If you’re the Chicago chef who stole one of her own cookbooks from Diana Kennedy’s kitchen, she has your number.
That’s the story the author of the 1972 classic The Cuisines of Mexico (and eight others), told two summers ago when I visited her home outside Zitacuaro, Michoacan, in Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains. I was with Juan and Jonathan Zaragoza of Birrieria Zaragoza, and we’d made a pilgrimage, along with longtime Reader photographer Jim Newberry, Lou Bank of Sacred Agave, and Kansas city chef Patrick Ryan to meet the then 95-year-old chronicler of regional Mexican cuisine. It was part of a barnstorming road trip we took all through Mexico; the part when we went to church. We followed her around her gardens and famously sustainable home like a litter of puppies, hanging on her every word just like hundreds had before us. I don’t remember a day on that trip we didn’t laugh longer or harder.
If you haven’t heard of Kennedy, or don’t know just how important she is to the preservation of not just traditional Mexican cooking, but the preservation of food itself, that’s an injustice that ought to be remedied after watching the documentary Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy, which is streaming tomorrow through next Thursday via the Gene Siskel Film Center. Filmed between 2016 and 2018, it’s 82 minutes that feel pretty much like what it was like to spend an afternoon in the presence of a legend. Directed by Elizabeth Carroll in the reverent Chef’s Table-style of contemporary chefumentary, it’s full of slo-mo food porn and swelling strings, but also full of Kennedy’s ferocious humor and intolerance for anything that dilutes the foodways she spent her life documenting, often alone, via third-class bus trips all over the country.
She also talks a lot of shit, something she did ceaselessly when we met her: on editors, writers, chefs, plagiarists, the local police chief. And yeah, she talked some shit on Rick Bayless, who nevertheless appears in the film, delivering a heartfelt paean with no hint at the public sniping the two have traded over the years.
As for the Chicago chef who stole her book, we vowed to hunt him down and administer brutal justice when we got home, but Kennedy couldn’t—or wouldn’t—tell us his name.
But if you’re reading this chef, believe me, we’re still on the case. v