By Geneva Anderson
Jetting out of Halifax is rarely simple for Devour! The Film Food Fest co-founders, Lia Rinaldo and Chef Michael Howell. As they headed for the 25th edition of the Sonoma International Film Festival, they were schlepping 400 Sober Island Oysters and several bottles of Domaine de Grand Pré’s prized sparkling Champlain Brut. The special cargo was for Chef Howell as he organized his own appetizer while juggling the details of numerous other participants in the eagerly-awaited SIFF | Devour! “Chefs & Shorts Culinary” Event Honoring Chef Jacques Pépin.
The third “Chefs & Shorts” collaboration between SIFF and Devour! of Wolfville, Nova Scotia, the world’s largest and most influential culinary film fest took place on March 25. The evening included a five-course dinner created by five celebrity chefs, four of whom are from the Bay Area—Ken Frank, of Napa’s La Toque, Roland Passot of La Folie and Left Bank, Seadon Shouse of Timber Cove Resort, and Ari Weiswasser from the Glen Ellen Star plus Howell himself, a celebrated Canadian chef. Premium wines from Anaba, Bee Hunter, Breathless, Chateau St. Jean, Viansa accompanied the meal. Each prepared a course that was paired with a short film and wine, making for a fabulous feast for the senses. Chef Ensan Wong of Cogir prepared appetizers for the reception. Chef Jacques Pépin, 91 years young, was the special honoree who received SIFF’s inaugural Culinary Excellence Award and a $10,000 donation to the Jacques Pépin Foundation. Pépin hand-drew the menu; the original signed artwork was auctioned off for $5000 to Saul Gropman of the valley’s iconic Café de la Haye with the proceeds going to Pépin’s foundation.
EDF chatted with Lia and Michael about “Chefs & Shorts.”
How did “Chefs & Shorts” emerge from your five-day Devour! Film Food Festival?
Michael Howell: Devour! became known for screening films and then doing dinners with celebrity chefs. Basically, we were doing the things most festivals do, where you show the full feature film and then you have your celebrity chef dinner afterwards, where every chef builds a course. We realized we needed to make it more active, more fun, more engaging. That’s when we decided to have short films and put the screens in the dining room with the audience and have every film inspire a chef and a wine pairing. It meant that you’re having a great meal and you’re taking it right off the screen and you have something interesting to talk about. Celebrating shorts allowed us to screen five or six films leaving a much more dynamic possibility for interpretation by the chefs creating dishes. You have a film and a dish; a film and a dish, etc. This has become our calling card event, which we do around the world now from Berlin to Vero, Beach. I haven’t really seen anyone else do this format, so it’s unique.
Lia Rinaldo: Having five different films brings a completely different vibe to each and every course and makes for a very convivial experience. When the chefs explain something about a course, like the particulars of a certain sauce, you can just hear the “oohs” throughout the room.
Michael Howell: We credit Craig Weintraub from Long Beach International Film Festival, where we do this festival with our name. He was the first to call it “Chefs & Shorts” because his festival is on a beach in August in New York. The idea was we chefs would wear shorts, people would wear shorts, and there would be shorts
Sonoma International Film festival is also known known for its extraordinary food and wine culture. How has your collaboration evolved?
Lia Rinaldo: The relationship was built through Steve Shor, SIFF’s Programming Director, who invited me to be on SIFF’s 2016 jury. We knew they also wanted a really good food and wine component and we thought we could find films for Devour! We fell in love with the town, the residents, the festival itself—such a wonderful hospitable vibe. The next year, they invited Michael back to be on the jury and I came too. The conversation developed about us doing an event in Sonoma around short film and a dinner. We’d done that once or twice at Devour! and had tried it on the road at the Watermark Beach Resort in the Okanagan of British Columbia. We came to SIFF in 2018 and executed a wonderful event.
Michael Howell: We had an absolutely stellar line-up for our first “Chefs & Shorts” at Sonoma in 2018—Dominique Crenn of Atelier Crenn, Evan Funke of Felix Trattoria, LA, myself, and Sonoma-based high-profile chefs John McReynolds of Edge and John Toulze of The Girl and The Fig. It was a huge hit. The next year, we were able to attract an equally disparate cache of elite chefs and we sold out. Then, along came the pandemic.
How did you meet Chef Pépin and when did your collaborations begin? Can you share a special moment?
Michael Howell: That was 2017, at Devour! Nova Scotia, when we’d programmed Peter Stein’s PBS biopic, Jacques Pépin: The Art of Craft for Devour! 2017. We contacted Stein who got Pépin to come. Our lead guest that year was the very famous Canadian actor, Gordon Pinsent, so we had luminaries from both the cinematic and cuisine worlds. They sat together at one of our dinners and drew art of each other and got along famously. Jacques ended up having so much fun, he stayed for four days. On his final days at the Devour!, we did “Chefs & Shorts” dinner in Lightfoot & Wolfville Winery’s opulent barrel cellar—150 people at one table, in one long barrel room. Jacques came down the stairs after the VIP reception and said “Ooh la la” and that it was one of the most beautiful dining rooms he’d ever seen. He just loved that dinner and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. So, when we started talking with Kevin McNeely about how we could elevate the “Chefs & Shorts” experience for SIFF’s 25th anniversary, it came about organically that Pépin would be perfect. Through Peter Stein, we persuaded him to attend.
I want your “Chefs & Shorts” recipe. What makes for a successful Food/Wine/Film pairing? When you’re envisioning this event, what do you start with?
Michael Howell: We start with the films—they are the reason, the inspiration. We curate the shorts in a way that will create a successful meal. For example, for the opening film, Olivia Saperstein’s “Champagne,” I’m preparing the first course—Nova Scotia oysters topped with a Champlain gelée along with flowers and mignonette. The film is about a family standing around a dying person’s bed, waiting for him to die. They are clearly excited; they’ve got champagne and can’t wait for him to drop. Everywhere we take “Chefs & Shorts,” I always like to bring food and products from Nova Scotia. I’m bringing 400 oysters from my favorite supplier, Sober Island Oysters, on the eastern shore. Our Annapolis Valley is a burgeoning wine area and Domain de Grand Pré makes a traditional champagne-style sparkling wine called “Champlain,” after Samuel de Champlain, from France, who mapped Nova Scotia’s first French settlement. This is my taste of Nova Scotia for Sonoma.
Lia Rinaldo: We also felt it was appropriate that a program for Sonoma be a bit more comedic, as we’re coming off the pandemic. We’d done two years of hybrid Devour! festivals, so we’d viewed plenty of shorts and we both had the same dark comedies in mind for Sonoma.
How are the chefs selected and matched with a film?
Michael Howell: We assign the chefs their film. Finding chefs this year was especially difficult. Given the pandemic situation, many were in survival mode and it was a question of who could step away from their own restaurant to do this dinner. There’s no fee; they do it for the honor and glory of it all. The chance to cook for Jacques Pépin was a huge enticement and our chefs this year all have some previous connection to either Devour! or Jacques Pépin. Roland Passot and Jacques have been friends for decades.
Do they have free rein to create any dish that they feel will accentuate the film?
Michael Howell: They do have to run it by me to avoid duplication, so we do curate the menu. Chef Ari Weiswasser’s film is Jessica Sanders’ The Cocktail Party, about revenge. When he suggested his dish, he said “Revenge is best served cold.” He’s doing a chilled English pea soup with spring onion confit, Iberico ham, peppermint chantilly and garden blossoms.
Monique Sorgen’s short, “Sorry, Not Sorry,” the inspiration for the main course, features a plum rather prominently. When we reached out to Seadon Shouse in Jenner, we said it would be good to include plums in your dish, but that’s all we said.
The last film, Ben Proudfoot’s “That’s My Jazz,” about a pastry chef and his father who was a jazz musician, unfolds in a bar environment. Ken Frank came up with “Young Man in a Smoky Jazz Club”—a dark chocolate tart that looks like an ashtray with a white chocolate cigarette. They’ve all been very clever with their inspiration.
When you’re pulling off a one-night event like this with presumably lots of egos involved, how do you foster teamwork?
Michael Howell: It’s a challenge when big personalities are involved but they are there in the spirit of collaboration. We’ve been very lucky with picking chefs who work well with us and with each other but, occasionally, there’s somebody who is problematic. At our first SIFF event, in 2018, the great Evan Funke came up with a wonderful pasta but he did seven plates at a time and by hand. It took 45 minutes to serve his course because he wouldn’t go any faster. We’ve learned to be very clear about needing to get the courses out in 20 minutes. I always do the first course to ensure a timely rollout. Lia’s out front making sure the wines are all going smoothly.
Shorts films are such art forms, in and of themselves. Can you each describe a scene in one of the films that really grabbed you.
Lia Rinaldo: “That’s My Jazz” is one of my favorite short films in several years. It’s directed by Ben Proudfoot, from Nova Scotia. His newest film, Queen of Basketball, was just nominated for an Oscar, his second nomination in the past three years. It’s about a guy who becomes a pastry chef in some of the top restaurants in the world and his father is a prominent jazz musician. Everything is steeped in family history and tradition. The way this film comes together is so arresting—kind of film noir, jazz music, shot beautifully in black and white. Suddenly you realize that you are watching things play out as he is actually making desserts. Then…you cry. I like a great story that brings tears and then delivers a bit of hope at the end.
Michael Howell: Monique Sorgen’s “Sorry not Sorry,” which is the story of the dissolution of a marriage told through a very strange and dark comedic lens. Yet, at the end, you just laugh uproariously because it’s all about a damn plum.
When you’re watching a film, do certain scenes instantly translate into ideas for a great dish?
Michael Howell: All the time. One of my favorite films of all times is Luca Nestola’s short, Loss of Taste. It’s the story of a lonely man whose wife has died and it’s a memory scene: he remembers the happy times of his life through a glass of wine and a plate of food and recovers his taste for life itself. I have used this countless times to inspire a pasta dish or an Italian dish of some kind because it tells a great story of man and woman and also makes you salivate. To salivate is the essence of making one hungry and that what chefs want to do, to satisfy your hunger.
Coming to Sonoma, to the wine country, where there’s such a vibrant appreciation for good food and great wine, what are you going to eat? And visit?
Lia Rinaldo: We check off a few wineries every trip, but I study the SIFF program and have found about 20 titles that could make good food films for us to consider for our Devour! program. The second our event is over; we’re going to happily hit the theater!
Michael Howell: We always go to the Girl and the Fig; we love Sondra; the food is terrific and it’s right in the middle of everything. We’re planning to go out to Tiber Cove and eat because that’s where Seadon (Shouse) is the chef. We’ve loved Buena Vista, Ridge Vineyards in Healdsburg, Ravenswood. We always get together with the friends we’ve made here too.
Complete information about the Sonoma International Film Festival is here.
Watch films and see photos from the 2022 “Chefs & Shorts” here.
Geneva Anderson is a free-lance writer based in rural Penngrove, CA who writes on art, film, food, identity, and cultural heritage. She is the editor of ARThound, an online arts publication. She grew up on a small farm in Petaluma, CA, with animals and gardens. A graduate of UC Berkeley, Princeton, and Columbia School of Journalism, she covered the transition of Eastern Europe from state socialism and reported for seven years from Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Turkey. She has also worked on assignment in Asia, Cuba, Mexico, South America. She has written or done photography for Art, Arte, ARTnews, The Art Newspaper, Balkan, Balkan News, Budapest Sun, EatDrinkFilms, Flash Art, Neue Bildende Kunst, Sculpture, EIU, Euromoney, Global Finance, The International Economy, The Press Democrat, The Argus Courier, Vanity Fair, and others. She is passionate about Rhodesian Ridgebacks and currently has two, Parker and Ruby Rose.