The Perennial Plate: How a chef and an advertiser became videographers

The creators of The Perennial Plate Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine talk about quitting their jobs to make movies about food and earning a "culinary Oscar"

In 2010 Daniel Klein, a chef, and Mirra Fine, an advertising agent, quit their jobs and created a project called The Perennial Plate. Without any previous experience in cinematography they started making short documentaries about food – at first in their native USA, and later expanding to other corners of the world. They regularly discuss their travel and adventures on their website, where they also post new culinary recipes and new daily episodes. During the past four years Daniel and Mirra filmed 137 stories in Italy, Turkey, Vietnam, Morocco, Mexico, Spain, North and South America. Last february The Perennial Plate episodes won a “culinary Oscar”, a James Beard Award, nominated in the category “Video projects and new media”.

Daniel and Myrra spoke to Bird In Flight about their journey of becoming videographers, quitting their jobs and trying to collect funds to develop their own ambitious startup project:

Daniel shot his first movie in 2005, together with his brothers. He traveled from Cairo to Capetown, filming stories about effects of foreign aid in Africa – positive, as well as negative, aspects of it.
He didn’t fully understand the process of creating a film at the time. He started learning about it through trial and error. While editing the film he had to cut it to eighty minutes, down from three hundred. It was a very difficult but useful experience. Later on, when Daniel began working as a chef and decided to make movies, the acquired “in the field” editing skills came in handy. He wanted to find an occupation which would allow him to combine his passion for food with his love for travel and filming into one project. The creation of The Perennial Plate was a natural and logical solution to his dilemma.

During the filming of the sixth episode Daniel had to gut a lamb, so he asked me to hold the camera. That was my very first time making a video, – little did I know back then that it would become my main job. I used to work in advertisement, but I didn’t feel inspired doing that, it seemed like I was just passing time. That’s why I decided to change the direction my career was heading in. (After witnessing the slaughter of the lamb Myrra became a vegetarian – editor’s note)

The Perennial Plate – it’s me and Daniel. We search for new topics for the episodes together, we shoot together and we edit the filmed material together. We are an effective team, the two of us.

Our documentaries are as much about food as they are about people. That’s why the characters of our films are random personalities telling us their random stories. Before we travel to other countries we study the material searching for interesting topics. At times we google the ideas, at times we get them from others, from the foreigners who write about food, from different organisations.

We bring an interpreter with us to a new country. It’s great when you have a person like that close-by. On the other hand, the language barrier between us and the characters of our show can certainly be difficult to overcome. It’s hard to lead a spontaneous conversation with the foreigners. All we can do is to be present with them at work, at home. They feel at ease around us and we try not to interfere with their normal lives. We only listen and observe. It’s good to have a small team in this case, just a microphone and minimal equipment.

We are often asked – what equipment do we use. Daniel published a post in our blog on this subject.

When we arrive to a new country, we shoot everything that we see and eat. Sometimes we get the feeling that we disappear behind the viewfinder of the camera. Sometimes we tell each other: “Well, okay, now put the camera down and just look around for a change”. As a result we have tons of extra material that didn’t fit into the 4-minute roll.

We had occasions when we were slightly worried tasting the food prepared for us by others. As all Americans, we were afraid to drink unfiltered water in Ethiopia. Here we arrive to a local woman’s house, in some village. She rinsed her hands in the stream of water and began cooking without wiping them. Daniel whispered into my ear: ” I hope we don’t get sick”. We didn’t. And food was outstanding.

Daniel is a chef and he gets inspired by different international cuisines. Shortly after his trip to Morocco he started adding canned lemons to various dishes. In Shri-Lanka he became infatuated with the leaves of curry.

As to the marketing of the project, we created it from scratch. As a former chef, Daniel started organizing an underground “eating club” – he would invite total strangers who took interest in culinary art and feed them various dishes prepared using local ingredients. He filmed his guests having dinner, while they were telling him their stories. When the guests were leaving they would donate some money for the project, as much as they considered appropriate. Once during one of these “underground” meals we hosted a journalist who used to write about food for the local newspaper. He vouched for us to the local

Twitter became quite a tool for us – connected us with many from the culinary world. Six months later I started keeping in touch with food bloggers, documentarists and food photographers who had huge amounts
of followers – I kept asking them how they acquired so many fans. Many responded and shared their advice. One girl who had about 30 thousand followers at the time began watching our show, retweeting our episodes to her followers. It was the moment that changed everything. Reputable publishers, like The Huffington Post and Grist, started taking interest in The Perennial Plate. We became their regular contributors.

We had several sources to finance the project. We applied for Кickstarter twice – collecting $10,000 altogether. Besides that, we were trying to get investors involved. For instance, Toyota sponsored our tour of the US. We also worked with the culinary website, site of the American Union of Bartenders and Family Dinner project. This season we are sponsored by Intrepid Travel.

We watch plenty of documentaries on the internet. The true inspiration for us right now is the work of Heidi Aven (American director and screenwriter who founded the production studio Loki Filmseditor’s note)

Imagine where The Perennial Plate will be five years from now… We would really like to have the chance to work and PROMOTE with other filmmakers who produce high quality movies. To travel, even though probably not as much as before. Since we just got married and would love to start a family in the next five years!

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