I know very little about the great chefs or restaurants, but that never seems to stand in the way of my fully enjoying great documentaries about them both, including Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy, which focuses on the author of nine cookbooks and two-time James Beard Award winner Diana Kennedy, the 97-year-old (95 when she participated in this movie) British-born cook who moved to Mexico and set the world alight with her first book, The Cuisines of Mexico (1972).
Far from a reserved and proper British lady, Kennedy is a feisty, bordering on antisocial, creator of authentic Mexican dishes—not her own versions of classic cuisine, but as true to the original recipes as she could capture, down to the best ingredients available in the region. She swears regularly and dismisses anyone in the marketplace where she shops who adds coloring or some other non-natural aspects to food she’s inspecting for her creations.
Directed by Elizabeth Carroll, the film provides that rare, genuine look inside a private and professional life using archival clips of television appearances and other life events, as well as unrestricted access to Kennedy’s ecologically sustainable home (she is an enthusiastic environmental activist). In addition to revealing interviews with the subject, Carroll also features an array of well-known celebrity chefs talking at length about Kennedy’s influence, including Rick Bayless, José Andrés, Gabriela Camara and Alice Waters.
But the more they talk her up, the more we begin to realize that Kennedy is unlike any other master chef, especially in her refusal to be treated like a typical elderly person. Her firecracker personality powers this documentary that is anything but precious about its subject, a woman who fully admits that there is as much value to failing as there is in success. And her commitment to tradition is perhaps the most inspiring thing about her approach to cooking. Nothing Fancy also made me realize that I could watch Kennedy shop in an open market for days. Her attention to detail when choosing ingredients is hypnotic and her running commentary (in both English and Spanish) during the process is a scream.
The film is available through the Gene Siskel Film Center’s “Film Center from Your Sofa.” On Saturday, May 23, at 7pm CST, there will be a virtual Q&A with director Elizabeth Carroll; famed chef Alice Waters (Chez Panisse); two-time James Beard semifinalist Gabriela Cámara (A Tale of Two Kitchens); and New York Times City Kitchen columnist David Tanis. Register here.
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