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This story first appeared in the Oct. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
“Hannibal loves his food; he doesn’t eat the way a cannibal eats. This I understand,” says Jose Andres, chef and owner of The Bazaar at the SLS Beverly Hills and Miami, along with restaurants Jaleo and China Poblano in Las Vegas, as well as the Minibar empire in Washington, D.C. “I have a lot of ideas of how Hannibal would be inspired to cook something. The way he cooks is clean. He is stylish, the way he sautes.”
When Hannibal executive producer Bryan Fuller got the green light for the NBC drama, he immediately thought of the Spain-born chef — for his technical skills, his passion and his knack for storytelling. “I have a limited knowledge of the culinary. And Hannibal Lecter has to be smarter than I am in the kitchen. Jose gives insight into his expertise; he’s omnipresent in every food scene,” says Fuller.
“We’re trying to make restorative soup that can be creepy. It’s got to be cinematic,” says Janice Poon, food stylist and key collaborator with Andres on Hannibal (who notes in passing that most human muscle would be dark meat). “Whatever the food is, it’s got to just lift off the plate and scare your pants off.”
Although few shows require culinary insight into gourmet cannibalism, an increasing number of movie and television projects are leveraging the talents of famous chefs to bring more authenticity and flair to the screen. The success of some of these collaborations suggests that this realism — or the lack of it — can affect the bottom line.
“Food has become a subject of great interest in America and around the world,” says Jeff Kleeman, who is producing the film El Bulli, a fictional biopic of renowned Spanish chef Ferran Adria. “Whether it’s in Spain or in Peru or Tokyo, there’s a huge fascination with food, and there’s an incredibly knowledgeable audience now. The bar is set much higher for a food movie today than it ever was.”
Not surprisingly, Los Angeles, where so many projects come to life, is the epicenter of such collaborations — and there certainly is no shortage of super-talented chefs who want to get in the game. As Jon Favreau got his comedy-drama Chef off the ground, he sought the help of one of L.A.’s biggest names on the food scene, chef Roy Choi, of A-Frame, Sunny Spot and Kogi — most obviously because the movie is set in the Venice culinary world with a strong focus on food trucks and social media but also because it’s about reconnecting with one’s passion.
“There’s something very soulful about his work, how his career is a product of the digital age,” says Favreau, who first was exposed to Choi’s cooking when Gwyneth Paltrow brought the Kogi food truck to the Iron Man set. “I remember grabbing a couple of tacos, and I knew I was trying something I had not tasted before.”
Choi didn’t train Favreau — whose only restaurant experience was bartending way back before he wrote 1996’s Swingers — how to cook like a pro, but he did take the actor-writer-director to see the inner workings of his busy restaurant kitchens. Favreau quickly learned that chefs really are concerned about onscreen authenticity: “Roy suggested I get up to my elbows in the restaurant world — to learn like a chef would,” says Favreau, who accepted that challenge.
Amateur foodies might tear apart how a roasted chicken looks onscreen, but chefs are likely the most brutal critics of onscreen cooking. When New Orleans chef Susan Spicer was asked to consult on HBO’s Treme, which features a number of chefs as key characters, she lent her personal experiences as a restaurateur to the writers and showed the actors how to expedite in the kitchen; slice and dice; and talk like a chef.
But she did take issue with one scene, when the character Janette Desautel, played by Kim Dickens, took a phone call while working at Le Bernardin in New York City. “That bugged the shit out of me,” says Spicer. “I was really kind of shocked. I mean, she was at Le Bernardin. I told the writers that if it were me working for a chef like Eric Ripert, I would never do that. But they had to move the storyline.”
Because it’s those technical details that really sell the authenticity of a television show or movie, producer Brad Lewis consulted Thomas Keller for Ratatouille. The Pixar crew worked alongside Keller at the French Laundry in Northern California’s Napa region before creating the lovable Remy and Gusteau’s kitchen, which he worked in — which is why even though it was animated, it was pretty spot-on. The audience completely believed it, and the film grossed $623 million worldwide.
The same quest for realism brought Floyd Cardoz, the celebrated Indian-American chef who ran the kitchen at Tabla and North End Grill in New York and recently opened White Street there, to repeatedly prepare duck breast seared in an orange curry, pan-roasted snapper with a dried ginger broth and dozens more dishes for The Hundred-Foot Journey, a film that charts the rise of a young chef with a biography remarkably similar to his own. The filmmakers didn’t use any food stylists for the movie; they hired a French chef, an Indian chef and an expert in molecular gastronomy. Cardoz agreed to join the project late in the game after a production designer told him, “This is a food film — and it’s not as good as we want it to be.”
Notes Cardoz, who spent five intensive days cooking in Paris for the project: “Everything was real. It wasn’t fake food. I originally planned to do four dishes, but by the time it was done, it was 26 or 27.”
The success of the macabre Hannibal underscores the power of authentic and beautifully prepared food. “Even if, ultimately, Hannibal is cooking human flesh, a lot of people say that when they see the food sequences, they wish they were at the table,” says Andres. “In the moment they forget what is being served.”
Fuller concurs. “We would have missed a huge opportunity if we couldn’t have the audience confused as to why their stomach is grumbling when they’re looking at what they are told is human flesh,” he says, before admitting that this strange theater has had an impact on his own diet: “After working on this show for three years, I’ve kind of stopped eating land animals — the line between cannibalism and eating animals is too thin for me.”
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