'Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy': Film Review

Greenwich Entertainment
A vivid and inspiring profile, adoring but not adulatory.
5/22/2020

A debut documentary profiles a revered and fiery nonagenarian Brit who has devoted her life to Mexico's regional cuisines, recording, preserving and teaching the recipes.

"I didn't have any goals; I just went where the winds of curiosity blew me." So says Diana Kennedy, a groundbreaking authority on Mexican cooking, in Elizabeth Carroll's intimate portrait. On the superficial face of it, those words might sound disingenuous, but they go to the heart of Kennedy's unconventionality and lifelong pursuit of authenticity. Like its deliciously plainspoken subject, the captivating film never resorts to sugarcoating.

And it's no mere foodie indulgence. Insta-perfect money shots aren't Carrroll's concern; with Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy, she's made a clear-eyed tribute to an accomplished and ferociously independent woman, capturing her at a still-active 95 (today she's 97) as she contemplates mortality while carrying on her work and turning her attention toward safeguarding her considerable cultural legacy.

Beyond its intriguing selection of archival material — including a few clips from Kennedy's 1992 TLC show, The Art of Mexican Cooking — the doc incorporates new and perfectly brief snippets of incisive testimony from a handful of famous chefs, among them executive producer José Andrés. But mainly Carroll's well-crafted directing debut (which begins its virtual release this week before moving to VOD on June 19) gives the viewer quality time with Kennedy herself.

Within the rustic elegance of her solar-powered home in the mountains of Michoacán, Mexico, the kitchen, with its well-used and in some cases truly antique equipment, is the hub; there she not only cooks for herself but also conducts her undoubtedly pricey boot camps. In her rambling and bountiful organic gardens she grows many of the ingredients for recipes she's worked tirelessly to preserve. Behind the wheel of her Nissan pickup, she visits local markets, suffering no fools on the sometimes unpaved roads.

It was as a bus passenger that Kennedy began the culinary-anthropological project that has defined her life. Crisscrossing her adopted country, where she'd moved in 1957 to join her soon-to-be-husband, Kennedy visited village markets and local cooks, brimming with questions. Carroll brings the British native's biography to streamlined life through well-chosen stills and Kennedy's commentary, which ranges from straightforward-crisp to colorfully tart. "I feel like I was let loose like an unguided missile," she says of her postwar travels as a 20-something. "I was propelled by lots and lots of hormones."

Although Kennedy deems herself "not the marrying kind," she enjoyed a great love and friendship with her husband, American journalist Paul Kennedy (they would have 10 years together before his death from cancer in 1967). They met by fateful coincidence in Haiti, and soon afterward she moved to Mexico, where he was chief correspondent for The New York Times. She fell in love with Mexico almost as quickly as she fell in love with Kennedy.

Her singular combination of curiosity, rigor and delight inspired the professional encouragement of food writer Craig Claiborne, a Times colleague of her husband's. He urged her to write a cookbook; her first was published in 1972, and eight more followed (the doc draws its title from her 1984 book). Through her writing and classes and TV appearances, Kennedy would bring to the English-speaking world a new understanding of Mexican food in all its regional complexity, rather than as some monolithic variation on Tex-Mex.

In this age of sometimes hypersensitive and inflexible identity politics, the question of appropriation naturally arises in the story of a white European's relationship with a Latin culture that wasn't hers by birth or upbringing. Without asking the question outright of Kennedy, at least not onscreen, the film addresses it preemptively, particularly through the ardent endorsement of Abigail Mendoza, a longtime friend of Kennedy's and chef at a Oaxaca restaurant. Acknowledging and lauding Kennedy's "deep research," Mendoza says, "Thanks to Diana, Mexican cuisine is where it is" on the world culinary map.

For her part, Kennedy deplores others' plagiarism of recipes she chronicled through hard work, and questions the young Mexican chefs who invoke their grandmothers as some sort of rejoinder to her stature. "Were they writing it down?" she wonders about the recipes she collected when they were tots or not yet born. The film underlines the fact that Kennedy attributed the sources of her published recipes (in large print, not buried footnotes).

She comes into vivid focus as an archivist of living history whose focus on sustainability was prescient, exemplary and perhaps now more urgent than ever. But it's Kennedy's uncompromising devotion to tradition that makes her especially fascinating. How could you not adore someone who takes pride in the dozens of corrections she's fired off to Saveur? At the Oaxaca City market — where, on a recent visit, she's dismayed by the effects of gentrification and the loss of what was "more natural and untidy" — she doesn't hesitate to tell a vendor that she has no use for his artificially colored products. She's no less forthcoming with constructive criticism for appetizers served at a stateside cocktail party, even when she's one of the honored guests.

Within the culinary world and beyond, the honors and accolades have been plentiful for Kennedy, who's been compared to Julia Child, Mick Jagger and Indiana Jones. Whomever her extraordinary life might bring to mind, this grande dame of gastronomy has lived it on her own terms. But, in her fashion, she also wants to please. During backstage preparations for her participation in a recent Los Angeles foodie event, Nothing Fancy captures the moment just before Kennedy steps into the spotlight. Turning to her host, she asks, "Am I allowed to swear?"

Production companies: Honeywater Films and Submarine Deluxe in association with TDog and Dogwoof
Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment
With: Diana Kennedy, Alice Waters, José Andrés, Rick Bayless, Gabriela Cámara, Nick Zukin, Pati Jinich
Director: Elizabeth Carroll
Producers: Elizabeth Carroll, Dan Braun, David Koh, Gina Abatemarco
Executive producers: Jonathan Gould, Anna Godas, Margaret Martin, José Andrés, Nick Zukin
Directors of photography: Paul Mailman, Andrei Zakow
Editors: Paul Lovelace, Jordan Schulkin
Composers: Dan Teicher, Graham Reynolds

73 minutes