The film opens with a shot of something you've seen many people do and most likely have done yourself: stirring a pot on a stove.
The scene shifts: Someone else sets down a plate. There's a murmur of background conversation and clinking utensils. "Cumin, lemon, garlic. ... " someone says. The shot widens to show a handful of people standing around a table, cooking and talking about food.
"Thighs are my favorite part of the chicken," says Mateo Mackbee, chef and co-founder of Krewe, a Creole restaurant in St. Joseph, Minn. "Thighs," someone else agrees, and several others say it in a general consensus that dissolves into shared laughter.
The film is a short (just under 14 minutes) documentary that opened the Twin Cities Film Fest earlier this month. It tells the story of a program called Stories Behind the Menu, a quarterly series of dinner events. Up to 150 people gather around big white-clothed tables, eat a chef-prepared multicourse dinner, talk to the strangers next to them, make a connection — and perhaps build ties across cultures.
"Conversation and food — if we start there, we can have a great courageous conversation," said Chaz Sandifer, founder of Stories Behind the Menu.
Sandifer, founder and CEO of TheNewMpls, which promotes racial equity through health and wellness, has long hosted book-club dinner discussions on similar topics. Then a couple of years ago, she had an idea for expanding the concept.
She was at an event and talking to Sean Sherman, aka the "Sioux chef," founder of Owamni, a James Beard Award-winning restaurant that serves food from indigenous cultures. He mentioned that his restaurant was located on Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board property, land that had once belonged to his ancestors.
"He said, 'They gave us a discount,' and I was like, 'Wasn't that nice of them?' We started laughing," Sandifer recalled. "Then it just clicked in me, and I said, 'There's my third business — Stories Behind the Menu.'"
She told Sherman about her idea, and he agreed to be one of the chefs. Sherman prepared the program's debut dinner, "and here we are two years later," with attendance that has swelled from about 60 to 150, Sandifer said. The dinners, which cost $135, have outgrown their original setting, ModernWell, a woman's co-working space in Minneapolis whose founder and CEO Julie Burton helped launch the program. They're now held at Mosaic, a downtown venue.
Guests at the events are mostly either Black or white, Sandifer said, though she'd like the groupings to become even more diverse in ethnicity and other characteristics. Most are between 35 and 65. Guests have included a group of 20-year-old women and a billionaire (whom she didn't name). Politically, she said, they're not all "this, like, liberal fight the power" people, and some clearly have strong pre-existing biases.
"But you've got people that really want to be educated on things they don't know and the biases they've learned," she said. "So I appreciate the open mind and heart."
Perhaps because enjoying good food, like making music, is one of those experiences that all human societies share, it's often seen as a way to bring people together to resolve differences. The idea of "breaking bread" dates at least to the Bible. "They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people," says Acts 2:46-47.
Sharing that fundamental and enjoyable experience is a first step toward finding other commonalities, Sandifer reasons. Guests at Stories Behind the Menu dinners are asked to sit by someone other than the person they came with; where they go from there is up to them.
"I wanted to have genuine conversations and courageous conversations around food, to understand why food heals us," Sandifer said.
Another goal she holds for the dinners is educating people about the food traditions of different cultures.
The chefs come from a variety of culinary backgrounds. In addition to Sherman's Indigenous and Mackbee's Creole cuisine, chefs have been Mexican, Hmong, Sri Lankan, Guatemalan and Israeli. Some of the chefs have restaurants; others do catering or have other food-related roles. She'd be open to people from "a mom and pop place," she said.
"I'm not always looking for people that have a huge platform," she said. "I'm looking for good food with a good story."
The chefs at Stories Behind the Menu always spend some time talking to guests about the dinner's place in their own personal and cultural backgrounds. Concerned about food being the object of cultural appropriation, Sandifer wants to connect those cuisines with their rightful owners.
"People's food has been taken from them ... the actual people doing the food don't get credit for it," she said. "I want the true stories to be told. We won't have other people from other cultures telling the story. People have rewritten other people's stories and told them the wrong way."
'Travel without a plane'
Because we start forming memories involving food at an early age, talking about food often leads to discussions of childhood and family — another of food's powers.
When Mackbee prepared his dinner for Stories Behind the Menu — including collard greens and cornbread, red beans and rice and bourbon pecan bread pudding — he shared anecdotes about visiting his New Orleans grandfather and watching him cook. And he told about the time his mother awoke from a nap and was able to tell by sniffing the air that the red beans on the stove weren't done yet.
Mackbee, a longtime friend of Sandifer, called the dinner "a really beautiful experience." He admired the mission of using food to break down barriers and focus on "commonality of all human beings," even those who might never otherwise meet, while also educating people about other cultures.
"You can travel without getting on a plane," he said.
Filmmaker Amanda Brinkman, who made the documentary shown in the film festival, was similarly impressed.
"I thought it was just a really creative solution to start those conversations," Brinkman said. "I think the concept of not sitting with who you came with is just a remarkably cool concept. ... It's really great when you go to events that encourage that connection beyond your immediate known circle of friends."
Sandifer called the experience of attending Brinkman's documentary screening "a 20 out of 10."
It was "a great debut," she said, but she's far from finished with her project. "My next goal is to sell to a network so it could become a series," she said.
She's talking with event sponsor Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota about "taking it national," with dinners across the country, maybe even the world.
"I want to go everywhere and bring everyone together," Sandifer said. "We are doing it, right? It's happening."