Few would say that Diana Kennedy hasn’t gotten her due over her long life of studying, writing about, and teaching Mexican cuisine. She published nine cookbooks, had a cooking show, won two James Beard awards, met Prince Charles, received the Order of the Aztec Eagle from the Mexican government, appeared in every major food publication and on all manner of TV programs, spoke at the MAD conference, and has been lauded by chefs around the world. Yet the new documentary about her life and work, Nothing Fancy, feels overdue and deserved.
How Kennedy, a white British woman with no professional culinary training, rose to prominence as an authority in regional Mexican cuisine for the English-speaking world, is a compelling and complicated one. But what’s equally interesting to see in this film is how she navigates the world as a spry, opinionated, unyielding 97-year-old woman with a lot left to say and do.
Kennedy moved to Mexico in 1957 after getting together with her husband, a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. Outside of a stint in New York, where her husband underwent cancer treatment and eventually died in 1966, she’s spent the majority of her life in Mexico, studying, researching, and documenting its regional culinary treasures and advocating for sustainable living.
Director Elizabeth Carroll shot the film over six and a half years. The length of the project was a result of funding, but “had we finished the whole thing in two years we wouldn’t have gotten the change in Diana and our relationship and the level of intimacy between us,” says Carroll.
Indeed, Kennedy does not hold back. She curses at drivers, insults food vendors, rants to her students about corrections she’s sent in to Saveur. “She has a really difficult personality and she’s not loved by everyone… [people love] what she’s done and her work and her brilliance and commitment to what she’s passionate about, but her style is not for everyone.”
The film is not one about the regional food of Mexico or the American perception of it, nor does it get into her work with a great deal of specificity. Instead it’s a character study of an important woman at the end of her life and a celebration of what she’s achieved.
In a time where we as consumers are increasingly aware of who is telling the story of and potentially profiting off of a cuisine — and whether or not they should be — it’s worthwhile to acknowledge someone who put in the work. Kennedy is, yes, a white woman from England. And so many Mexican-born chefs never had the connections or access to rise to her level of fame. But she has dedicated her life to understanding the food by seeking out and interviewing its creators, crediting her sources, and bringing a better understanding of it to a wider audience. “I think it’s interesting because technically she could have gone down and mastered the recipes and started four restaurants and started a line, and that was not her goal,” says Elizabeth. “Making a bunch of money was not her goal. She chose a life of solitary existence in Mexico.”
The film is available to rent here. 50 percent of proceeds will go to local theaters. It will be available on iTunes and Amazon Video on June 19.