Adventures in Sustainable Eating
A two-time James Beard Award-winning online documentary series, The Perennial Plate explores socially responsible eating in the United States and abroad. The beautifully shot weekly series was created by Daniel Klein, an activist and chef, and Mirra Fine, a graphic designer, writer and now filmmaker, who impressively research, film, edit, and produce each piece themselves. On the most recent season of The Perennial Plate, Klein and Fine visited 15 countries, from China to Argentina, to tell stories about food, the folks that make it and what it means to eat sustainably in our ever more connected global food system. We talk with the filmmakers about the most compelling stories they’ve come across, inspiring people to make good decisions and what’s up next for The Perennial Plate.
AndrewZimmern.com: Daniel, after starting in kitchens why did you decide to quit all that and pursue filmmaking?
Daniel Klein: I moved back to Minnesota from New York with the purpose of opening a restaurant. After failing to get a wine and beer license on my coveted space, I reevaluated. I had previously made documentary films, I knew how to cook and I wanted to help create change in the food system. A web series seemed like an obvious move. If it hadn’t taken off, I might still be cooking, but through the series I get to work in all three of these areas that I love.
AZ.com: Mirra, how did Daniel convince you to get on board with this change of life and making the documentary series?
Mirra Fine: Ahh… love can make you do crazy things. Daniel had been enlisting relatives and friends to film for a couple of those first episodes. We had been dating for about a year when finally, one day (I think it was around episode 8), he brought home a whole lamb with the intention of butchering it on our kitchen table. He needed someone to film. I was a newly minted vegetarian who hadn’t picked up a camera before in her life, so I don’t think I was first round draft pick material. But I was the only one around. And it worked…somehow. From that day forward, I became the go-to “camera holder” for Daniel’s adventures. And before long, as I became more invested in the project and in the people we were meeting, they became my own adventures as well.
As far as the change of life… when you’re faced, almost every day, with the reality of things in regards to food (and its impact on people, animals, the world), it’s hard not to be affected by it. These amazing people have opened their homes to us and have allowed us a glimpse into their lives. It made me realize that my choices directly affect those people—a farmer in China, a migrant worked in Florida, or an animal in a factory farm. So it wasn’t that hard for me to re-think my decisions.
AZ.com: Is there a theme that connects all of the episodes? What’s your message that you hope viewers take from all this?
DK & MF: “Sustainability” might be the word that connects the episodes, but the path to sustainability lies in the human connection. If we continue to value profit over people, to see the earth, our bodies and our fellow citizens as things to exploit, then we are doomed. But when we remember that someone had to spray pesticides on those vegetables at the expense of their health, or that a pig had to suffer in confinement to bring us cheap meat, or on the positive side, that a farmer worked hard to raise that chicken on grass or that they used a method that has been passed down for generations, we begin to remember that our choices have a human impact. So we strive to make movies that make those connections, that make you think and reconsider and be inspired to make good choices. Our films are about food, but they are really about people.
AZ.com: The third season was filmed all over the globe. How long were you on the road? How large is the crew that travels with you?
DK: The crew is just Mirra and myself. We film, edit, research and produce each piece. Although we often have a guide or translator with us as well. We switch off filming and doing sound. We generally travel for a month and then come home for two months to edit the episodes. Then we hit the road again. It’s a very fun, collaborative and tiring process. We were also sponsored by Intrepid Travel for the world tour series and they gave us a lot of logistical support and research help as they have so many guides on the ground in the countries we visited.
AZ.com: What’s the most compelling story you came across last year and why?
DK: That’s really difficult question to answer. In the past year and a half, we have travelled to 15 countries and created 45 short films. But I will tell you, in our most recent travels, I’ve been pretty impacted by two stories. First off, I’m following the trend and falling in love with biodynamic and natural wine. We just put out this film about a South African surfer, Johan Reyneke, who had this wonderful philosophy that connected not fighting the wave, with not fighting nature. The second story was from Amado Ramirez of Itanoni restaurant in Oaxaca. He is working hard to protect some of the ancient corns. He spoke about how food is one of the things that can connect us to our ancestors—we can’t know them personally, but through these grains we can taste the same food, and in the history there is power that you can feel when you taste it. It’s something that is lost with these new “improved” grains. I thought that was beautiful, sort of looking at what science can’t see and embracing the spirituality of food.
AZ.com: How does your business model work? Are you still independent from advertisers?
DK: We are independent from advertisers but not sponsors, if that makes sense. The difference is that we choose who we work with and they don’t impact the content. We also choose sponsors that we feel have similar values and are willing to let us have creative control. That limits things. But when you find a sponsor like Intrepid Travel, who understands that food and people are the reason to travel, telling these stories in an honest and beautiful way makes sense for everybody.
AZ.com: Have you thought about collaborating with a TV network?
DK: We are currently making a new TV show on PBS.
AZ.com: What’s happening in Season 4 of The Perennial Plate?
DK: Season 4 of The Perennial Plate is going to be a grab bag for a little while. We are filming around the US for a new PBS series so we’ll post some of that content as we go, and we’re doing a series with The New York Times that we’re pretty excited about. We are also continuing to work with Tastemade and FoodieTV. But we are really headed in the direction of something a bit bigger than all that… so stay tuned.
AZ.com: Daniel, what was it like at The Fat Duck. Best and worst memory?
DK: The Fat Duck is one of the great restaurants of the world. It really is an incredible and delicious experience to eat there. As far as staging there for several months, I got to work the line once a week, and that was pretty incredible because the kitchen runs like clockwork. The chef de cuisine at the time, Ashley Palmer, was so calm and composed; everyone in the kitchen had a stop watch and things came out perfectly over and over again. That was the best learning part, but the most enjoyable was slicing the Joselito Jamon. I’m embarrassed to say, but I got “paid” as a stagier through jamon (“one slice for the customers, one slice for me”). The worst memory was all that brunoise.
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
DK: Right now it’s bursting with veggies from a shoot we did at a Hmong Farm outside the Twin Cities. There’s also the usual fermented stuff: pickles, sauerkraut, white wine from Farina Vineyards, miso, kimchee, lots of Parmesan cheese rinds (Mirra goes through a half pound of parm per week). There are these amazing white peaches we got at the Seward Coop that taste like candy. They seem so sweet they can’t be good for you. It’s a good time of year for eating.
Get their recipe for Wild Rice Bhel Puri.
About Daniel Klein & Mirra Fine
After learning to cook at his mother’s bed and breakfast, Daniel went on to work and train at many of the world’s top restaurants. His culinary education brought him to Spain, France, England, India and New York, where he has worked and trained at top Michelin starred restaurants. After graduating from NYU, Daniel also pursued a career in film. He has directed, filmed, edited and produced projects on various issues including the development industry in Africa ( “What are we doing here?”) and oil politics. Daniel is a 2013 and 2014 James Beard Award winner and the founder of The Perennial Plate.
James Beard Award winning Filmmaker and Vegetarian, Mirra has never cooked at any fancy restaurants. However, she has worked at some of New York’s top marketing firms, (including J Walter Thompson and Kirshenbaum Bond), and for the City of New York. She was a graphic designer and cheesemonger before she started filming and co-producing The Perennial Plate series. Mirra became a vegetarian as a result of the first episode of the show.