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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Chef profile Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy offers food for thought but not much thought on food

Illustration for article titled Chef profile iDiana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy/i offers food for thought but not much thought on food
Photo: Greenwich Entertainment

Mexican cooking authority Diana Kennedy has a list of demands. She wants you to stop putting garlic in guacamole. To salt your rice more aggressively. To quit using fertilizer and bleach. To care more about conservation and climate change. To no longer prioritize being well-liked. In Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy, the cook, author, and teacher shares her thoughts on the state of Mexican cuisine and the world overall, and all the mistakes she thinks we’re making within both realms. Although the documentary is a brisk 74 minutes, filmmaker Elizabeth Carroll seems to so fully capture Kennedy’s unfiltered personality that Nothing Fancy becomes not just a portrayal of a world-famous authority on how various communities within Mexico farm, prepare, and eat their traditional dishes, but also a commentary on how we view or judge places through their food. Kennedy has complaints, and Nothing Fancy lets her air them.

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At a time when celebrity chefs, the Food Network (and reality shows like Top Chef), and social media influencers with viral recipes are driving forward our cultural conversations about cuisine, Nothing Fancy presents Kennedy as the woman gone to the mountains, leaving fame behind. At 95 years old when the documentary was filmed, Kennedy (now 97) still seems to do whatever she wants on her eight-acre ranch outside Zitácuaro, Michoacán. She takes energetic walks around her property in the morning, keeping track of each of her 10 laps with a fallen leaf. She checks the plants in her greenhouse—the deep purple habaneros, the thriving cilantro, the tomatoes that receive a tirade for flowering unexpectedly—and toasts and grinds her own coffee beans. She climbs into her beat-up truck and drives the 100 miles to Mexico City, where she wanders the markets with her straw basket in hand, berating some vendors for using artificial dyes and chatting companionably with others. Kennedy smells spices, searches for a certain kind of bread, and chows down on a freshly made taco. “You’ve got to be adventurous when you come here, and try everything,” she says mid-bite, and she does.

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In these labyrinths of stands and storefronts, the James Beard Award-winner is in her element: switching between Spanish and English, honking and yelling at other drivers, and sharing memories of what the market used to be like, before it became “gentrified.” The documentary is aware of how this might look—a white British woman, lamenting the good old days in Mexico—so interspersed throughout this present-day exploration of Kennedy’s life is a compressed biography and a number of interviews with other notable culinary figures who speak to her effect. Chef and activist José Andrés says people “never forget they met her”; chef and restaurateur Rick Bayless describes Kennedy as “an incredible repository of knowledge”; and chef Alice Waters emphasizes that Kennedy’s style of cooking has always been strictly traditionalist, and “not doing her own variation.”

Illustration for article titled Chef profile iDiana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy/i offers food for thought but not much thought on food
Photo: Greenwich Entertainment
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Nothing Fancy spends a good amount of time exploring and explaining that rigidity, and never entertains the idea that Kennedy should have deviated from the traditional recipes, methods, or techniques. (It also never wonders whether there were Mexican chefs who were doing the same work as Kennedy in the 1950s and beyond, but who didn’t have the same opportunities and platform she had thanks to her connections to New York City’s media and publishing world.) Carroll traces Kennedy’s travels through Mexico on animated maps and archival footage, and shows us all sorts of Mexican mainstays in various markets: chili-dusted orange slices, fresh tortillas on a conveyor belt or crisping in a hot pan, trays of herbs waiting to be chopped for salsa, fresh fish stacked in trays of ice. These are often beautiful images, but one of the film’s shortcomings is how Kennedy doesn’t fully speak to the food itself. She complains about Mexico importing chilis from other countries, but doesn’t explain the importance of spice to the cuisine. She complains three separate times about adding garlic to guacamole, but doesn’t make clear why that’s such a sin. There is a certain level of knowledge that Kennedy seems to assume everyone has about Mexican ingredients and regional customs that makes Nothing Fancy less about the food itself and more about Kennedy’s grasp of it. That feels like a disservice.

What Carroll does instead is connect Kennedy’s passion for authentic cuisine with her insistence that we’re not doing enough to save our environment. The ideology that inspires Kennedy to plant trees to make up for the ones she felled while in Britain’s Women’s Timber Corps during World War II is the same one that encourages her unwavering insistence that patience is more necessary for crafting Mexican cuisine than swaps or shortcuts. When someone emails Diana to let her know that they will exclude her recipes from a compendium because of her refusal to make substitutions, her mouth drops open in exaggerated shock. “We are happy to remove your name from the recipes we have developed from our visit,” she reads out loud, her initial aghast reaction eventually settling into bemused indifference.

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Illustration for article titled Chef profile iDiana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy/i offers food for thought but not much thought on food
Photo: Greenwich Entertainment

“Diana doesn’t care if people like her,” says chef Nick Zukin, but Nothing Fancy subtly pushes against that by showing Kennedy’s interactions with other people, which often follow a sort of formula: an initial prickliness, a softened fondness, and finally a snap back to business. We see that cycle play out at her “Boot Camp” cooking school, held in her kitchen, where she demands full attention from her students and is open with her criticism, but also makes clear that she wants them to learn. When she’s asked to pose in a photo with Mexican chef Gabriela Cámara during a trip to Los Angeles, it takes noticeable effort for Kennedy to loosen up in the portrait, even though they were previously affectionate with each other. From her stiffness, you wouldn’t know the two women had been laughing together only minutes earlier. An expanded exploration of this dichotomy—of how often Kennedy’s gruffness with others seems counter to her devotion to a more equitable world—would have benefited Nothing Fancy. The film’s reliance on sit-down interviews with Kennedy where she extols her worries about the future, President Donald Trump, and our destruction of the natural environment make for good soundbites, but those moments aren’t as illuminating as glimpses into her personal or professional relationships.

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In that vein, one of Nothing Fancy’s most honest moments is captured when a photographer calls Kennedy “feisty,” and she bristles at the term. After a series of bestselling books, her own TV show, decades-long friendships with Mexican chefs and restaurateurs, and success in bringing Mexican cuisine to the global stage, it’s clear that Kennedy believes she has earned enough respect and clout to not be dismissed with a clichéd term often used to condescend to women. Her unapologetic pride in those accomplishments is what makes her such a captivating subject in Nothing Fancy. The documentary doesn’t push quite enough at understanding what comes next after Kennedy—what the status of Mexican cuisine is now, who the chefs are at the forefront, how those individuals might view Kennedy’s work, and what transformations might be occurring in Mexico that affect Kennedy’s idea of authenticity. But as a presentation of the chef’s myriad contributions and her brusque singularity, Nothing Fancy informs and entertains.

Available in virtual theaters May 22.

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