Leveraging a modest start as a restaurant reviewer for New West magazine in the 1970s, renowned food writer and chef Ruth Reichl rose to the pinnacle of professional achievement as the restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times and New York Times. She then moved on to become Gourmet magazine’s editor-in-chief for a decade, prior to the venerable publication’s unfortunate demise. Along the way there have been high-profile stints in broadcasting and no fewer than six James Beard Foundation awards.
So when the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic shuts down thousands of restaurants nationwide, what’s a food reporter to write about? Fortunately, Reichl’s interests have always been much broader than just fine dining, touching also on history, sustainability and social justice. Laura Gabbert, director of 2015 culinary adventure City of Gold and eco-doc No Impact Man (2009), catches up with Reichl in early 2020 as they begin a collaboration to evaluate the precarious state of America’s small farmers and independent restaurants, suddenly confronted by a series of cascading COVID-related catastrophes.
Food and Country
The Bottom Line
An accessible look at the perilous future of food.
Food and Country revisits Gabbert’s approach to food documentaries by focusing on an influential, charismatic expert offering a unique perspective on culinary trends, as Reichl has over the past four decades. In the process, the doc reevaluates our complicated relationship with food production and consumption with an immediacy that’s likely to galvanize the film’s core audience of foodies and reinvigorate the ongoing national discussion about the role of food in American culture and commerce.
In spring 2020 as COVID lockdowns take hold, Reichl begins contacting farmers, ranchers and restaurant operators across the country to gauge the impact of the epidemic. Her first video call finds her good friend, Chez Panisse chef and farm-to-table innovator Alice Waters, despairing over the sudden collapse of the restaurant scene in Berkeley and nationwide.
In San Francisco, award-winning chef Reem Assil is in the process of opening her new eatery Reem’s and then almost immediately has to partially shut it down. Farther south, Los Angeles chef Minh Phan of Porridge + Puffs (and later, fine dining phenom Phenakite) barely manages to remain open and retain a small staff by relying almost exclusively on takeout and delivery orders, as well as occasional pop-up dining events.
Speaking with farmers and ranchers who produce the raw ingredients for restaurant menus, Reichl finds the situation much the same. Brothers Lee and Bob Jones Jr. run Chef’s Garden Farms in Huron, Ohio, a widely respected supplier of fresh produce for top restaurants, but when their clients close up shop, they face a nearly catastrophic loss of business. Meanwhile in Mead, Nebraska, corn and bean farmers Angela and Kerry Knuth are converting Knuth Farms to certified organic production after years of unprofitable conventional agriculture, a process that leads to a significant drop in revenue at the same time that COVID endangers the market for their crops.
The only producers who seem to be thriving are those emphasizing diverse and innovative cultivation practices, like Will Harris of White Oak Pastures, who manages a wide variety of free-range livestock on his ecologically focused Georgia farm. On Long Island Sound, aquaculturist Bren Smith raises and harvests oysters and kelp, which his Greenwave company uses to produce plant-based foods, bioplastics and fertilizer.
Mindful of the overlapping structural barriers that small operators face, Reichl also seeks out cattle rancher Steve Stratford of Kansas’ Stratford Angus, who’s fighting back against multinational meatpackers and consolidation in the beef industry. In the south Bronx, urban farmer and activist Karen Washington resists the historic disenfranchisement of Black farmers and advocates for social justice through her Rise and Root Farms and community education programs.
Overall, Reichl and Gabbert have assembled a diverse and engaging array of subjects with a rich variety of experiences to participate in the film. With her warm, ready smile, Reichl makes the ideal interviewer, displaying an empathetic approach that readily elicits genuine, emotional responses.
Initially constrained by early pandemic travel restrictions, Gabbert relies on a hybrid format that alternates onsite sequences shot by local crews with Reichl’s video calls, a format with limited flexibility that’s fortunately enlivened by Philip Owens’ perceptive editing. Archival photos and footage round out the package, although the principal drawback of this approach is that even after Gabbert returns to in-person interviews, Reichl regrettably has little direct involvement with the film’s subjects.
Her penetrating perspective remains palpable throughout Food and Country, however, as she assiduously assesses the contradictions and inadequacies of the nation’s food production and distribution systems. At the same time, Reichl and Gabbert suggest that there’s a more compassionate, equitable and sustainable path forward for farmers, restaurants and consumers.