In “Nothing Fancy,” which premieres virtually Friday, the queen of Mexican regional cooking confronts mortality and the director of her documentary.
About a year ago, Diana Kennedy was in Los Angeles to watch a preview screening of the biographical documentary made about her life.
The crowd at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills was your regular mix of arts patrons, food aficionados and figures from the competitive local food industry. Many were eager not only to watch “Nothing Fancy,” directed by Elizabeth Carroll, but to witness the first reactions to the film from Kennedy, one of the most admired and feared figures in food.
Kennedy has a peerless reputation as perhaps the greatest living documenter of Mexican regional cuisines. She’s spent some six decades cataloging, crediting and preserving a pantheon of intensely complex home recipes from every state in the country, from Mexico’s Baja California to Chiapas. The British-born Kennedy has been decorated by the Mexican government with the Order of the Aztec Eagle and in 2014 entered the James Beard Cookbook Hall of Fame.
She’s also known for being a bit prickly, to put it lightly.
Kennedy doesn’t hold back when asked about chefs or other food writers. In an interview with me a few years ago, Kennedy railed against the bland reappropriation of Mexican food in U.S. pop culture and against the chefs and authors who were behind it. She named names. “They’re saying nothing new,” she told me. “All they are are beautiful photographs and dreaming up different names for things. I get so bored.”
At the Paley Center, Kennedy sat for a panel, part of last year’s L.A. Times Food Bowl, after the screening. She mostly kept her cool, speaking with a winning yet neutral vibe about the project. Carroll sat nearby, terribly nervous, by her admission.
“I think I was just preparing for the worst and hoping for the best,” the Austin, Texas-based filmmaker recalled in an interview this week. “Honestly, my assumption was that she was not going to like it, because she is very critical of everything.”
At one point at the screening last May, Kennedy began nitpicking a few details in the movie, prompting uncomfortable bellows from the audience. Carroll gestured toward Kennedy with an almost pleading expression for her to stop. The two women, after four years of filming, had by then, uh, developed a familial bond.
Kennedy’s legendary gruffness makes the fact that this film exists a feat all its own. Since it premiered at South by Southwest last March, “Nothing Fancy,” which is receiving its virtual theatrical premiere on Friday, has begun transforming into a poignant artifact.
Its subject is reaching a century of life, and she is finally showing signs of slowing.
If or when she decides to retire, confidants say, there might not be another chance to film her in her element again: driving herself in her Nissan pickup truck, grinding the stick shift up to Quinta Diana, her self-built ecological home in Coatepec de Morelos, a 16th century town in the state of Michoacán, Mexico; or tending to her gardens, where she grows hundreds of native plants gathered after decades of bumping along across Mexico.
The COVID-19 pandemic makes the prospect of an additional Diana Kennedy documentary project even dimmer.
In conversation, the author sometimes announces that she will die when, where and how she damn pleases. “I have planned only five [more] years, and nobody can say no,” Kennedy says in the film. “There’s a time, it’s like the caducidad, the date on your ingredients you buy, OK? They last so long.”
“I choose to die when I want to die. Everybody has a choice!” she huffs.
Speaking this way, Kennedy isn’t so much making a specific commitment to death but instead seems to be emphasizing an argument about how to live. The idea of not being able to cook for herself sounds like an affront to her spirit.
“Diana defies every convention, every stereotype and expectation of a nonagenarian British woman, and she was operating at very high level, for her age, for most of her life,” Carroll said. “And I think that’s inspiring, it’s feminist.”
Kennedy’s legacy is a submerged tension throughout the film. She seems to be confronting mortality with a certain degree of urgency; she has to leave future generations with a usable template about how to care for and save the planet and to keep in mind the central role that food plays in any such effort.
“So many people function as if climate change is not an issue to them because they’re not going to have to deal with the fallout, and she’s the opposite of that,” the filmmaker said. “There’s almost a sense of generational justice that she feels needs to be done.”
Still, Kennedy is at her most entertaining when laying the smack down. She quips about occasionally being confronted by young Mexican chefs who might question her credentials as a non-Mexican.
“I’ve had young chefs say to me, ‘Oh, she’s English. I learned from my grandmother,’ ” she says. “So I say, ‘Well sonny boy, when I came to Mexico, you were this high, and I was cooking with your grandmothers.’ ”
For Carroll, the process of filming Kennedy for hours and hours was delicate. “Diana wants to be in charge. It’s very important to her to be in control, so as long as we were able to sort of allow her to be in control, we would turn on the cameras and say, ‘Do whatever you want.’ ”
Last July, Kennedy seemed to finally come around and congratulate Carroll in public, while screening “Nothing Fancy” at the Guanajuato International Film Festival. At one point in the panel session, Carroll recalled, Kennedy turned and thanked her for being diligent and patient with her.
“I was just standing there with my mouth open” when she heard the words, Carroll said. “It was a very validating moment.”
And kudos to her for it, because anyone who knows anything about Mexican food knows it isn’t easy pleasing Diana Kennedy. Those who state the obvious might also immediately express deep admiration for her. As “Nothing Fancy” lovingly suggests, the sentiments aren’t exclusive.
“Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy”
Running time: 1 hour 22 minutes
Playing: In virtual cinemas, including Laemmle, Cinepolis, Studio Grill and more at dianakennedymovie.com