Tennessee Native Jack White Works Movie Magic as 'Hunger Games' Chef
In a dramatic scene from The Hunger Games, the star pulls back the string of her bow, points her arrow toward a suckling pig perched on a dining table and shoots the apple right out of its mouth.
But the story you might not know about that pig is it was cooked in Big Bertha, a smoker that made the trek from Pulaski, Tenn., to North Carolina, where the wildly popular film about a post-apocalyptic world was filmed. In fact, every morsel of food in the movie — and there’s a lot of it, from fancy flying fish to loaves of bread — was prepared by food stylist and Tennessee native Jack White.
White — a star of a different sort than Nashville rocker Jack White — has styled food for more than 75 films. He refilled Chinese takeout for the likes of Brad Pitt and Matt Damon during a scene in Ocean’s Thirteen. He washed dishes and prepped plates with famed chef Thomas Keller, a consultant on the set of Spanglish. And White horsed around on the set of Iron Man 2 with Robert Downey Jr. over the ugliest omelet he could bring himself to make.
Jack White’s stories might sound so Hollywood, but he’s Tennessean through and through.
From the 'Opry' to Hollywood
White learned to cook at the fish fries held from the back of a truck belonging to his father, a man who owned a bait shop selling minnows, worms and crickets. Even before age 10, White shook fish with breading in paper sacks. The family would fry the fish in copper washtubs and serve it to hundreds.
Later, White had his first taste of show biz in Nashville as a ride operator at the Opryland theme park and as a tour guide for theGrand Ole Opry.
“All I ever wanted to do was work for WSM,” he said.
He remembers the night when he was a host at the Opry and Loretta Lynn held the hand of film star Sissy Spacek on stage. “It was a great time to be in Nashville,” he said.
He also worked for the Hyatt Regency and then moved to New York City as the Grand Hyatt opened atGrand Central Station. “I was graveyard shift room service manager,” he said.
Between auditioning for acting parts, he worked with chefs such as Felipe Rojas-Lombardi, the man credited with bringing tapas to the United States, as well as founding chef of Dean & Deluca. White also earned a living as a singing waiter and bartender, and then he landed a gig with Guiding Light, the soap he had a role on for five years. His acting career then took him to Los Angeles, where he worked for more caterers between acting gigs. A food stylist noticed his work and, knowing that he understood the business of film, hired him.
“Before I knew her,” he said, “I didn’t know what a food stylist was.”
Devil's in the details
When White attended the premiere of The Hunger Games in Los Angeles this month, he learned that the 75 rolls he baked and branded with a blowtorch and iron from an L.A. prop house ended up on the editing room floor.
“The whole thing got cut out,” he said.
But plenty of his other work made the movie. In fact, the movie and the books on which it is based have spawned cookbooks and dinner parties because of the food.
“I pulled my brother’s smoker from here. I thought probably we would only use it one time.” But he smoked Cornish hens and fish that he stuffed with aluminum foil and molded with curved tails. The morning of the shoot, the production manager asked him: “Can we make them flying?” White called the head of the special effects department, and they scrambled to build aluminum frames for hoisting the fish over beds of blue, futuristic-looking rock salt.
White makes fake food look realistic, but he also makes food for eating look amazing. He once used a fine brush to paint tiny veins on a piece of sashimi for a character in Charlie’s Angels. The actor ate the piece of fish over and over, as there might be 100 takes of a scene from various angles.
“If you’re eating in every one of those,” White said, “you’ll be eating all day.”
So he also works with actors to prepare dishes according to their dietary restrictions. When Holly Hunter of Saving Grace sank her teeth in a juicy burger, for example, it was actually a patty of black rice puree formed into the shape of a burger.
White also has to watch for continuity. Glasses must be filled between takes to keep levels consistent. In Spanglish, bites were even formed on utensils.
“When they say ‘Action’ you want it to be just like it was before,” he said.
And sometimes that can get tedious and intimidating. During a scene in Ocean’s Thirteen, White had to step over the famous cast of the movie between takes to fill up their Chinese takeout containers. Carl Reiner made comic relief out of the situation.
“Every time I bent over,” White said, “he kicked me in the butt.”
On location in Pulaski
These days, White likes to spend as much time as possible at his home in Pulaski. He has a catering and private event space downtown called 227. He can hold parties in the open, exposed-brick space upstairs for 35 to 50 people and intimate tasting dinners in the cozy kitchen downstairs for eight people. “People call it the man cave,” he said of the space, where there’s a flat-screen and bookshelf of artifacts from movies he’s worked on.
White says he hopes to start a supper club and maybe a small production and micro canning facility. As a University of North Alabama grad, he recently hired culinary students from the program, even taking James Perini, 23, to North Carolina for filming of The Hunger Games.
“This is a great opportunity to let a student experience what it’s like,” he said.
And he also hopes to work with the young farmers coming back to town and embracing the locavore movement.
“It’s more of a life process that I’m looking at here,” he said.
White recently hosted the Pulaski Garden Club, a group of about 16 women, for quiche and mini muffins and scones at his 227 space. He regaled them with stories and told them his plans for the space.
“We’re really glad you’re back,” said Georgeann Blackburn, one of the club’s members.
While he is back home, White will continue to work in TV and films. A mentor in the business once told him: “If you enjoy the industry, then stay in the industry,” no matter what the role may be.
“I look at food as a character — especially in The Hunger Games,” he said. “I look at food as my acting now.”
Contact Jennifer Justus at 615-259-8072 or jjustus@tennessean.