In a glittering city called "The Capitol" (sic), foppish elites mill about, feasting sumptuously, while a teen girl from an impoverished outer district performs Robin Hood-like feats for their amusement. Unfortunately, they're too busy consuming gourmet delectables to pay heed to her archery skills. If you've somehow missed the Hunger Games runaway train, it's enough to know that in its dystopian world, where reality TV meets the Roman Colosseum, the girl's life may depend on their noticing her prowess with a bow.
In a snit, she sends an arrow through the apple in a roast suckling pig's mouth — a major buzzkill for the gluttonous dandies.
To Jack White (no, not that Jack White), the pig, the apple, and the feast itself aren't just set dressing; they're edible works of art and central characters in the story. As food stylist for the movie version of The Hunger Games, which opens not so quietly in theaters this Friday (see review on p. 72), it was the native Middle Tennessean's job to sculpt a meal that would create a sense of obscene opulence. It had to spell out the bitter disparities between lavishly spoiled Capitol dwellers and the starving young protagonist from the provinces — food as symbol of wealth and desire. It had to be a meal that people would literally die for.
White smoked the pig for that scene (and two more as backups, in case the effects crew's arrow-firing contraption failed) at his brother's smokehouse in Pulaski, Tenn. He then hauled them all to Charlotte, N.C., where the scene was filmed.
"You have to cook the pig in the shape you want it to be in," White explains, describing a porcine comedy of downpours, mud, fire and pig flesh. "Had to cook him with aluminum foil in his mouth so it would be open for the apple. And had to prop his head up on a No. 10 aluminum can while it was cooking so the head would be up."
As a kid growing up in Giles County, White never pictured himself mud-wrestling pigs for Hollywood when he grew up. When asked whether he ever planned on growing up in the first place, he lets loose a boyish belly laugh.
"You hit the nail on the head, my friend!" he says between chortles. "I don't want a regular job. It's no fun!
"I had several suit jobs," he adds. "I hated it."
White grew up in Pulaski, graduated from University of North Alabama in 1978, and moved on to a series of suit and non-suit jobs — working for the Grand Ole Opry as a tour guide and later at various Hyatt Regency hotels. Meanwhile, he dreamed of acting. He dabbled in theater, cutting his teeth during a stint in dinner theater on the old Belle Carol riverboat. After moving to New York, he appeared in The Guiding Light from 1984-89.
"Being an actor was the most fun I'd ever had in my life," White says. He recalls something a favorite acting teacher told him while he was still a young hopeful in New York: "If you enjoy the business, stay in the business" — whether that means acting, cooking, or sweeping the theater floor.
"I always wanted ... to be around that environment," White says. "I never thought this would be the way I got there — my ability to cook."
He learned his way around the kitchen as manager of the Ballroom in Chelsea under Felipe Rojas-Lombardi, founding chef of Dean & Deluca. White later moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting. On the side, he worked for a caterer and gradually found his way into more and more food-styling gigs.
Twenty years later, he's styled food for more than 75 movies and TV shows, including The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Saving Grace and The Social Network. He laughs when he recalls some of the more absurd moments of his Hollywood career. Working on the movie Spanglish, he turned up at his carefully prepped production kitchen to find it a wreck, with rock-star chef Thomas Keller due to arrive in minutes. To the crew's horror, Keller cheerfully dropped to his knees and scoured the refrigerator side-by-side with White. And in the soon-to-be-released The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, White had to figure out how to make edible tree bark, for a scene in which a bully makes the protagonist eat wood. (The solution: He made it out of chocolate.)
These days, White is styling food for ABC's Revenge and HBO's Luck (although that gig was cut short by the show's termination last week, after a series of horse deaths plagued production). Recently, he got to appear in the credits of Iron Man 2 as food stylist and actor: he played "Jack," right-hand man to Sam Rockwell's villainous character.
"If you see any movie with a beautiful meal in it, that's Jack," says Despina Gianopulos Landers, a longtime friend and client of White's and former VP of promotion at E! Networks. "If it has a gorgeous birthday cake in it, that's Jack. ... He's amazing, creative, and talented." She says White is also well known in Los Angeles for catering large and lavish entertainments events for TV and music companies.
Now 55, White hopes to retire (or at least semi-retire) home to Pulaski within the next few years. He still runs a catering business, and he owns a circa-1895 restored building in his hometown, which he's planning to rent out as an event space and supper club hosting multicourse meals every few months. But he'd like to keep one hand in the film world, cooking out of his Pulaski kitchen for movies in Charlotte and New Orleans.
"I don't want to completely give it all up," he says. "Just cook and eat and do the things I like to do." For White, even catering, after all, is live performance — only in edible form.
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