NEW YORK – If you add garlic to your guacamole, we have bad news: You’re not doing it right. Do you mince the onion? That’s also a no-no. And, please, leave the avocado lumpy.
So says 97-year-old Diana Kennedy, a foremost authority on traditional Mexican cuisine. Over many decades, she has mastered, documented and become fiercely protective of the culinary styles of each region.
This summer, a portrait as zesty as her dishes comes in the form of the documentary, “Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy,” which marks director Elizabeth Carroll’s feature film debut.
The documentary traces the unlikely rise of an Englishwoman who became one of the most respected authorities on Mexican food. She’s been called “the Julia Child of Mexico,” “the Mick Jagger of Mexican Cuisine” and even the “Indiana Jones of food.”
Carroll’s camera follows Kennedy as she navigates Mexico in her trusty Nissan truck, walks through her remarkable garden, teaches professional chefs in a harrowing class in her home and meticulously makes coffee – toasting her beans in an antique toaster.
“It’s some of the best coffee I’ve ever had. I know that sounds like what I’m supposed to say, but it’s true,” said Carroll, laughing.
The film includes various TV appearances by Kennedy during her career as well as interviews with notable chefs, including Alice Waters, José Andrés, Rick Bayless, Pati Jinich and Gabriela Cámara. It’s less a cooking lesson than a beautifully drawn character study.
“I just felt really drawn to her and very comfortable with her, like there was some kind of unspoken understanding between us when we would look at each other,” said Carroll. “I think she’s somebody who operates a lot on instinct and I think that there was just an instinct of trust between us.”
Kennedy, a culinary purist, arrived in Mexico in the late 1950s and has traveled thousands of miles throughout the country, often alone, seeking out regional foods.
She’s written nine cookbooks, faithfully acknowledging where and from whom the recipes were obtained. Kennedy has received the Order of the Aztec Eagle from the Mexican government – the highest award given to foreigners for service to Mexico.
“She saw a need for recording recipes that were potentially being lost by industrialization,” said Carroll. “Nobody was recording those recipes in an official way. She saw an opening there to take on a responsibility like that and she obviously devoted her life to it.”
When Kennedy makes guacamole, she uses serrano peppers (“Keep your hands off the jalapeño, por favor!” she says in the film). Add salt, finely chopped tomatoes, but no lime. There is cilantro, and if some guests don’t like it she has this advice – “Don’t invite them.”
“She sees it as her responsibility to share and perfect the original way that things have been done. And that if other people want to deviate from that, they have to know the rules first,” Carroll said.
Jinich, host and co-producer of PBS’ two-time James Beard award-winning “Pati’s Mexican Table,” said Kennedy’s outsider perspective helped as she documented the pillars of the cuisine.
“It’s no coincidence that this British woman had to come and see and recognize and be fascinated with everything that for us Mexicans was just our Mexican food,” Jinich said. “I feel like the entire country of Mexico is indebted to Diana Kennedy.”
Kennedy and Carroll met in a serendipitous way in 2013. The filmmaker was in Austin, Texas, and beginning to research a film about how recipes and traditions are passed down. She soon realized she’d have to talk to Kennedy.
But how? Kennedy lived in the mountains of western Mexico. Carroll looked around online for an hour, gave up and went to a bookstore. She pulled into the parking lot and looked up to see the marquee: “Book signing with Diana Kennedy tomorrow.”
“It was confusing and exciting and wild and special all at the same time,” said Carroll. “I was like, ‘OK. There’s some divine games happening here.’”
The film took more than six years to make and it captures a woman confronting her own mortality but still insistent that her work continue. “What are you going to do when I’m gone?” she asks in the film. “Who else is going to start screaming?”