Imagine being introduced as “The Mick Jagger of Mexico” or thought of as the “Indiana Jones of Food.” These are just a couple of the descriptors top chefs and food critics from all over the world have used to describe Chef Diana Kennedy in the new film “Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy.” Director Elizabeth Carroll introduces us to the always feisty, sometimes foul-mouthed, award-winning chef and 95 year-old author Diana Kennedy as she readies herself to drive an old stick shift Nissan truck over rocky terrain to a fresh market to shop.
The opening scenes gives us the spicy flavor of the film, immediately connecting and endearing us to this woman who has, as she says, “cooked my way through 80, 90 years of life!” Kennedy imparts her words of wisdom as Carroll takes us back in time to when Kennedy lived in Britain, well before she became the Mexican food expert and chef. Her independence and rebellious spirit was evident in her youth, bucking the system during WWII and joining the Timber Corps. Reminiscing about her past and learning about the importance of nature still seeps into her life and her cooking even today.
The film takes us on a fast pace, trying to keep up with this woman who starts her day speed hiking along the trails near her home, her “Mexican cooking center,” located about 100 miles west of Mexico City. Retracing her steps that lead her to her renowned status, various chefs and restauranteurs share how Kennedy changed the way they cook. Rick Bayless, Alice Waters, as well as Nick Zukin who coined her the “Indiana Jones of Food,” and many more all share their share their gratitude for Kennedy’s ability to understand Mexico’s regional cooking, the flavors, the cultures, but most importantly the people and their traditions in their entirety.
Using footage from home films, we see Kennedy’s zest for life even when she found herself in New York City, surroundings which were not comfortable. Thanks to her connections with the New York Times where her husband worked, food critic and author Craig Claiborne pushed her in the direction she needed, always at the right moment and the right way. Additional footage from national cooking shows including her own as well as shows like Martha Stewart’s, Kennedy created cuisine magically before our eyes, narrating in her own original style while teaching viewers about authentic Mexican cooking. From tamales and papadzules to the real way to make guacamole, you’ll laugh at her insights, but you’ll also take away a new found appreciation for Mexico, its regions, and its food.
The film is gorgeously shot, creating a feeling of being a guest in Kennedy’s ecological and sustainable home as she roasts her coffee beans or takes us on a tour of her own garden or to the markets. And she’s not shy about critiquing what she sees, tastes, and buys! This Brit is true to Mexico and makes no bones about it, emphasizing she does not make her own variations of the foods she discovers. She learns the truth about the food and the region and keeps the art alive.
Carroll beautifully weaves this nine decade-long story into a humorous and engaging one that will make you cherish the contributions of Kennedy. You might also be inspired to create your own culinary masterpieces, understanding that cooking takes time and it’s not just eating food. And please, please, please, do NOT put garlic in your guacamole!
You can see “Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy” on virtual cinema platforms such as Siskel Film Center on Friday, May 22. For more information and a complete list of participating theaters, go to Diana Kennedy Movie
This film is available to be purchased as a gift to stream at the Siskel Film Center. Plus, “Screen to Screen” offers a Q&A On Saturday, May 23, 7 pm CDT with famed chef Alice Waters (Chez Panisse), The New York Times City Kitchen columnist David Tanis, two-time James Beard semifinalist Gabriela Cámara (A Tale of Two Kitchens), and director Elizabeth Carroll.