Shining the Light on Celebrity Chefs and Legendary Wine Country Women at the Sonoma International Film Festival  

By Geneva Anderson

(March 21, 2023)

Long known for its culinary and wine films and now, its celebrity chef events, the 26th Sonoma International Film Festival (SIFF), March 22-26, finds magic in its combo of film, food, wine, parties and its gorgeous wine country setting.  This year’s edition offers 110 films from 32 countries, one world premiere and eight U.S. premieres.  SIFF has always excelled at bringing audiences great stories, especially dramas that find their resolution in working together in a food, wine, or vineyard setting. Its two celebrity chef dining experiences are luxurious splurges that enliven the whole festival experience: the annual Chefs & Shorts dinner and Joanne Weir’s luncheon.

Under the helm of SIFF’s new curators who bring years of experience to the festival, Programming Director Carl Spence and his teammates Amanda Salazar and Ken Jacobsen, joined shorts programmer Oscar Arce late last year and the show came together with a selection of gems. This year’s culinary film line-up may be smaller than in years past with two dramas, two feature-length docs and 10 shorts but they offer a delicious menu of cinematic treats.

Devour! Chefs & Shorts Dinner- Thursday, March 23:

SIFF’s stand-out event is its annual SIFF | Devour! Chefs & Shorts Dinner.  Internationally acclaimed Chef Martin Yan will be honored with the SIFF Culinary Excellence Award on Thursday, March 24, at Sonoma’s Hanna Center.  Yan, the 2022 James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, is the second chef to be honored by SIFF.  Chef Jacques Pépin was the inaugural recipient in 2022.  This dazzling night of top chefs, dining, wine and new culinary shorts is at a new venue, Sonoma’s Hanna Center, which offers a kitchen suitable for plating large groups and a stage with a large screen format and state-of-the art DCP projection, an important upgrade implemented at all the festival’s screening venues this year.

“Martin Yan is such a well-known chef and TV personality, said Ginny Kreiger, SIFF Executive Director. “We’re delighted and excited that he’s agreed to cook for us.”   SIFF partners in this event with Devour! The Food Film Fest in Wolfville, Nova Scotia! the world’s largest and most influential culinary film fest. “Chef Michael Howell and Lia Rinaldo do the outreach to chef/personalities and we make it happen.  We don’t have hard-fast rules for the chef we honor with our award; a lot of factors are considered in making our decision.”EDF chatted with Devour! The Film Food Fest co-founders, Chef Michael Howell and Lia Rinaldo about the juicy details of this year’s five course dinner prepared by top chefs whose courses riff off a short film they have watched.

“I followed Martin Yan when I was a very young chef some thirty years ago,” said Howell.  “I’d watch the Yan Can Cook broadcast on Canadian television and thought he was absolutely fantastic. Liam Mayclem introduced us at last year’s Weir luncheon and, within minutes, we agreed that he’d be excellent.”

Yan’s offering, “Shaking Beef with Three Onions,” is a traditional South East Asian dish accompanying Joel Salaysay’s 11 minute short, Wok Hei, about the restoration of an old wok.  Yan will come out to introduce his dish and to receive the award and then he’ll go back in the kitchen and, in real time, he will do a pressé from the kitchen with a camera on him as he talks about his dish and all the chefs will be wokking for him in the background.

Chef Howell is paired with Daniel’s Klein’s 5 minute short, Arturo Enciso of Gusto Bread, and will prepare a Mayan Poblano Tamale made of masa with red chimichurri sauce and chipotle aioli.  That film makes me wish I could actually smell the screen,” said Howell. “When you see that bread rise, you wonder what does bread made with masa smell like?   I love the film…it gives me this sensory tease; it makes me want to capture all of that in my dish.”

Arturo Enciso and Ana Salatino serve up fresh baked bread at Gusto Bread.

Chef Emily Lim, founder Dabao Singapore (a Singaporean catering/take-out business in San Francisco), was recommended by Yan as an up and coming young Asian chef.  Lim is known for turning up in support of her community. “There is a perceived need for migrants to shift flavors to account for peoples’ palates in the US.  I’m not for this and prefer to make food the way it should be made and the community is proud of that.”

Paired with Kelly Caseley’s Gustav the Snow Chef, Lim is preparing “Going Bananas! Nuts!” with her own vegan version of “Kueh” a dessert that is a staple of Singaporean street food (usually steamed and rolled in banana leaves, but will be plated in fine dining fashion for SIFF).  That film was “so outrageous, it was nuts! bananas! ” said Lim. “After a few minutes, I googled to see if was real.”

Lim met Martin Yan in 2021 when they were paired together at the Singapore Food Festival’s Pop-up event in San Francisco and calls him her “celebrity chef mentor.”  He taught her how to present herself and her dish on camera, how to spin a story and gave her suggestions for improving on a couple of her dishes. “Martin Yan, who is from China, basically did his own thing in America, introducing Chinese cooking to an American and international television audience.  He has really inspired me to cook Singaporean cuisine,” Lim told us.

Chenglin Xie’s Meal on a Plate is a hand-drawn animated short film. Seven minutes of black humor has characters turning into the food that they love to eat most until a stranger shows up. Ruby Oliveros, Executive Chef at Ram’s Gate Winery, will create a Sea & Land Salad for her pairing.

“There’s everything in our shorts line-up this year,” said Lia Rinaldo who handles the film side, “two docs, one animation, one more serious drama and a complete spoof.  The most meaningful film for me is The Best Chef in the World, and that has a lot to do with our relationship with director Ben Proudfoot.  He’s from Nova Scotia, and has participated at Devour! and we love his work.  And it is the perfect film for Sonoma because it’s a California story of the wonderful woman who built a wine country restaurant which became so important in the food world.”

The Best Chef in the World is Academy Award® winner Ben Proudfoot’s new documentary about the remarkable Sally Schmitt, who founded Yountville’s world-renowned French Laundry and established its exceptional standards and vibe long before Thomas Keller came along in 1994. Schmitt died last March at 90.  The film is a wonderful celebration of a true pioneer of California cuisine, who worked with locally sourced ingredients and who helped solidify Napa Valley as a food-and-wine destination. Chef Ensan Wong of Cogir Sonoma and who was a chef at French Laundry, will prepare his version of “Duck Confit.”

Each course will be paired with a local fine wine, curated by Chay Woerz, SIFF’s Food & Beverage Director

(5:30pm, Hanna Center) Menu and tickets here.

Joanne Weir Wine Country Luncheon- Saturday, March 25

Chef Joanne Weir returns a second time with SIFF’s Joanne Weir luncheon, a three-course luncheon she has curated representing various Sonoma County people, places, and purveyors. She will showcase her new public television cooking and travel series, Joanne Weir’s Wine Country Cooking.  Weir began her career working at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in Berkeley before moving to food travel tours and opening Sausalito’s Copita Tequileria Y Comida restaurant. The James Beard Award-winning cookbook author has spent some four decades writing over 20 cookbooks and teaching cooking.  She is known internationally for her TV shows such as Joanne Weir’s Cooking Confidence and Joanne Weir’s Plates & Places.  One of the special treats in store for attendees is Judy Ratto’s exclusive Della Terra olive oil, an exquisite blend of CA olives, and balsamic vinegar, with port and madeira undertones.

“We’re thrilled to welcome Chef Weir back to the festival,” said Ginny Krieger. “Her energy and engagement with our audience, along with her delicious lunch, was a highlight last year.  Her emphasis on healthy Mediterranean cuisine and the fact that she is securing funds for a new public television series that is focused on Sonoma– not just food, but on people, our lifestyle and community here–are all huge.”

(11:00am at the Hanna Center,) Menu and tickets here.

Culinary Film Line-up:

The Art of Eating: The Life of MFK Fisher– Friday, March 24

Filmmaker Gregory Bezat is looking forward to SIFF.  “Screening my film at SIFF, in Sonoma, Fisher’s backyard, is special. M.F.K. Fisher lived the last 22 years of her life in Glen Ellen and became the heralded Godmother of the Bay Area’s 60’s and 70’s food movement.  Chefs Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower, Joyce Goldstein, etc. were influenced by her writings and philosophy on food.  And this “fresh food, love of life, farm-to-table” approach towards food and life that was born here has since spread around the country.”

While working at Sunset Films, Bezat met and interviewed Fisher at her home in Sonoma and at her Last House where he grew enamored with making a film about her.  “She was erudite, flirtatious, daring, witty and captivating, just like her prose.  Her voice transcends food.  It is ultimately about companionship, friendship and an understanding of others.”  Bezat pieces together Fisher’s rich and complicated personal life masterfully while tracking her writing and role in shaping our evolving relationship with what we eat and how we live.  Comments by Alice Waters, Anne Lamont, Ruth Reichl, Clark Wolf, Jacques Pépin, Julia Child, and Michele Anna Jordan, all of whom considered her a friend, help craft this homage. The visuals are stunning: instead of a simple pastiche of old photos, the camera gazes directly at certain photos for extended periods, frequently returning to shots of her at her typewriter or to glamorous Hollywood-style shots that capture her beauty and verve—especially her miraculous eyebrows whose unruly arches were as individualistic as she was.

Film Website

(1pm, Andrews Hall; followed by a Q&A) Tickets here.

Meredith Brody’s “High Cuisine Panel” – Saturday, March 25

Film and food critic (and frequent EDF writer) Meredith Brody will moderate a conversation on “The world of high-cuisine and cinema,” with the festival’s food filmmakers and special guests Lia Renaldo and Michael Howell of Devour!, She Got Balls! director Cheryl Hess, director Megan Martinez Goltz of Historia de Cultura: Comida, Gregory Bezat, director/producer and Gary Meyer, producer of The Art of Eating: The Life of M.F.K. Fisher.

(2pm, Prime Cinemas) Buy tickets here.

Bottle Conditioned – North American Premiere- Saturday, March 25, and Sunday March 26

Academy Award®-nominated director Jerry Franck’s documentary is an insider’s tour of the small Belgian community that produces lambic beer, one of the world’s oldest, rarest beers. Gueuze is a blend consisting of multiple years of spontaneously fermented golden ale aged in oak. Franck visits its most revered brewers and blenders as they navigate increased demand for their rare beers. Amble through Armand Develder’s small family-owned 3 Fonteinen’s cellar which produces a renowned gueuze with lots of fresh fruit character; meet Pierre Tilquin of Gueuzerie Tilquin, one of the newer brewers; and Raf Soef of Bokke.  Explore legacy issues with Cantillon’s multi-generational transition from third-generation brewer Jean-Pierre Van Roy to son Jean Van Roy, who will pass it along to his son Florian.

Film website.

(Saturday at 4:00pm and Sunday at 1:30pm, both at Andrews Hall) Tickets here.

Two Many Chefs – Friday, March 24

Spanish director Joaquín Mazón’s comedy in which an amnesiac father comes back into his son’s life thirty years after disappearing but believes no time has passed. They will have to work alongside each other to earn a third Michelin star for their family restaurant.

More about the film.

(6:00 p.m. Veterans Building) Tickets here.

Table for Six  – Thursday, March 23

Big brother Dai finds nothing is more satisfying than dining with his two younger half-siblings. But when his old flame shows up as his brother’s girlfriend, a  kitchen nightmare strikes and it’s up to his part-time to simmer down the situation in this Hong Kong comedy.

More about the film.

(March 23 at 1:15pm, Prime Cinemas) Tickets here.

Delicious Shorts: Thursday, March 23 and Sunday, March 26

The Best Chef in the World (Ben Proudfoot, 20 min) -Sally Schmitt and her French Laundry.

California Pie (North American Premiere) (Nada Djordjevich, 15 min) – Animated short with three slice-of-life stories unfolding across generations and geography.

Cupcake (Kyle Perritt, 18 min) -Amateur murderers Paul and Lucy find themselves on the run with a dead body and a batch of poisonous cupcakes. When they arrive at a rental home, the landlord complicates things.

Historias de Cultura: Comida (Megan Martinez Goltz, 11 min) – Indigenous elders in Santa Cruz, CA, access traditions from their homelands in Oaxaca as a tool for healing and culture.

She’s Got Balls (Cheryl Hess, 19 min)- A meatless entry unleashes havoc on a Philadelphia meatball and gravy competition.

Beautiful, FL (Gabriela Ortega, 20 min) – A teen girl scrambles to get spare parts from her eclectic trailer park neighbors and fix the family RV in time to share her tia abuela’s special flavor in the annual “Beautiful, FL Ice Cream Competition.”

(10:30AM, March 23 and 7:45 PM on March 26, both at Prime Cinemas). Buy tickets here.

The complete Sonoma International Film Festval schedule can be found here.

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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 ArtArteARTnewsThe Art NewspaperBalkanBalkan NewsBudapest Sun,EatDrinkFilmsFlash ArtNeue Bildende Kunst, SculptureEIUEuromoney, The International EconomyThe Press DemocratThe Argus Courier,Vanity Fair,  Global Finance, and others.  She is passionate about Rhodesian Ridgebacks and currently has two, Parker and Ruby Rose.

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