Laura Gabbert's "Food and Country," screening next week at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, began with a phone call.
It came from Laurie Ochoa, widow of restaurant critic Jonathan Gold, the subject of Gabbert's "City of Gold."
"It was the early days of the pandemic and I was thinking about doing a short piece about what was happening to restaurants in Los Angeles when I got a call from Laurie," recalled Gabbert. "She said, 'You need to call Ruth Reichl because you're both thinking about making something about this moment.'"
Gabbert had met Reichl, a former Los Angeles Times food critic, Gourmet magazine editor, host of "Top Chef Masters" and friend of Gold. So she made the call.
"It was March 2020 and we didn't know how long this was all going to last," said Gabbert. "But Ruth said, even back then, 'This is going to have a ripple effect and I think we need to do something about the big picture.' At the time, you couldn't travel, so we started doing interviews with Ruth on Zoom and, because of her incredible career of writing about food for 50 years, she could just pick up the phone and call Alice Waters [famed seasonal cooking restaurateur] and have a conversation."
The film includes many of those Zoom chats, which get intimate as some floundering chefs practically beg Reichl for advice. Other interviews were shot after the COVID-19 vaccine became available. Those interviews include a family of corn producers shifting to organic farming and a sustainable cattle rancher. The movie's message is that the food/restaurant system has been out of whack for 80 years because of an emphasis on low costs.
"Food and Country" — which screens Wednesday at 7 p.m. (with Gabbert in attendance) and Thursday at 1:15 p.m. — also feels like a time capsule. Many of Reichl's interviews illuminate a time when we knew even less about the COVID virus than we do now.
"The wonderful thing about Ruth is she brings her vast knowledge, as well as her reporting acumen, and she's so delightful," said Gabbert. "It's not in the film but there are so many subjects who would say at one point, 'Ruth, it's like you're my therapist.' She would talk to people every few weeks and they really opened up to her."
Gabbert, 56, also has become good at getting people to open up, in such films as "Sunset Story." She has developed a mini-specialty in food-based documentaries with the Gold movie and "Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles," as well as TV series "Ugly Delicious." None of this was the plan when Gabbert, who grew up in Deephaven and Wayzata, attended the Blake School in Minneapolis.
"I spent a lot of time at the Walker Art Center, growing up, and I had an appreciation for film. But in the Midwest in the '80s I don't think many people even considered that as a career. I didn't know anyone who did it," said Gabbert, who took a post-graduate course in filmmaking "just for fun" when she moved to the Bay Area.
"I did work on a couple documentaries in San Francisco and I remember thinking a fiction film is so different," said Gabbert. "You need so many people and a ton of money to get it off the ground. But documentaries are doable. I remember thinking I could jump in and all I need is a camera, a subject and some access."
The people in "Food and Country" are frank, including Reichl, who owns up to the fact that her writing contributed to an unrealistic view of the cost of good food.
Her "We got sidetracked by deliciousness" is one of the film's most memorable lines.
"I think she is saying that people in the restaurant world and in farming got swept up in a food movement that they loved and adored but that, also, they took their eyes off the ball," Gabbert said. "She owns up to having been involved in some of the central issues of the documentary."
Gabbert talks about thinking about where food comes from and who produces it — although she acknowledges she's in the privileged position of, for instance, being able to shop at farmers markets, which not everyone can do. And she hopes nutritious food can be divorced from politics, given that, red state or blue, we all eat.
"Food and Country" suggests how to fix our food woes, which are hard to ignore in light of events such as the imminent shutdown of a pork processing plant in southern Minnesota. Gabbert said the film's goal is simple.
"Ruth and I would always talk about this," Gabbert said. "We want audiences to get to know the people behind the food."
Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival
When: Through April 27.
Where: The Main Cinema, 115 SE. Main St., Mpls.
Tickets: $15, passes available, mspfilm.org.