DANIEL KLEIN: The Perennial Plate

If you haven’t heard of it, The Perennial Plate is an online weekly documentary series that, through its remarkable lens, brings us adventures in sustainable growing and eating from all over the world. Each episode is short—roughly five minutes—but in that time we are given a startlingly intimate portrait of a family, a grower, a tradition, or someone taking it upon themselves to recover an ecosystem. It ranges from the comical (Tennessee residents illegally keeping backyard chickens) to the tragic (the Sri Lanka family whose native fishing grounds have practically disappeared) and everything in between. Most of the stories are told by the subjects themselves, often in their native language, which is subtitled. It’s a series that becomes quickly addictive—I had to force myself to stop watching so that I could get this article turned in on time.

Off the Ground

The Perennial Plate is the brainchild of chef, filmmaker and activist Daniel Klein, who for some time sought a way to bring his vision to the people. In college he’d been an activist; his major was social movements, and he helped get Coca-Cola kicked off the NYU campus. He became a prominent chef, cooking for some of New York City’s finest eateries and always having an eye on local, sustainable food. Moving out of the kitchen, as a filmmaker he produced a documentary called What are we doing here? around the issue of food aid in Africa.

Yet he still wasn’t satisfied with his career path. “After returning home to Minnesota where I was born, and deciding against opening a restaurant there, I assessed my skills and my interests,” Daniel told Calmful Living. “I had been a chef, at another time had been an activist, and had also made my first documentary film in 2005. I wanted a way to combine the three interests together.

“I thought about doing a TV show. I was a big fan of River Cottage, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s show in the UK, and I didn’t see anything on the market in the United States along the lines of really getting to know producers and the people doing good work behind our food. So I started building a show around the concept of eating locally and sustainably in places that weren’t California—more challenging locations, such as the desert or Minnesota in winter. I began preparing and filming for it.

“But I’d had a lot of frustration making films—with my first film and some other stuff for TV shows; it just takes a long time to ever succeed anywhere. It could be two years after you’ve created something that anyone actually sees it. So I began to think about the Internet and the possibilities of immediate reaction to what you make, and that seemed like a good idea.

“To be able to really take part in the Internet, you can’t just put out one film; you have to have this ongoing relationship online. So I made a bold commitment to put out 52 short films in 52 weeks. I produced a film every week for a year. I did it with my own money; then I raised money on Kickstarter to help me survive during that year. That was how The Perennial Plate was born.”

Shortly after embarking on his project, Daniel added another permanent staff member to his team—co-producer, photographer and assistant editor Mirra Fine. “Mirra and I do this jointly,” Daniel said. “I started it, but she’s been part of it for the last two and a half years and we work side by side on everything.”

It’s been an ever-widening view. The first season of The Perennial Plate focused on Daniel’s native Minnesota, and the second on locations all over the US. Their third season took them to the remainder of the globe.

Increased Focus

The series attracted plentiful attention—and beginning with his third season, Daniel was able to secure a sponsorship. “We now have a partner and sponsor with Intrepid Travel, a responsible Australian travel company that does local tours in all different parts of the world. They help us arrange some of our trips, help us find stories, and also fund these great adventures that we get to go on.

“When we started this relationship with them, we gave them a wish list of the countries that we wanted to visit. Their response was, ‘Sounds great!’ [Aussie accent]. They actually added destinations—for example, we wanted to go to India to film, and they were like, ‘Why not go to India and Sri Lanka?’ Then, locating a story in a foreign country can be challenging because of the language barrier; they have been very helpful with that because they have local staff who speak the language. Or we may find something but can’t communicate with the people there; so they’ll come in and help make that happen.”

World View

With all the traveling Daniel and Mirra have done and continue to do throughout the US and the rest of the planet, they have obviously gained quite a perspective on the state of sustainable food.

“It’s growing, for sure, especially in Europe and the United States,” Daniel reported. “People caring about their food is only getting stronger and stronger. People are fed up with junk food, fed up with not knowing what’s in the products that they’re eating. Out of that is developing increased awareness of some of the issues and problems that come from an industrial food system.

“In the rest of the world it may not be quite as simple because, for instance, in China they’re trying to feed a billion people, and many of those are emerging from poverty and want to eat Western foods. More and more people are going toward the Western diet. There are some clear challenges with that. It’s pretty hard to fault anyone for wanting to start eating more meat, which may not be the best thing for health purposes; but I might want to as well if I had had a more vegetable-based diet. But within these countries, because of the Internet and because of the way information is so easily accessible and exchangeable, there are also those who are realizing that this movement toward eating a more Western diet is not very good. I expect that many places may not have to go through the whole digression into everything canned, everything fast food, that we are emerging from.”

While in China, Daniel and Mirra had an encounter with a traditional grower, which revealed an interesting paradox. “We were with this farmer in China in the rice terraces,” Daniel recalled. “It’s an incredibly beautiful place. He’s following a method that has been traditional for 1,300 years, and the landscape doesn’t allow modern advancements. He said if he could use machinery he’d do it in a second.

“He was really looking at wanting to mechanize for the benefit of his people, but he does very much appreciate that their system of not chopping down the trees brings rain to their community. He’s quite an intelligent person, and I believe he understands the benefits of a natural balance but also that it would be nice to have some of the things that could make his job easier. I think that’s probably the future—taking advantage of the wonderful advances in technology while recognizing that many of these older, alternative ways of farming and less use of chemicals together can create a more sustainable future.”

Daniel cited a few remarkable examples of progress in sustainability he has seen. “Some countries in Europe are making great advancements,” he said. “For example, a huge portion of Germany’s farmland and dairy is organic. In the US, southwestern Wisconsin is a really cool example. That’s where Organic Valley is based, and they are a co-op of all small farms. They have hundreds of small farms, with a couple of hundred cattle out of each farm, coming together to sell their milk, and they’re extremely successful. So I like that.”

Chasing the Stories

Now in their third season, Daniel and Mirra have had numerous adventures finding stories to shoot. “We were just in Sri Lanka,” Daniel related. “We had been staying at someone’s home, and this guy had been talking to us about coconuts and the many uses for them. We were kind of in a bind for stories, so we asked our guide and driver if he knew anybody who had experience with coconuts. The driver said, ‘Actually my cousin has a coconut plantation.’ He drove us over to these people’s house, and they took us through the process of everything that can be done with coconut trees and fruit. It was incredible. Of course the cuisine is coconut based, but they also make their firewood from the fronds and rope from dried husks. They wash their dishes with the dried fibers. They make oil for their hair and for cooking. You’d obviously drink the juice. They make an alcohol from the flowers. It’s such a fascinating thing to see—this one tree and one food being used in so many ways.”

Daniel and Mirra have also catalogued many different portraits of sustainability that we would never otherwise hear about. “We were just in Italy and were filming with a biodynamic farmer,” Daniel said. “A very sweet story: He started about 20 years ago and wanted to include his family in the business. Now he grows heirloom wheat and makes pasta. One of his sons makes the pasta, the other son manages the farm, and he himself manages the mill. They work together in this little family unit, making this biodynamic product on one of the early biodynamic farms in Italy.”

The Music

Anyone who sees these videos will be struck by their very effective use of music. “We actually get a lot of comments about our music,” Mirra said. “Daniel started off as a music major in college—though that changed; so from the beginning of The Perennial Plate, music has always been a very important aspect of our films. In fact, choosing the right song is one of the first parts of editing a video. It sets the mood for the film.

“We look for small independent musicians from around the world. We have a friend who serves as our music supervisor and he scours the web looking for these artists. As we are traveling, we try to find artists from each country; although sometimes a song from one country will really fit the mood of a different country. But essentially, we think our videos are a great way to showcase small and unknown artists.”

A Closer World

Daniel and Mirra would very much like their films to bring the world and its possibilities closer to viewers. “We hope that people will think a little more after watching our films,” Daniel concluded. “We want them to consider where their food comes from, who grows it and how we can do things differently, since the current system is so flawed.”

“We want people to be inspired,” added Mirra. “We want them to be reminded of how we are all connected, despite our differences, in a quest for a good life with real food.”

Resources: See the films at