Faced with presenting at a Star Chefs event in New York last October, Red Medicine chef Jordan Kahn called upon filmmakers Natasha Subramaniam and Alisa Lapidus to collaborate on a film they eventually titled Reverie. They had previously showcased his technique in their stop-motion animation film Assiette, and Kahn knew from that experience that the filmmakers would be able to help him express ideas that were otherwise difficult to communicate.
"I wanted to figure out a way to show people the process that I go through, and the best way to translate it would be through moving images," Kahn says.
Kahn wanted "a dialogue about culinary techniques he was exploring and the ingredients he's discovered in Southern California," says Subramaniam on their collaboration. "Jordan wanted to present three dishes in the film, but within that we could freely explore whatever we wanted to explore.
"Alisa and I really wanted to push the form of documentary to where we were filming in wild landscapes with an extremely close lens, in which the details of all these ingredients are all-encompassing and immersive. We were interested in creating worlds in overlooked parts of the landscape here in California."
According to Subramaniam, "We really wanted the film to be this seamless representation between the natural world, the culinary world and Jordan's own culinary language."
Reverie was born from their collective appreciation of landscapes. The crew shot in Temescal Canyon, Santa Barbara, Malibu and Griffith Park last summer. It was a lean production with just one other crew member, cinematographer Oliver Fitzgerald.
"We carried hundreds of pounds of equipment through the forest. Oliver made shots that to this day I'd look at and wonder how he did them," Kahn says.
The chef moved to L.A. about five years ago, after having lived and worked in San Francisco, Chicago and New York. The Savannah, Ga., native found the city to be different from negative images of smog, Hollywood and traffic.
"Southern California is by far the most beautiful place I've ever lived," he says. "I've always heard people talk about Los Angeles as being this sprawling megahighway. Nobody ever spoke about how beautiful it was here. It's absolutely gorgeous."
"I'm much more influenced by my surroundings now. When you work in Chicago or New York, there's basically what you have in your kitchen and that's it. Your creativity and focus is different," he says. "L.A. has made a big impact on me as a chef over the last couple of years -- certainly one that I hadn't anticipated."
Composed of ingredients like watercress, dried cabbage and sorrel, the three dishes featured in the 22-minute film became timestamps. Kahn had a frame of what he wanted to make before filming, but he left room to include the surroundings of each location. He plated all three dishes outdoors, minutes before filming.
"It took some acrobatic skill to plate everything neatly, without disturbing any of the plants around," Kahn says. "I wanted to make each dish a part of the landscape. They're also installation pieces, in that they look slightly out of place."
"It really didn't actually come together until the actual shoot days," Subramaniam says, "because the ingredients were changing so quickly and it was really difficult to put them together as exactly what we were going to have, because we really wanted to stick with this purity of only using what was endemically growing."
Lapidus adds, "The ingredients that you see listed before each chapter are so specific to when we were making the film. And that is another subliminal theme that we're exploring in terms of the elements, seasonality, and how that all relates to food. It could be applied to a larger essence of the cuisine and wild ingredients of Southern California."
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The process of music composition for the film would end up mirroring the film shoots in that it was made somewhat off the cuff.
"We knew the music was meant to be very intense and very slow to feel like a dream. It's meant to take you out of your element and allow you to sort of lapse into a dream state for 20 to 25 minutes and then emerge from it. The music is definitely a conduit to help fuel that," Kahn elaborates.
"All the instruments had to be acoustic, because we were doing something that's very primal and natural in a lot of ways. I didn't want any electronic music at all," the chef says. They connected with composer Matthew Entwistle, introduced to them by Kahn's friend in New York.
"It didn't all really come together until the last performance at the Park Avenue Armory when we brought Matthew in and he brought some musicians," Subramaniam says.
"I was putting together these dishes in the wild and they improvised music. It ended up being a nice match," Kahn says.
Both Reverie and Assiette have been labors of love for Kahn, Subramaniam and Lapidus. In the latter, the filmmakers made a stop-motion animation featuring Kahn turning a croissant into a dessert.
"If you never experienced stop-motion animation done by hand, it is absolutely maddening in every way possible. To do about a three-minute film, it took 24 hours straight. I thought I had a lot of attention to detail. When I did a stop-motion animation film, I realized that I know absolutely nothing about detail," Kahn says.
Reverie has been submitted to film festivals for screening consideration. Subramaniam and Lapidus have started on a new project titled Bloem through their studio Chayka Sofia in the meantime.
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