An interview with the mastermind behind the most interesting cult food show online.
By Alyssa Danigelis
Chef, activist, and filmmaker Daniel Klein and his wife Mirra Fine tell provocative and often mouth-watering stories about food producers. Their award-winning hit online documentary series The Perennial Plate chronicles their adventures in eating and the new frontiers of sustainable living. Early episodes took on a holiday turkey slaughter, spear fishing in Minnesota, and mushroom growing in Arkansas. Then the duo brought their cameras overseas.
Last fall, the third season ended with visits to farmers in Ethiopia. Afterward, they started work on the PBS television show The Victory Garden’s Edible Feast.
Recently Klein spoke from their home in Minnesota about global travel, making a difference one bite at a time — and his favorite flavors.
Where did your activism come from?
I studied social movements in Latin America, then I made my first film right out of college about food aid in Africa. I have been lucky enough to travel a lot, all around the world, and see the gross inequalities that exist.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to make an impact?
After making that film in Africa, it was kind of like, well, what can anyone do to make a change since those who are dedicated to it have largely been ineffective? What I encourage anyone to do is do what you love doing with perspective on the world around you. You can’t change the world with something you hate doing. So do something you love.
The food system seems so messed up. What can one person do?
Asking yourself the question ‘Does this food have suffering in it?’ on a daily basis with what you buy. If I’m buying a cheap hamburger, that probably has some serious suffering in it.
Wouldn’t that make everybody a vegetarian?
It would make everyone eat less meat, that’s for sure. But I’ve been to a fair number of farms where the meat that’s produced is giving back to the Earth, and where animals have an opportunity to live that they never would have had.
There is always death involved, but death is not necessarily suffering. It’s a complicated issue, but I think the benefits that come with grass-fed small production farmed meat, and also the enjoyment and the health that comes from that, outweighs the negative. Otherwise I wouldn’t eat it.
What has your experience been like while making The Perennial Plate?
It was pretty much the dream job of life for me, which involved traveling around the world with my then-girlfriend, now-wife and getting to go to the 12 places we wanted to go to, getting to meet farmers, eat good food, make creative endeavors out of that travel.
How do you and Mirra work so closely together without going nuts? What’s the secret?
No secret. Our first trip to Japan together was a little stressful because of different expectations, but once we balanced those, things have been pretty wonderful. We like each other more than anyone else likes us so we want to make it work.
When did you pop the question to Mirra and how?
Mirra and I met in a cheese shop in Minneapolis. She was the cheese monger. Her favorite is Parmesan – she just puts it on everything. She’s got a $20-a-week Parmesan habit.
We were in Italy and we were doing this video, which is our most popular video ever on the 10 things we love about Italy. I’d been talking to the farmer and the cheese maker to plan it. We’d been filming and they went, ‘Oh we have to go do this thing.’ So they left.
I proposed to her in the Parmesan cheese cave surrounded by all these wheels of cheese. It was cute. Then this 75-year-old cheese maker in rubber overalls jumped into the room with flowers and was like ‘Congratulations!’ in Italian.
That’s so sweet! What was your wedding like?
We got married in the park across the street from our house in the snow. It was zero degrees. We were obviously in jackets, and Mirra was wearing snow pants and boots. It was not a white dress kind of wedding.
Speaking of winter, since it’s cold now, what are you eating?
Well, Mirra is also pregnant so we’re eating whatever she is craving, which is mostly pancakes and apples.
That’s not bad, right?
No, it’s not bad. I found Martha Stewart’s buttermilk pancake recipe and it’s pretty great.
What’s your favorite flavor and where did you taste it?
Eating high-end sushi in Japan at a real master’s restaurant was probably the most recent thing where I was completely blown away by the flavor. The uniqueness and perfection of each piece of fish that was served kind of changed my mind about every one of those fish that I had tried before. Some things are pressed for a couple of days in seaweed, some are aged, some are fresh, some are warm. I don’t really want to eat sushi again unless it’s really nice sushi.
Best thing you ever sipped?
Besides the wonderful wines of the world, drinking straight from a young coconut is pretty phenomenal. When in Sri Lanka, I made sure to drink at least two coconuts a day. I love drinks in general: coffee in Ethiopia, pu’er tea in China, mate in Argentina. I always embrace the caffeinated cultural drink.
Is there something that you saw while filming that you couldn’t stop thinking about for a long time?
The friends we have made with people we didn’t expect to connect with — folks who were very religious or from a very different background, where it might have seemed like we wouldn’t have a lot in common. That changes the perspective in the way that we make our movies. It shifted from a show that was more about food to sharing the experience that we had in an attempt to make people become friends with these characters. So when they go shopping, they remember that all of the people who grow their food are farmers, are potential friends.
Alyssa Danigelis is a professional journalist covering technology, science and design who also loves experimenting with new flavors. Follow her on Twitter @adanigelis.