Review: ‘Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy,’ starring Diana Kennedy

June 19, 2020

by Carla Hay

Diana Kennedy in “Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy” (Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment)

“Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy”

Directed by Elizabeth Carroll

Culture Representation: Taking primarily place in Mexico and the United States, this documentary about celebrity chef/author Diana Kennedy (a white British woman whose specialty is Mexican cuisine) features interviews with white and Latino people representing the wealthy and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Kennedy became a leading expert in Mexican cuisine, but she’s always at some risk of being accused of cultural appropriation.

Culture Audience: “Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy” will appeal primarily to foodies and people who like biographies of celebrity chefs.

Diana Kennedy in “Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy” (Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment)

“Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy” is a lot like the woman who is the subject of the documentary: matter-of-fact yet self-congratulatory and entrenched in tradition rather than experimentation. Born in 1923, British native Diana Kennedy (who participated in this film) is considered a leading expert in Mexican cuisine. This documentary that tells her life story follows the expected format of new interviews mixed with archival footage. If it weren’t for Kennedy’s sassy personality, the movie (which is the feature-film debut of director Elizabeth Carroll) would actually be pretty dull.

This is one of those laudatory celebrity documentaries where talking heads do nothing but praise the star of the movie. Celebrity chefs José Andrés, Rick Bayless, Gabriela Cámara, Pati Jinich, Alice Waters and Nick Zukin all gush about Kennedy in their separate soundbites featured the film. (Andrés and Zukin are two of the documentary’s executive producers.) The only real criticism of Kennedy actually comes from Kennedy herself, who describes herself as often being cranky, impatient and stubborn.

Cámara says about Kennedy: “I think she’s a legend. Many Mexicans are against admitting that she knows more than they do about their food.” Andrés comments, “You have to be Diana, to have the character she has, to achieve what she has achieved.”

Waters says of Kennedy’s influence on teaching Mexican cuisine: “She taught us the traditional ways and was not doing her own variation.” Bayless adds, “She’s the first person in the English-speaking world who first really mined the richness of regional Mexican cooking.”

Zukin gives this over-the-top compliment about Kennedy: “She’s a high prophet for Mexican food. Diana doesn’t care if people like her. She cares if Mexican food is evangelized … She’s going to tell you the truth.”

Jinich (the host of the PBS cooking show “Pati’s Mexican Table) has this to say: “I think Mexico as a country will be eternally indebted to her efforts.” Abigail Mendoza, a chef and native of Mexico who has been a close friend of Kennedy’s since the 1980s, “Thanks to Diana, Mexican cuisine is where it is … And she’s very Mexican in her soul and heart.”

You get the idea. Fortunately, the documentary keeps these effusive soundbites to a minimum. “Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy” (which is named after one of her cookbooks) is at its best when it just lets the camera roll to show Kennedy living her life. As she says in the film: “I’ve had a funny life. Let’s face it.”

Although Kennedy undoubtedly has immense talent to earn all of this praise and respect, her cookbook editor Frances McCollough asks a question that this documentary attempts to answer: “How can it be that a white British woman knows more about Mexican food than anyone else?”

It’s pretty clear from watching the film that Kennedy is certainly an expert in her field, but she also had the privilege and connections to be handed a massive platform through the media and book deals. Perhaps equally talented native Mexican chefs haven’t reached the same level of success because of racial barriers in the culinary industry. Kennedy tells her version of her life story, which is edited in between scenes of her in the present day.

Born as Diana Southwood in Loughton, England, she doesn’t really talk about her childhood in the film. Instead, the documentary skips right to her tales of joining the Women’s Timber Corps during World War II. While in the Women’s Timber Corps, she learned to plant trees and developed her lifelong passion for the environment.

After World War II, she was invited to go to Jamaica. Kennedy comments on her decision to live in the Caribbean: “I was propelled by a lot of hormones.” She says that while she was in Jamaica, she was nearly kidnapped.

And then she moved on to Haiti, where she had a fateful stay at Hotel Olafsson in 1957. She checked into the hotel on the same day as a handsome stranger named Paul P. Kennedy, an older man who was a correspondent for The New York Times in Mexico. Diana moved to Mexico to be with Paul, and she says she fell in love with him just as she fell in love with Mexico. She says in the documentary that Paul will always be the love of her life.

She eventually married Paul, whom she describes as someone who was the life of the party and a person who had a warm and humorous personality that naturally drew other people to him. In her early years of living in Mexico, Diana  developed a habit that she has continued throughout her life: She would go to village marketplaces to sample the local cuisine, find out how it was made, and ask the local merchants what kinds of food that they and their families were eating.

Diana says that most chefs who study other cultures’ cuisines don’t take the time to interview local people to find out what their families are eating. She gives herself a lot of praise in the film for taking that extra step, and she says that’s probably why she has more credibility in Mexican cuisine than other chefs of Mexican cuisine who aren’t natives of Mexico.

In her early years of living in Mexico, Diana says she didn’t have a car, so she would take a “third-class bus” (the type that lets chickens and other animals on board) to make these excursions to various marketplaces. She definitely has a car now. Some of the funniest scenes in the documentary are of Diana nimbly driving her Nissan SUV and showing mild signs of road rage, as she impatiently curses other drivers underneath her breath. Diana has a real fondness for the car, which she says has taken her through every imaginable terrain and weather.

Diana and Paul had a happy life in Mexico, and she says she was lucky that he accepted her for being “crazy.” She worked at the British Council, while he continued to work for The New York Times. Diana says, “I certainly wasn’t the traditional housewife. I never wanted children.” (Paul already had two daughters from a previous marriage. Diana’s stepdaughters are not seen or mentioned in the film.)

But then, tragedy struck when Paul was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1965. Diana and Paul moved to New York City so that he could get medical treatment. But by 1967, he was dead. The following years that Diana spent as a widow in new York City were some of the loneliest and saddest in her life, she says. Diana never remarried.

But when one door closes, another one opens. After Paul died, Craig Claiborne, who was The New York Times food editor from 1957 to 1986, set Diana on a path to become a world-renowned chef whose specialty is Mexican cuisine. Diana had always loved cooking, but she didn’t see herself as becoming a professional chef until she got the motivation and help from Claiborne.

Diana says that she once offered to get a Mexican cookbook for Claiborne, and his response was that he didn’t want a Mexican cookbook unless she wrote it herself. At the time, Diana had been giving private cooking classes in her home to privileged society women in New York. Thanks to Claiborne, The New York Times gave Diana a prominent feature article about her cooking classes. This media coverage led to other opportunities, and the rest is history.

Diana eventually moved back to Mexico, where she still teaches small, private cooking classes in her home, which is a spacious villa called Quinta Diana, in Michoacán, Mexico. The documentary includes footage of her teaching a class of a diverse group of people, ranging from experienced chefs who have multiple restaurants to a relative novice who’s only been cooking for three years.

There’s also archival footage of Diana on her TLC series “The Art of Mexican Cooking With Diana Kennedy,” which was on the air in the early 1990s. And there’s a clip of Diana as a guest on “The Martha Stewart Show,” with Diana making traditional Mexican tamales with Martha Stewart.

The documentary also shows Diana at industry events, such as when she was inducted into the James Beard Cookbook Hall of Fame at the 2014 James Beard Awards, or when she was a panelist at The Los Angeles Times Food Bowl in 2018. During a Food Bowl studio photo session separately and together with fellow chef Cámara, the photographer comments to Diana about how feisty Diana is. At one point during the photo session, Diana jokes, “Thank God my black panties don’t show.”

The documentary takes such a reverential approach to Diana Kennedy that it doesn’t really have her reflect on all the opportunities that came her way because of her privileged situation. Yes, she’s undoubtedly talented, and she has many fans who are native Mexican chefs. But Diana came up at a time when white people were almost exclusively given the best opportunities for chefs to reach a worldwide audience through the media and book deals.

Diana says in the documentary that perhaps her biggest influence was Mexican cookbook author Josefina Velázquez de León. However, Velázquez de León would never have been given the same glamorous opportunities for fame and fortune that were given to Diana Kennedy. A lot more people know who Diana Kennedy is rather than the Mexican chef/author who was Diana Kennedy’s biggest influence.

Nowadays, culinary audiences are more attuned to giving cultural credit where credit is due. Cultural appropriation is not as acceptable as it was before the 21st century. Although the documentary hints that some very talented native Mexican chefs might have been overshadowed by Diana Kennedy, there is no further exploration of that subject, since the filmmakers only seem concerned with portraying Diana Kennedy as the best thing that ever happened to Mexican cuisine. It’s a “fan worship” mentality that’s a little off-putting to people who expect documentaries to have a more objective approach.

One thing that the documentary captures well is Diana’s tireless work ethic, since there are many scenes in the film that make it obvious that she has no intentions of retiring. Diana says, “One is never satisfied. There is so much more I’d like to do.” She also says, “You’ve got to realize that cooking is the biggest comeuppance.”

Diana is also very outspoken about her concerns about the environment and where the world is headed. She gives this rant in the documentary: “I think it’s shocking that the more we are connected electronically, the less we are united.”

She continues: “And then, in certain parts of the world, machos come along like [Vladimir] Putin and [Donald] Trump and all the rest of it and want to change it. They don’t see the beauty of this world. We’re destroying our planet. We’re destroying our environment, and it’s such a loss for young people today.”

Diana also shares her philosophy on life. “You can’t win them all.” She adds, “How horrible it is for people to go around wanting to be loved and liked. You just go on doing what you know what you want to do. And at some point, the tide will turn and you make your mark—or you may not.”

Although Diana is extremely confident about her abilities and accomplishments, she shows some humility when she says, “I’m very honored the way so many people look at my books and appreciate what I’ve done. That’s all you can do—and cook for them.”

The cooking scenes in the documentary are fairly good, but not outstanding. What’s actually more impressive is the documentary’s cinematography of Mexico’s gorgeous landscape. Some of the aerial shots are breathtaking. (Paul Mailman and Andrei Zakow are credited as the film’s cinematographers.)

“Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy” is not a bad documentary. It’s just not a very insightful or revealing film. It’s the documentary equivalent of a Wikipedia page instead of an illuminating biography.

Greenwich Entertainment released “Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on May 22, 2020. The movie’s digital/VOD release date is June 19, 2020, and the DVD release date is June 23, 2020.