Chefs Alice Waters, José Andrés, Gabriela Cámara, and Rick Bayless pay homage to the 97-year-old writer and teacher in a new documentary.

By Jelisa Castrodale
March 05, 2020
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Writer Diana Kennedy appearing in the documentary about her life and work
Credit: Greenwich Entertainment

Documentary filmmaker Elizabeth Carroll was dying for an interview with James Beard-award winning food author Diana Kennedy. But the possibility of speaking to the "grand dame of Mexican cooking" was complicated by the fact that Kennedy lives on a remote ranch in the Mexican state of Michoacán, a residence that is only accessible with the kind of vehicles they don't typically rent at the airport.

Carroll had hoped to do a project on the matriarchy of Mexican food traditions, and she told Food & Wine that she was "blown away" by Kennedy's expertise on the subject. The now 97-year-old has spent a solid half-century researching Mexican regional cuisines, and she permanently moved to the country in 1976.

Despite worrying that she'd never find a way to connect with Kennedy, Carroll went to a bookstore in Austin, Texas, to pick up one of her cookbooks. "As I pulled into the parking lot, I looked up at the marquee. It said 'Book Signing with Diana Kennedy, Tomorrow,'" she said. "It was probably the most serendipitous experience of my life to date."

That chance meeting ultimately led to Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy, the first-ever documentary about Kennedy. The film is a combination of archival footage, photographs, and some of the closest glimpses you'll get of her ranch without an invitation and a four-wheel drive. It also features interviews with her contemporaries and friends, including Alice Waters, José Andrés, Rick Bayless, and Gabriela Cámara. (She once famously kicked Bayless out of her Nissan pickup truck for being "damned opinionated" and "brash.")

Kennedy's writing career began in 1972 with the publication of The Cuisines of Mexico. Eight more cookbooks followed, as did a 26-part television series on TLC, and her own seemingly nonstop travel throughout every state in Mexico as she painstakingly learned and documented traditional cooking techniques and ingredients.

The British-born author has since been named a Member of the Order of the British Empire, presented with the Order of the Aztec Eagle—Mexico's highest honor for foreigners—and inducted into the James Beard Cookbook Hall of Fame. (She also might be the only James Beard Award winner who's known to sleep with a gun under her pillow.)

Despite her extraordinary life, and that mountain of accolades, Kennedy seems more concerned about what the future might hold for the rest of us. "It's clear the environmental piece is a huge factor given climate change. I hope [the film] inspires people to see how much Diana cares about it, because she doesn't have children or grandchildren and isn't worried about protecting some kind of personal future for herself," Carroll said. "Her unfailing passion for the things she cares about is what hooked me to her. That, and swearing while she drives."

Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy is scheduled to open in New York on April 22 and in Los Angeles on May 15. "Read my books and learn, please," Kennedy implores in the film. We do, and we will—but appreciating the author should be part of that curriculum, too.

If the trailer already has you feeling inspired, check out some of our own recipes from Diana Kennedy below: