A Man of ‘Action!’
Like the pivotal climax of a drama unfolding on the big screen, Kevin Longa’s freeze-frame moment jarringly came when he was all of 11 years old.
An ordinary checkup at Kaiser Permanente medical center in Redwood City turned into a defining moment when a nurse glared at the portly pre-adolescent and said in no uncertain terms, “If you keep this up, you will get Type 2 diabetes.’’
Longa, no stranger to diabetes, having watched his grandparents suffer through their own regiment of insulin shots, was shaken to the core. A kid who would routinely devour a McDonald’s cheeseburger, two McChicken sandwiches, large fries, a large Coke and a McFlurry—all in one sitting—finally did something he didn’t have the will power to do before.
“From that day,’’ he says, “I put myself through my own personal boot camp until butter and sweat poured out of my pores.’’
Longa put down the fork and picked up a camera. Naturally inquisitive and keenly observant, Longa has been making home movies since he was 8. But his wake-up call about his own diet provided a new direction to focus his probing lens: on good food and those dedicated to making it.
The result is “Taste with Kevin Longa,’’ his series of documentary video shorts about food entrepreneurs around the world, which debuted this year online.
“Food entrepreneurs are not like other entrepreneurs, who are so often seen as lone wolves out for themselves,’’ says Longa, 25. “Food entrepreneurs want to nourish. They really care about people.’’
A One-Man Operation
Over the past few years, Longa has filmed in 14 countries—from Cambodia to Slovenia. Of the dozen stories he’s filmed, he’s so far made three into films: Dictionary of a Food Hero,’ Hands in the Orchestra and Verruckt: The Snail Farmer of Vienna. The latter two have been recognized with honors in Oakland’s Real Food Media Contest.
With his award winnings, savings and own frugality, the recent graduate with a degree in economics from the University of California at Los Angeles has funded this enterprise himself, sinking $20,000 so far into travel costs. Longa typically spends two months on each subject, from researching online to Skyping with subjects in the middle of the night to filming to editing. For each short, he painstakingly winnows about seven hours of footage down to a graceful four-minute film, editing in solitude in his parents’ Burlingame home, in the same bedroom he grew up in.
What makes him so driven?
“We live in an age where we take our food for granted. We have a lack of empathy and understanding for people of other cultures,’’ says Longa, a now slight-of-build young man who shed 50 pounds and gained a new calling in life along the way. “We have very few things that connect us all. Food is one of those things.’’
His affinity for other cultures is due in part to his own heritage. The eldest child of two eye doctors (who do indeed joke that they “see eye to eye’’), Longa is half Chinese, possesses a Portuguese surname and is a mix of Polish and other European ancestries. His great-grandparents were the first Chinese family in Burlingame, he says, where they once owned a restaurant that served American food, along with a few Chinese specialties.
His enthusiasm for traveling took hold in college. When it was time to study abroad during his junior year, Longa chose Denmark after reading that it had been ranked the happiest nation on Earth. Coincidentally, it also boasted the restaurant that topped the list of the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants.” Longa scrimped and saved, living off of cheese and crackers, until he had enough money to dine at that illustrious establishment, Noma, the pioneer of New Nordic cuisine that stresses hyper local and seasonal ingredients, much of it foraged in the wilds.
“Noma’s ethos sparked my mind about looking at where my food comes from in real detail,’’ he says. “Up until then, my camera had been focused down on the food and the plate. But after that, I started focusing the camera on who made the food.’’
Indeed, his documentary shorts go beyond mere food porn. They aim to nourish the spirit by giving a taste of the struggles, determination and unfettered passion beyond the edges of the plate. Verruckt: The Snail Farmer of Vienna spotlights Andreas Gugumuck who quit the security of his IBM information technology job to become Austria’s only snail farmer, a career shift his friends described as verruckt’’ (or “crazy’’ in Austrian). Hands in the Orchestra literally shows the hands of the immigrant farmers and cooks who feed us. Dictionary of a Food Hero chronicles 20-year-old Thunder Zachary, a convicted robber, who tries to turn his life around with a cooking apprenticeship at San Francisco’s Twenty Five Lusk.
Stories that Don’t Pull Punches
Chef-Proprietor Alicia Petrakis didn’t hesitate to open the doors of her Three Restaurant & Bar in San Mateo to Longa when he approached her about filming members of her kitchen staff for Hands in the Orchestra. The two met when Petrakis catered breakfast for Draper University, an entrepreneurship program housed in the same building as her restaurant, of which Longa is a graduate.
“Kevin embraces the philosophy of just going for it,’’ Petrakis says. “I find him very impressive.’’
So does Karen Rogers, founder of Sprouts Cooking Club, a Bay Area nonprofit that teaches children of all socio-economic backgrounds how to cook by taking them into some of the region’s most respected restaurant kitchens. Rogers introduced Longa to Zachary, a student in her Chef-in-Training program who eventually was hired as a full-time prep cook at Twenty Five Lusk.
“Kevin enters into the raw reality of people’s stories,’’ Rogers says. “He rejects the pervasive glossy style of fictional food movies and staged cooking shows. He keeps it simple by recounting the real stories of real people who work with real food.’’
Unlike scripted food cinema, Longa’s documentaries don’t always pan out with pat, happy endings. Executive Chef Matthew Dolan of Twenty Five Lusk, who bought Zachary his first starter knife set, and schooled him in washing his hands, sweeping the floors and precisely plating tuna tartare, was about to promote him to a real line cook’s position when the young man abruptly stopped coming to work after a year of dutifully showing up day after day on time.
Zachary had fallen back in with his old cronies on the street. Dolan has not seen him since. Zachary has watched the film online, even emailing Longa that he thought it was “really cool.’’ But now when Dolan watches, there’s a twinge of sadness to it all.
“I just hope Thunder is out there doing something positive for his life,’’ Dolan says. “If some young kid living in Hunter’s Point sees this film, maybe he will think there’s a way out of there. If someone living in their Pacific Heights mansion sees it, I hope they won’t be so quick to judge someone by stereotypes.’’
If these films can do that, Longa believes he will have succeeded in showing just how food can feed us on so many levels.
“I grew up watching celebrity chefs. But that’s not reality,’’ Longa says. “I want to dig deeper into our food. People are hungry for something more authentic and real.’’
Kevin Longa has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to continue his documentary series.