Chicago Food Film Festival returns

By Brian Dukerschein

Chicago hosts numerous film festivals, but only one allows attendees to eat what they see.

The Chicago Food Film Festival is returning for a second year, from Nov. 18–20, but this time with a full program of events and several locally-produced shorts and documentaries.

According to Chicago Food Film Festival’s Executive Producer Seth Unger, the idea behind the festival is to showcase films—mostly documentaries and narrative and creative shorts—that are solely devoted to food. The audience is served the cuisine featured in the film, often shortly after it appears onscreen.

Festival goers will be able to sample doughnuts from The Doughnut Vault, 400 1/2 N. Franklin St., lowcountry oysters from South Carolina and savory pies from a local bakery.

Unger said seeing the food on the movie screen has a powerful effect on the sensory experience.

“Without a doubt, food tastes better when you anticipate it,” Unger said. “One of the best ways you can anticipate it is to see beautiful shots of it in motion on a big screen. The way our festival works is you’re watching those doughnuts get glazed on the screen, and your eyes get glassy and you start drooling. Then boom! You look over and someone is serving you one.”

The Food Film Festival was founded in 2007 in New York City by George Motz, host of the Travel Channel’s “Made in America.” According to Unger, the idea came to Motz after he decided to serve hamburgers at the 2006 launch of his documentary film, “Hamburger America.” The festival grew in size and popularity during the last four years, and in September 2010 made a quick stop in Chicago to “say ‘hello’ to the town,” Unger said.

Festival organizers look for a range of films to showcase, he said, and their standards are different from most film festivals.

“When it comes down to what we accept as submissions, our only requirement is that [the film] is about food or drink,” Unger said. “We have some films that are shot beautifully and look picture perfect. We have other films that are great conceptually but weren’t shot very well. At the end of the day, we’re picking what we think is going to make a great festival, not just what the best films are.”

This year’s festival will feature four screenings focused on particular themes, such as the growing farm-to-table movement. There will also be a juried film competition judged by local culinary experts, including Chef Michael Kornick of DMK Burger Bar, 2954 N. Sheffield Ave., and journalist, author and radio host Rick Kogan.

Several films at the festival will feature local restaurants and businesses, including Michael Gebert’s “Farm to Barstool,” a short documentary about Pleasant House Bakery, 934 W. 31st St., where owner and chef Art Jackson grows the produce for many dishes on his menu.

“It’s the farm-to-table story told within two city blocks, which is unusual to me,” Gebert said. “You’d be hard-pressed to find it more compressed than that.”

Gebert, a freelance writer and the Chicago editor of the website GrubStreet, has been shooting food-themed shorts for his blog, “Sky Full of Bacon,” in which he covers everything from restaurant reviews to the history of barbecue.

“[My films are] kind of my calling card[s],” Gebert said. “I wanted to establish my name as somebody who had a thoughtful approach to food and did something that was entirely mine.”

Last year, editors from the Chicago Reader approached Gebert about doing a food-related video feature for their website. He and writer Julia Thiel launched “Key Ingredient,” a series in which local chefs challenge each other to create a dish using an unusual component. Gebert and Thiel not only managed to attract some of Chicago’s top chefs, but the two also won a James Beard Award for Best Multimedia Food Feature in May 2011.

The visual nature of food and how it is prepared lend themselves very well to the screen, Gebert said.

“People like seeing the technique,” he said. “There’s a pleasure in watching someone who does something well. When you see somebody cutting something 15 times faster than you can, make a perfect little brunoise, [one of the most difficult knife techniques], and not lose a finger, that’s pretty cool.”

Unger said the festival regularly selects a food-based charity to donate a portion of its proceeds, and this year they chose The Good Food Project, a nonprofit organization that aims to help children become more aware of the food they eat by conducting fruit tastings in local schools.

According to Susan Taylor, The Good Food Project’s executive director, the organization has gone into more than 40 local elementary and high schools to educate students on the variety of foods available to them. The goal, she said, is to teach children to be critical of the food they eat and be mindful of how it affects the way they feel.

“We’ve lost our food culture,” Taylor said. “My experience is that children across the board are disconnected both from the food system and from knowing how to take care of themselves, period.”

Several of the films screened at the festival explore the strong connection between food and culture, something Unger said appeals to a wide audience.

“We have guests coming because they’re hardcore foodies,” he said. “We have guests coming because they’re filmmakers, and we have people who don’t care about either one and just want to have a good time. We definitely make sure there is plenty of food and drink, and people leave happy.”

The Chicago Food Film Festival will run from Nov. 18–20. Events will be held at Kendall College, 900 N. North Branch St.; and Intelligentsia Roasting Works, 1850 W. Fulton St. For full details and ticket information, visit