Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy


Caution: testy nonagenarian at the wheel.

(2019) Documentary (GreenwichDiana Kennedy, Jose Andres, Rick Bayless, Alice Waters, Frances McCullough, Abigail Mendoza, Claudia Kirking, Nick Zukin, Pati Juich, Gabriela Camara. Directed by Elizabeth Carroll

 

Modern cuisine owes a lot to early cookbook authors and television cooking show pioneers, like Julia Child, Graham Kerr and Diana Kennedy. The latter championed Mexican cuisine, travelling throughout the various regions of Mexico to gather recipes (whose authors she duly noted), ingredients and techniques. This British ex-pat has done more to popularize Mexican cuisine than all the taco trucks in the world have done.

95 when this was filmed (she’s 97 now), she lives on a self-sustaining ranch in the state of Michoacán where she continues to grind her own coffee beans that she also happens to grow in her impressive garden. For those ingredients she can’t grow, she drives 100 miles in her beat-up truck to Mexico City, where she prowls the market, haranguing some vendors for using dyes in their food, getting affectionate and chummy with others.

Kennedy, whose husband Paul was the New York Times correspondent for Mexico and the Caribbean, is a fascinating subject in many ways. She is passionate about traditional Mexican food, and loathe to make substitutions or changes; she is something of a conservator of traditional recipes and techniques, and her eight bestselling cookbooks advocate for patience in making some of the labor-intensive dishes. She gets irritated at the thought of adding garlic to guacamole, or using minced onions rather than finely chopped ones. She’s unapologetically opinionated and will get right in your grill if she feels it is warranted.

There are a few talking heads – notably celebrity chefs Jose Andres, Alice Waters and Rick Bayless, as well as Mexican chef Pati Juich – singing her praises, but mostly it’s the woman herself. We see her teaching cooking classes (which she continues to do from her home), or hosting her cooking videos from the 90s The Art of Mexican Cuisine with Diana Kennedy. Kennedy pulls no punches and swears like a trooper which is a little bit pause-inducing when you consider she’s a 95-year-old Brit. Not that the British never swear, mind you, but it sounds oddly jarring at times.

Kennedy is opinionated but we don’t get really in-depth with her that much. She does explain why she chose not to have children, or why she’s against marriage but mostly she saves her commentary for her two passions – cooking Mexican food and the environment, both of which she seems to be equally enthusiastic about. We never really get a sense of what drove her to become so loathe to make no substitutions, or why she feels so proprietary about the techniques that are used. Not everyone has a mortar and pestle in their kitchen.

In an era when cultural appropriation has become an ongoing debate in the culinary world, one could be excused from wondering why focus on a 95-year-old British woman as an expert on Mexican cuisine, but in reality, Kennedy is adored in Mexico, having been decorated with their equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor and chefs speak of her with respect bordering on reverence. Are there Mexican chefs trying to preserve the culinary traditions of their country and making sure that regional recipes and techniques don’t disappear forever? I am sure there are, but none have done it as successfully and as thoroughly as Kennedy. I guarantee you one thing: after watching this documentary, you will absolutely have a craving for authentic Mexican food, and I don’t mean Taco Bell or Chipotle.

The movie is playing in virtual theatrical release, meaning that it is being shown by local art houses online, with the art house getting a percentage of the rentals. Here in Orlando, the movie is available on Enzian On Demand for the next couple of weeks. You can rent it here. For those who’d prefer to wait, it will be on Video On Demand in June.

REASONS TO SEE: Kennedy is an irascible firecracker who makes for a compelling subject.
REASONS TO AVOID: Lacks depth in some ways.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a surprising amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kennedy served in the British Timber Corps during the Second World War, cutting down trees for the war effort. Since then, she has actively been planting as many trees as she can in order to make up for all the ones she cut down – which is where here ecological activism was developed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: 75/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jiro Dreams of Sushi
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski

New Chefs on the Block


Aaron Silverman gets intense.

(2016) Documentary (Lateral Line) Aaron Silverman, Frank Lynn, Michel Richard, Frank Lynn Sr., Konstantin “Kosta” Troupos, BJ Lieberman, Anne Lynn, Emily Sprissler, Mike Isabella, Dan Silverman, Libby Diamond, Michael McNamara, Drew Adams, Kate Diamond, Danny Meyer, Andy Erdmann, Elizabeth Parker, Scott Muns, Aziz Shafi, Justin Eobstel, Andi Chesser, Alison Danie. Directed by Dustin Harrison-Atlas

It is said that the second hardest thing to do in the small business realm is to open up a new restaurant. The hardest thing to do is keep it open. As most people are aware, restaurants come and go with almost a terrifying regularity. People tend to be fickle and may pack your eatery one day and the next day be on to the new flavor of the week. Banks are very loathe to give out small business loans for that reason, particularly for would-be restaurateurs with no track record.

One of the toughest markets for restaurants is the Washington DC area. This documentary follows two men with very different concepts and very different hopes; one is Aaron Silverman, a chef with a pedigree that has brought him under the tutelage of some of the best in the business, including Michel Richard (who sadly passed away shortly after filming concluded for New Chefs on the Block). He had an idea of a five star dining experience at two star prices. In order to accomplish that he loaded up his kitchen with experienced chefs.

He also gave his staff health and dental benefits (a rarity in the food service industry) and regular hours, giving them the ability to plan their lives. This is also revolutionary stuff in an industry well-known for creating personal life chaos. Silverman is something of a perfectionist and the price it would take to make his dream happen was a heck of a lot more than the second chef.

Frank Lynn (who in the interest of transparency is the brother-in-law of the filmmaker) had been operating a successful pizza-oriented food truck for two years and yearned to have a brick-and-mortar location to call his own. He found one in the Maryland suburbs of DC but the space would need some extensive work. Believing that the $86,000 he raised through family members and Crowdfunding would be more than sufficient to get his neighborhood pizzeria open, he set about remodeling his space mainly with the help of his family and friends.

Both project take longer than expected to reach opening night and both are fraught with issues that threaten to kill the dreams of their prospective owners before they even get started. We see pretty much everything; the process of getting permits, the physical construction, ordering a pizza oven that turns out to be defective, the compromises and calamities all told.

Many restaurant owners are going to see this and chuckle ruefully to themselves. Others who are thinking about opening a restaurant might turn white as a sheet. However, the cautionary tale is that Harrison-Atlas turned out to be extraordinarily lucky; most restaurants don’t make it to their first anniversary and the number that make it to their second is terrifyingly low. Still, this is a fascinating behind the scenes look at how your neighborhood restaurants came into being. That the two owners are engaging and charismatic fellas makes this a lot more palatable because some might find the somewhat clinical view of the start to finish process a bit of a slog. However I assure you that you’ll leave the theater (or your home couch if you are watching through streaming or home video) a little bit more educated about the business and, even more likely, craving something good to eat.

REASONS TO GO: An informative look at what goes into opening a restaurant. A rooting interest is maintained even when the expectations aren’t realistic.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be a little bit too “nuts and bolts” for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some profanity occasionally.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rose’s Luxury would go on to win the James Beard award for Best New Restaurant, Mid-Atlantic Region in 2014.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: King Georges
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: A Quiet Passion