With TV networks, streaming channels and shows like “Ugly Delicious” and “Chef’s Table,” it’s difficult to imagine there was ever a time when food was not a staple of the big (and small) screen. But just 11 years ago, after making the documentary “Hamburger America,” George Motz was shocked to find that there were no real avenues for screening food films.
“I was constantly being grouped with the same few people making movies about food,” says Motz, “so I figured we could show them all together and actually serve some of the food being shown on the screen.”
And with that, Food Film Festival was born.
“We realized we created this new, multisensory kind of experience,” the festival director and co-founder said. However, it was not until Motz’s buddy Seth Unger, a third-generation event producer, came on board that the event grew to the next level. He joined the team in 2009 and told his friend, “I love this idea, but you’re doing it all wrong.” Unger harvested his years in the music business and working for Mayor Michael Bloomberg at City Hall and helped turn the Food Film Fest into the internationally recognized event that it is today.
Now in its 12th year, the festival takes place over five days and draws audiences from all over the world.
“One thing we realized a few years back is that this festival is for everyone,” says Unger. “Literally. If you eat food, you will enjoy this.” Because of this mass appeal, the event has developed quite a sizable following, and some attendees even purchase tickets before any real details are announced.
‘Coming full circle’
In addition to the festival’s usual loyal audience, though, this year’s premiere of one of the final episodes of “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” in the wake of the CNN host’s untimely death in June, has attracted a slew of new attendees. The episode’s focus is on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and features appearances from some of the neighborhood’s most famous characters from the music, film and art scenes, as they accompany Bourdain to legendary joints like Ray’s Candy Store and Max Fish bar.
“We’ve had an ongoing partnership with CNN Original Series and ‘Parts Unknown’ for the past few years,” says Unger. “We started discussing this event almost a year ago, but given the turn of events, we weren’t sure how things would proceed . . . if at all,” the event producer says. “But after some hard thinking, everyone agreed that the show must go on. We believe that’s what Tony would’ve wanted.”
Unlike the other festival premieres, which will take place at the 325-person AMC Empire 25 theater in Times Square, the Lower East Side “Parts Unknown” episode will be shown in the neighborhood. Bourdain grew up in the city and spent a considerable portion of his youth on the Lower East Side, so “having the grand canon of his work end where it essentially began, in New York City, his hometown, is powerful,” says Unger.
The episode was shot shortly before the CNN documentarian’s death and features meals with famed punk music executive Danny Fields, former Cro-Mags bassist and author Harley Flanagan, and filmmakers Jim Jarmusch and Amos Poe, among others.
Flanagan, who was 11 years Bourdain’s junior, actually crossed paths with the celebrity chef in the late 1970s and early ’80s, when the two frequented the clubs and bars of the Lower East Side, brushing shoulders with Andy Warhol, Johnny Thunders and the like. Decades later, the Cro-Mags bassist spotted Bourdain’s familiar face at a 2014 mixed martial arts event and soon began teaching his daughter MMA.
“Although I didn’t really know him back in the ’70s, we shared a lot of experiences on the Lower East Side,” says Flanagan. “Part of our bond was all of our common ground — about the LES, about music, all that.”
Bourdain mentioned the Lower East Side episode of “Parts Unknown” to the musician months before it began production, and declared to his friend, “it’s going to feature you.”
When the time came to shoot the episode, the CNN host left it to Flanagan to select the gastronomic venue, and the pair wound up at Ray’s Candy Store, where they drank egg creams and reminisced about their younger days in the neighborhood. After their nostalgic treat, he and Bourdain walked through the area, passing the building that Flanagan grew up in, where his neighbors included poet Allen Ginsberg, artist Carsten Höller, and “all the artists, gays, and punk rock people.”
“It’s really bittersweet,” says Flanagan. “On the one hand, I’m really honored to be in the episode, and on the other, it makes me really sad.”
The musician and author of “Hard Core: Life of My Own” was not only a friend of Bourdain’s but also one of his most ardent admirers. “I really do think he was one of the last greats,” says Flanagan, comparing the documentarian to early 20th-century writers whose vivid descriptions of their travels “could take you there.
“I really liked him, and I really miss him,” he says of Bourdain, who died by suicide a month or so after they filmed the episode. “But the whole thing is coming full circle — he’s ending his journey right where he started it.”
The Lower East Side episode of “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown" will be shown at the Angel Orensanz Foundation, a converted synagogue on the neighborhood’s Norfolk Street. All proceeds from the event will go to the Bronx Letters Foundation, an educational charity Bourdain passionately supported.
The 12th annual Food Film Festival will also feature showings focused on brunch, barbecue and New York’s food scene. Each event will serve attendees corresponding foods during the films, so there’s definitely no need for dinner reservations before or after the shows. The festival will run from Oct. 24 to 28, and tickets can be purchased at thefoodfilmfestival.com.