This film is like a lost episode of "Chef's Table." It's just as good but contains less food porn and more subject development. I don't particularly enjoy cooking, but I do have a special affinity for certain chefs like Erin French, Renee Erickson, and (now, after watching this doc) Diana Kennedy. I deeply respect anyone who commits their life to a passion and pursues it with never-ending zeal.
In a world where so many people seem willing to conform to society's ideals, it's refreshing to stumble upon a human who is the exact opposite ... someone who voices her opinions strongly and without concern for bruised egos. If you need a dose of inspiration or a reminder that life can be fun and exciting with the right attitude, you need to watch "Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy."
This doc is inspirational, but 100% aware that its subject is kind of an asshole sometimes. It made me feel better about growing older without gross manipulation or inane platitudes. Kennedy is a total badass, an octogenarian who calls the shots in her own life and gives zero fucks about what other people think; however, I suspect her acerbic barbs are much harder to stomach in real life.
Best time to watch:
Watch when you're in need of some inspiration. If a woman from the UK can become the foremost expert on Mexican cuisine, the sky is the fucking limit. Pursue your passion with Kennedy's ardor and there's nothing you can't accomplish.
Worst time to watch:
Don't watch when you're hungry. I watched this before bed and I'm pretty sure I dreamed about handmade tortillas all night.
Where to watch:
If you're lucky enough to attend this year's Hot Docs festival, you can catch the film's next screening there. If not, sign up for the mailing list and keep your fingers crossed for a distribution deal sometime in the near future.
Diana Kennedy is a chef, teacher, environmental activist, and hurricane-woman. She's lived near Zitácuaro, Michoacán since 1974 on the isolated, beautiful, ecologically sustainable property of my dreams. This film celebrates her life at the tail end, but while she's still tremendously enjoying it.
Other Interesting Facts:
Kennedy wants nothing to do with people who don't like cilantro (same), enjoys using "shitbag" as an insult (same again!), and says that anyone who removes the seeds from serrano chilis is not a good cook (I wouldn't know, but I trust her).
After a late lunch of (disappointing) mushroom tacos, I talked to director Elizabeth Carroll. We were both wearing black jumpsuits (a sign that we should be friends?) and like Diana, she was carrying an excellent hat.
Interview with Elizabeth Carroll:
WiR: I had no idea Diana Kennedy existed until I watched this film, which is a real shame. How did you find out about her?
EC: I was really into food and had been studying it throughout college and for 7-8 years after. I wanted to do a documentary project about women in Mexico, looking specifically at it as an environment where women are responsible for food culture and passing down traditions. Effectively, those women keep food culture in their brains and pass it down to their daughters. I wanted to interview a bunch of Mexican women and figure out what that looks like in an historical and contemporary sense.
I found Diana on the Internet and was like, "Wait, what?" How is there this 90-year-old badass woman, living in the woods. Also, she's white and has devoted her entire life to Mexico. She should be iconic!” At least in the food world, she should be a household name. I felt like this was a problem that needed to be solved.
Then, magically, I was at this coffee shop on her Wikipedia page. I knew I wanted to interview her but had no idea how to find her. I didn't even know if she had an email address. She lives in the middle of the mountains and you can't get to her house unless she tells you where it is. I really wanted to meet her but felt like it just wasn't going to happen. I closed my computer, left the shop, then went over to Book People (I was living in Austin at the time). I pulled into the parking lot and there was a sign that said, "Book signing with Diana Kennedy tomorrow."
What are the chances of that?!
I thought to myself 5-and-a-half years ago, "Alright, challenge accepted."
How long did you film?
It was sporadic over the course of the last 5 years. Getting down there with a full crew was expensive. Every shoot would cost us a chunk of change that we had to source and acquire before we could make it happen. I started filming with her because she was 90. I scrappily made it happen and put myself in debt. I was going to do this by any means necessary because anything could happen, and it was prime time for me to get the footage that I wanted.
With a typical project, you get all of the funding at the beginning and then make the movie; this was very much not that. It was sort of piecemeal funding as we went along, which is another reason why it took 5 years to finish. I borrowed a little money here, dove into my savings there, and started to shoot with her in Mexico at her house. We were there five times: the first in February 2014, the last in August 2018. She aged and changed a lot in the course of that time, which was interesting to see. During the first shoot she's sparkling, spry, and constantly asking us what we're doing. In the later ones, she's like, "Get the hell out of my way" and much tougher on us.
I like the idea of picking a person that you're in love with and then finding an excuse to get into their life somehow. Making a documentary is a good, non-creepy way to do it.
It was a combination of synchronicity and luck ... it just all happened at the right time. Once one door opened, a bunch of doors opened and led us further down the path. Not to say that it hasn't been hard, but a bunch of things happened at the very beginning to ensure liftoff.
This documentary feels like an episode of Chef's Table, which I mean as a compliment. While watching, I kept thinking that Diana reminds me of the Argentinian chef from Season 1. I'm blanking on his name.
Francis Mallmann! That's so funny.
Yes! My husband has such a boner for his lifestyle ... mainly the exorbitant jugs of wine and open fires.
Every dude loves Mallmann.
Hah, exactly. I think Diana is my version of Mallmann.
It's funny you say that because I met David Gelb, the creator of "Chef's Table" a few years ago (at SXSW, actually). There was a "Chef's Table" panel and I went up to him afterwards. His brother did our first trailer, so I introduced myself. He told me that he heard about the Diana Kennedy project and said that he would have loved to do a "Chef's Table" about her. I didn't really know what to say. It probably would have been a great episode.
Diana is an incredibly interesting personality. Super regimented in her process, obviously passionate, but also like ... "get your shoes off my fucking carpet." She just seems to always speak her mind, which I admire. We could all stand to adopt a bit of her attitude.
There are so many different ways to take a note from Diana Kennedy: in the sustainability realm, cooking, general respect for preservation - the environment, history, our bodies. She has done a tremendous job in all areas.
I found her attitude toward children inspiring. I've always known that I don't want to have kids - it just isn't for me - and it's hard to find female role models who have expressed similar sentiments. There's often a need to make excuses like "I don't think I'd be a good mother" or "I'm not financially equipped." I appreciate that Diana gives zero rationalization and just says, "No, thanks."
There are so many elements of her personality that are surprising. She was born in 1923, a time when being a rebellious feminist was not the thing ... nobody did that. The fact that she always knew she was different and just didn't give a shit is great. She was like, "That's not my style. I'm going to live my life exactly as I want to." It's been very inspiring for me to see her at 96 years old and 100% a feminist ... living a life free of stereotypes and conventions that other people tried to place onto her.
Do you think she would self-identify as a feminist? I feel like older women often are feminists but have a hard time using the word because of the connotations that were associated with it when they were coming of age.
I know that I've talked to her about it before and she's kind of just brushed it off ... didn't say yes or no but agreed with the basis behind it. She'd say something like, "This is how I am and if that makes me a feminist, then I guess I am."
This is a shallow thing to note, but damn ... Diana has great style and a dream wardrobe. Excellent hats and scarves.
She walks around her house in whatever she feels like throwing on (not nice clothes), then she goes out to accept awards and is wearing full-length black leather with badass jewelry. She called me the other day and was like, "Okay, Elizabeth. For this movie premiere, I need to go to Neiman Marcus Last Call. I need a floor-length black sequin dress. Can you help me find this? I have a credit there, it's fine, we can go together." I'm like, "Yes, absolutely, you're amazing."
I love when she took her purse on stage with her to accept an award. That made me legitimately laugh of loud.
She does whatever she wants (laughs).
Will you stay in touch with her? I imagine you've grown pretty close if she's asking you to go dress shopping.
Oh yeah. I was just thinking about this the other day. She's kind of like this grandmother figure to me now. Our relationship has changed a lot over the years. At the beginning she was into the fact that I wanted to make a documentary about her. During the midsection of filming, we're in a van on the side of the road in Oaxaca and she's yelling at me in front of my crew. It's all part of the process, though. She runs her life and likes to be in control. I respect it. She hasn't been the easiest person to work with, but I would never take back any moment of this. She's amazing and I love her.
The film is very much just her, doing her thing. With documentary, how do you decide how to structure the story? You stumble upon this great, interesting person, and then how do you proceed?
There were a bunch of things that stayed the same from the very beginning. We knew we were going to start the film with her stretching, exercising, spending time in her house. We wanted to show what a day in the life of Diana Kennedy looks like, focusing in on those vérité moments. We're actually doing another cut, a theatrical cut, after this. It's going to be a little bit longer and will breathe a little bit more.
Some things about it were easy and came together but other things changed significantly over the years. For example, she was planning on turning her house into a foundation in Mexico three years. Now, that's no longer on the table. She's starting to wrap things up and says she wants to spend the rest of her life on the beach. It's a cool plan, but also sad because her house is part of her.
There was only one moment during the film when I felt a twinge of sadness. It was when she started thinking about what's going to happen to her house and her stuff after she's dead. She made a comment about having no one to leave it to.
It's interesting because she had no problem being hyper-independent after her husband died. She poured everything she had into her work, which is amazing and why she was able to become so successful; she's really smart and driven. I know she prefers to be alone, though. I think sometimes she wishes she had someone available to help her with certain tasks around the house, but she enjoys her own company.
It's nice to have someone to share your life with, but alone time is golden. That's another thing she spoke very openly about ... she said her husband was her great love and after he died, that was it for her. At the same time, she's super open about sex.
And having lovers! It's a pretty perfect design. You're not really setting yourself up for four divorces and drama across the board. Do your thing, live your own life, be who you want to be with. It's utopian but also pretty logical. We're not accustomed to that style.
No! It's radical, even now. Switching gears a little bit, I want you to talk about how the Mexican people have reacted to Diana, a White woman from Britain, who is considered the foremost expert in their cuisine. I know they've mostly embraced her, but are there still skeptics?
I think the backlash comes when people don't know who she is ... they don't understand how she can be considered an authority if she's not Mexican. I said the same thing when I first came across her! When you see her body of work and the way that she's dedicated her life to Mexico, it makes sense. What she does is anthropological in way ... she's researching, documenting, and preserving history that would have otherwise gotten lost. People can have their own opinion about whether or not she deserves the recognition that she's received. I think she does because she's done incredible work and always respected Mexico and Mexicans in the process.
She's a contentious figure, as well. She has no problem criticizing people, telling them that they're doing something wrong ... even with Mexicans. For me, I'm not in that world ... I don't understand those relationships. I think a lot of Mexicans, like Pati Jinich, for example, love Diana. Most people who know who she is and what she does think she rules and appreciate everything she's done for the culture and cuisine.
That's so cool. Ugh, no ... I take it back. Diana hates the word "cool" and says we need to find a better adjective.
It's funny, the Diana-isms that stick with you. It's as if she's this morality pendulum in my subconsciousness. I hear a little voice telling me not to waste things, to reuse bags, to stop letting the water run too long. Obviously we're past the point where me saving a plastic bag is doing anything to reverse climate change but it's that delicate balance ... like when people say they're not going to vote because it doesn't really count. Our votes count! Our consumer choices count. The way that we look at food, treat food, eat food ... it all makes a difference.
"Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy" is one of the best films that I saw at SXSW. It made me think about how lucky I am to be alive and reminded me that wasting time on something I don't love is bullshit. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves food, documentaries, and/or learning about inspiring people. Here are some places where you can keep up with the film: