Why a documentary maker spent years filming Mexican culinary expert Diana Kennedy

There’s a point in the new documentary on Mexican food expert Diana Kennedy during which she snaps at students attending a boot camp held at her eight-acre ranch outside Zitácuaro, Michoacán. “Read my books and learn, please! What are you going to do when I’m gone? Who else is going to start screaming? Nobody!”

A James Beard Award nominee, “Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy” is the first feature by documentary filmmaker Elizabeth Carroll and she’s picked a doozy of a subject.

British ex-pat Kennedy, the author of nine cookbooks, is known as the “Julia Child of Mexico,” although she  prefers “The Mick Jagger of Mexican Cuisine.” She’s earned the Order of the Aztec Eagle from the Mexican government and she’s a Member of the Order of the British Empire.

Carroll, who founded Honeywater Films in 2013, follows Kennedy, now 97, to Mexican markets, guest appearances at international foodie festivals and on the road in her white Nissan pickup truck.

The filmmaker has gathered interviews with culinary superstars Martha Stewart, José Andrés, Alice Waters, Rick Bayless and Gabriela Cámara  who sing Kennedy’s praises. She’s pulled together archival footage and photos of Kennedy’s younger days. She met New York Times correspondent Paul P. Kennedy in Haiti and followed him to Mexico where he was posted and where she began 60 years of research on traditional Mexican food. They were married until he died of cancer in 1967.

But the core of film is a tight focus on a woman who insists on authenticity in Mexican food with a fury, even while making a simple dish of  guacamole, “No garlic! … Keep your hands off the jalapeños, por favor! … People say they don’t like cilantro — don’t invite them!”

We couldn’t pass up a chance to find out how Carroll got interested in the subject and how she found the drive to film for years with a relentless and opinionated dynamo whom Andrés calls, “The Indiana Jones of Mexican food.”

Q: What fascinated you about Kennedy?

A: I was looking to do a movie about women in the patriarchy of food traditions in Mexico. So when I found Diana, she occurred to me as the person who was an expert on the subject. But I thought it was so fascinating that she wasn’t Mexican. I immediately wanted to meet her.

Q: And fate played a part, right? 

A: I didn’t know how to get her email address or find a way to contact her. I looked around for a little while and then I kind of gave up and moved on with my day. Twenty minutes later I pulled into the parking lot of the bookstore in Austin. I looked at the marquee and it said, ‘”Book signing with Diana Kennedy, tomorrow.”

Q: Kismet! She talked about fate in the film, right?

A: Diana interestingly also operates on faith in a certain way. Her instincts are very strong in the cosmic realm, if you will. It’s not for everybody, but it’s certainly for her.

Q: So you changed gears from your broader topic and focused on Kennedy?

A: It all happened really, really quickly. I learned about Diana’s existence and then I was face to face with her 24 hours later. …  I was totally blown away by her. I was just learning everything about her in the moment. And so I felt her energy. She’s a powerhouse as you’ve seen. She’s not some tame woman shrinking like a wallflower. She was big.

Q: It’s fun to see she’s still pushing buttons.

A: I was spellbound and I was like, “Oh my God, just being in this woman’s orbit, that’s the main thing.” Then when she said, “Oh, do you want to make a film about me?”  And I was like, “Oh, uh, wow!” I didn’t have any idea that that was even on the table.

Q: What impressed you?

A: Lots of things. Her physical health. She was exercising every day and still eating well and had tons of energy. Especially when we were first filming with her. She was 91 and every morning she was like,”Get up! Let’s go! Get in the car! We’re going to the market!” and we were chasing her through the market stalls.

Q: Anything else?

A: The way that she’s cultivated her house and her garden, it’s completely ecologically sustainable and she’s done so much work for so much time. It’s not like she went out there and cut all the trees down to build her palace. She wanted to make sure that it was completely in harmony with the environment.

Q: I love her decor. It’s all these neutrals and then pops of color with some Mexican folk. Her bedroom looks like a resort. I’ve read that she sleeps with a pistol under her pillow. 

A: Yup. That’s what she says.

Q: I also read that the film’s financing ended up being a combination of Kickstarter, your own money and more.

A: Very, very eventually we got all the money that we needed to finish. But there’s not a lot of people dying to fund a documentary that’s being made by someone who’s ever made a movie before, because that would be a huge financial risk.

I used my savings and I got credit cards and I borrowed money in the beginning to make sure that I could start because she was in her early nineties, and I just didn’t know how much time we would have with her. Midway, once I started to get more footage and connect with more people and get a marginal amount of legitimacy, then I got a sales agent and we were able to get more funding.

Q: There are a lot of parallels between Diana Kennedy and Julia Child and there are so many films about Julia. Was Kennedy unmarketable in some way?

A: She didn’t have the same role in the celebrity chef culture that had been burgeoning in the U.S. She was effectively hiding out in Mexico and she didn’t have her own restaurant in the U.S. She didn’t have her own cooking show on the Food Network or anything like that.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I’m in development on a documentary series right now about food, a historical approach to American food.

Q: Working title?

A: I’m not quite there yet.

Q: I forgot to ask you about the “Nothing Fancy” title. 

A: It perfectly encompassed for me Diana’s style. … Most of the time she doesn’t really care what people think of her … it’s more about what she’s doing than how she looks. I always admire that about her and her book, “Nothing Fancy,” is a mixture of her past in the U.K. and her present in Mexico. It’s recipes from England and from Mexico, just a mishmash of her personal life experience, it’s definitely her most personal cookbook.

‘Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy’

Find it: In virtual release; visit dianakennedymovie.com for home viewing options. Available on VOD, iTunes, Apple TV and Amazon Prime beginning Friday, June 19. DVD available for purchase beginning June 23.

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