Michael Pollan, a professor at UC Berkeley’s graduate school of journalism, is known primarily as a bestselling writer —The Botany of Desire, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food — but, as he says himself, he’s rarely as happy as when he has created something delicious to eat. “Just look at my face when I pull that loaf of bread out of the oven,” he says, referring to a scene in the new four-part Netflix documentary Cooked, which is based on his book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. “You will seldom see me feeling that much pride at the end of a good paragraph!”
Cooked, the first episode of which airs on Feb. 19, is a collaboration between Pollan and Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney (Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room). The documentary premiered in Berlin this week, and Pollan reports it was well received.
“It was really an honor to have such gifted filmmakers make a film based on my book,” he wrote by email from Germany. “When you start a book, you look at a handful of rickety sentences on that first page and never imagine that at the end of the journey you’ll be sitting in a theater in Berlin watching your characters — pit-master Ed Mitchell, say, or Sister Noella the cheesemaker — up on the screen. It’s been a thrill.”
The idea to turn the book into a documentary was conceived when Gibney was shown Cooked in galley form by the talent agent he and Pollan share. The book’s four sections — fire, water, air and earth — lent themselves naturally to a four-part documentary which sets out to examine the physical elements used throughout the ages to transform raw ingredients into dishes to be eaten.
The film is beautifully shot and takes the viewer around the world, from Peru, through India, Morocco and Australia, all the while returning to Pollan’s North Berkeley kitchen or garden where he demonstrates the skills he honed writing the book. He pulls in expert friends to help him: former Chez Panisse chef and writer Samin Nosrat who shows him how to master pot cooking, for instance, and pit-master Ed Mitchell, with whom he rustles up some authentic southern barbecue.
At its heart, the documentary is a chance for Pollan to demonstrate how important he believes it is for us all to get back in the kitchen and reclaim lost traditions — traditions he thinks help us achieve balance in our lives.
Pollan says making the documentary, which comes on the heels of the PBS film of his book In Defense of Food, was eye-opening and enjoyable — for the most part.
“I enjoyed the process, if not thoroughly then mostly,” he said. “Alex and his colleagues are terrific filmmakers and watching how they turned an information-packed book — with all its science, anthropology and history — into a sensual, cinematic experience was fascinating and humbling.” But he added: “It’s always a bit of a home invasion when crews come to film you (in your kitchen, cooking especially) and these were two-camera shoots, so dozens of people each time. But we got it all done in a couple of long days — less work for me than it probably appears on screen.”
The documentary footage shot around the globe is compelling, such as when the crew follows the Western Australian Martu aboriginal tribe on a hunting trip in the outback, we see a mother in Morocco patiently showing her teenage son how to make flatbread, or watch a Mumbai housewife lovingly preparing a traditional, multi-dish hot lunch for her husband. Pollan didn’t do any jet-setting himself to make the film, however.
“I’m not interested in the traditional role of TV host, which puts distance between the characters and the viewer,” he said. “That all feels really artificial to me. So I prefer to do a long, conversational interview rather than written pieces to camera, which come off as much more formal.”
Asked what impact he hopes the documentary will have, Pollan says his first hope is that people will be entertained. But he also hopes the film will encourage us to think about cooking in a fresh way — “as a powerful way to connect — with nature on one side and to the people we care about on the other, as well as a really interesting and gratifying way to spend some time. We’ve devalued cooking in recent years, regarding it as a form of drudgery or an obligation. And, while it can certainly be these things, it can also be a source of pleasure and intellectual stimulation. The film is not meant to be an argument so much as an inducement — a seduction.”
Michael Pollan: “We teach kids about sex, why not cooking?” (05.15.13)
UC Berkeley’s Edible Education course: Stories, revelations (12.12.12)
Podcast: The Three Michaels in conversation (Michael Pollan, Michael Chabon and Michael Lewis in conversation at a Berkeleyside event in Dec. 2012.)