jelly beans” gag so much, I felt it was a now-or-never moment for Stigmata Cookies. So my assistant Gina made up dozens of them as well as some more elegant Cross Cookies decorated with French lattice pattern used so beautifully on Faberge eggs.

But enough of Tea and Cookies - there's an orgy over at Bilquis' place!

My sketch for orgy food

Bilquis' Orgy needed fruit and a soma fountain.
After all, one needs sustenance at these physically demanding events. So I suggested fruit platters decorated with Bird of Paradise flowers and peacock feathers for our Queen of Sheba. 
        I wanted them to be small enough for naked servers to carry around on their heads but Props didn't get the memo and all the trays were (surprise!) about 3 ft in diameter. Once they were dressed with the fruit they were heavy enough to crush a small elephant.
       The Soma fountain got changed to a pink chocolate fountain for Easter but after four days of nursing the molten chocolate like a newborn, the chocolate fountain was never used. 
Giant brass trays of fruit - thank goodness you can't see all the fruit flies that began to build an empire as I built the displays.

So that's enough of my sad food styling stories. Get thee to the kitchen -- I believe it's time for a treat:
Tasteless, perhaps...but yet so very tasty
Shortbread Stigmata cookies
You’ll need a hand-shaped cookie cutter to make these, and to make the round depressions for the jam, a bottle cap that is about  ¾-inch in diameter.

2 cups Butter, softened at room temperature
1 cup sifted Icing Sugar
½ cup Cornstarch
3 ¼  cups all-purpose Flour

Strawberry Jam
Parchment paper

1 In a small mixing bowl, combine Cornstarch and Flour. Set aside.

2  In a large mixing bowl, beat butter with an electric beater on medium speed, gradually adding Icing Sugar until well incorporated and slightly fluffy.  Stir in Flour mixture with a spoon just enough to combine then beat batter on low just until blended. Do not overbeat.

3  Cut parchment to size of baking sheet. Turn half of the batter out onto one sheet of parchment that has been lightly dusted with icing sugar. Roll out to 1/8-inch thickness and slide onto baking sheet. Cut out hands using the cutter, make the depressions by pushing the bottle cap into the middle of each hand and slide the cookie tray into the fridge for 30 minutes to firm up. Once the dough has firmed, remove from fridge and take away the excess dough, leaving the hand shapes on the parchment. Gently slide the hands around to reposition them on the parchment to give them lots of space to expand. If the dough is too soft to handle, put it back in the fridge to firm up. Add the trimmings back into the rest of the dough. Repeat until all dough is used.

4 Spoon a small amount of jam into the depression of each hand then bake at 325 F until edges begin to brown.

More on 108 – coming next week: Godsplaining and more!
With all this food, there’s little time and space for Godsplaining. So I’ll do a separate post for that (Easter's pagan beginnings; more about Bilquis' roots; more about Gillian's character Media) in the coming week. 

Plus I’ll tell you what I have learned about what’s to come for the GodSquad in Season 2.

A footnote: PETA is always present when we film with animals and we treat them with the greatest care and respect. PETA always makes sure that my food work is made only from animals that are fully certified as humanely raised for food. For example, in the Market scene of 107, I was required to substantiate to the PETA representative that the oysters were not suffering as they sat on their half-shells on trays of ice during filming. This is the extent to which we go to keep our actions humane. And we wouldn't have it any other way. 

Unless otherwise noted, all text and images produced by and copyright of Janice Poon/Feeding Hannibal/AmericanGods Table. Use without permissions strictly prohibited.