I've been hungrily video-stalking Daniel Klein for over a month. One week he was hanging out with a Vietnamese fisherman on the Gulf Coast; another he was trailing shiitake mushroom farmers in the Ozarks; before that, he was hunting and cooking frogs with Arkansas rednecks. It's all part of a belly-busting, yearlong road trip across the U.S. and online documentary devoted to "adventurous and sustainable eating" called The Perennial Plate. Klein and his partner, Mirra Fine, post a new, bite-sized doc based on their pit stops every week at their website of the same name. Although the pair has always been about introducing people to the places their food comes from, the show hasn't always been so mobile. The first season was shot entirely in Klein's home state of Minnesota, where he kicked off the series by killing a turkey for his family's Thanksgiving table and ended 51 weeks later making ice cream with snow from his own backyard. This week, the filmmaker and former chef—who has worked everywhere from Bouchon (!) to the Fat Duck (!!) and looks a bit like Ryan Reynolds gone to seed—motors into Portland to harvest veggies with the kids in the Janus Food Works farming program at Sauvie Island Organics. He's also cooking with Anthony Cafiero and Adam Berger from Tabla for a special Plate & Pitchfork dinner. But before that, he stomped on the brakes for a few minutes to talk to WW.
WW: OK, is this the longest road trip you've taken?
Daniel Klein: Well, for [my] first documentary, What Are We Doing Here?, I traveled from Cairo to Cape Town across Africa for six months, so it was similarly epic…only slightly harder. We did that on public transportation so there was, like, crazy scary buses.
What made you decide to hit the road again?
I moved back [to Minnesota] thinking that I wanted to open a restaurant. And something clicked inside of me that decided I didn't want to be in debt for the next 10 years and hunch over the stove every day. I have a passion for activism and food, so I wanted to combine those together into one thing. [After filming in Minnesota], it seemed like the next thing to do was to go to other parts of the country. Flying wasn't really a financial option, [and] it's footprint-intensive to fly all around the United States. So…road trip.
The docs are less than 10 minutes long but often poignant and very beautiful….
We just go in and film, we don't have a script, we don't have anything we're trying to get out of [the subjects]. We develop the story more from looking at the best of what they said. The experience we are going for is to show that we are these strangers coming into someone's house and cooking; the experience is unique for us and for them. We're interested in their food and what makes them different and special.
What's one thing you've learned?
I didn't know how to kill a frog before [laughs]. I think the people are generally the most surprising thing. It's an eye opener to go across America and see how they're surviving and struggling. Food is what we're going there to ask [about], but we end up finding out so much more.
What message do you really want to get across to American eaters?
I feel like people need to be thinking more about their choices when they go to the grocery store—or any store really—because we are detached from who creates what we make or eat or consume. By providing these stories of real individuals' lives who are the creators of our food, maybe instead of going to the store just seeing a mushroom, you see the hard work of an individual you know, respect or even love.
What's something that you ate on the trip so far that just blew you away?
[Arkansas] frog legs were 10 times better than any frog legs I've ever had. They were really, really good.
Was there any potential pit stop so far out you're like, "Nope, I'm not willing to do that"?
They have feral pigs that tear up the countryside and cause lots of damage [around] San Antonio, Texas. Farms are always trying to get rid of them. They do horrible things, like killing them from helicopters, and they also trap them and kill them with dogs. I don't think I would have done that. It's also dangerous because the dogs go in and they grab the pig and then you have to go in and stab it. We had a [feral] pig roast [instead].
How'd it taste?