There is power in stories. And most powerful of all are often the stories of food.
Just ask filmmaker and storyteller Andrew Gooi.
Born in Malaysia, Gooi, 31, moved to the United States 12 years ago. He found that his heart lay behind a camera lens and set up his culinary films website, Food Talkies (foodtalkies.com), in February 2016.
Anchored by the tales of people and places, his culinary films are delicious bites of life, simple honest homages.
They’re mostly shorts, such as his Food from Home series, which features everyone from his own grandmother cooking his favourite pork trotters in black vinegar, a classic Cantonese dish, to author and Season 3 MasterChef winner Christine Ha, exploring her Vietnamese heritage.
Gooi’s first feature-length documentary premiered in Phoenix, Arizona this January. Kakehashi: A Portrait of Chef Nobuo Fukuda is the story of the chef who was born in Japan and is now based in Phoenix – where Gooi lived till his move to Seattle in February.
“My wife and I flew to Japan to film with him, both in Tokyo and his home town of Machida,” said Gooi. “We got to step back in time with him, to see his struggles and share his emotions. Seeing what he values in life helped me to tell his story better.”
“I’ve come to learn about life by filming other people’s. I learn about their successes and struggles, and it has taught me that it’s okay to have both – it’s how our life story becomes fulfilling and rich.”
It’s this kind of approach that made Food Talkies a small endeavour with a lot of heart. It cast increasingly larger ripples, till December 2016 – just 10 months after its official birth – saw Gooi receive a call from a New York production company, looking to sign him as a director.
Last week, Gooi and his wife, Elise, hit the road to shoot with a chef in Seattle who makes soba noodles the traditional way – by hand.
On the way, his phone began a delighted, non-stop buzz – his series, Elements, shot in collaboration with Bite Magazine, had been nominated for the James Beard Awards for Media this year in the Video Webcast, On Location series.
Elements actually started out as just one film: Smoke, with chef Jeff Kraus.
“Mark Lipczynski and Michelle Jacoby from Bite Magazine wanted to document Jeff and how he works with smoke in his dishes. I made the film – and it was extremely well received by the local Phoenix audience.
“One day, we were discussing another collaboration story, and they mentioned that they’d done a story on a bartender in town who worked with ice. It all clicked for us at the same time – a focus on natural elements, not just how they’re used in the dishes and drinks, but how they create natural elements out of their craft.”
Gooi and his wife were delighted with the nomination, but their excitement doubled with a second round of phone-buzzing – Food Talkies had been nominated for another category, Visual and Technical Excellence.
“It’s a really prestigious category, which was won last year by Netflix’s acclaimed Chef’s Table,” said Gooi.
“It’s truly an honour, humbling and exciting at once!”
Gooi sees food as powerfully tied in with memories, flavoured with emotion; and what we eat in the present, can bring our past back to us.
“So much of my own life story revolves around food, family gatherings, meeting with friends – and I would like for my children to grow up with their own memories of such,” said Gooi.
“It’s important to remind people, in a world where life moves fast, that it’s good to slow down, sit down and eat together. As Malaysians, we’ve done that extremely well through the years, and it’s definitely something to uphold in years to come.”
Gooi grew up in Subang Jaya, eventually going to study civil engineering at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona in 2005.
He graduated in 2008 and clocked in five years as an engineer in Phoenix. But the dream to make movies, sown in childhood, smouldered through the years.
“When I was nine, I watched this TV show called Movie Magic, which explored the behind-the-scenes and visual effects of various Hollywood films,” said Gooi. “The effort, thoughtfulness and collaboration it took to create the visual for the audience really impacted me.”
Fascinated by what went on behind the camera, a young Gooi started reading film books to learn about the craft.
“Throughout my college and uni years, at Inti College in Subang Jaya and at Northern Arizona University, I learned filmmaking on the side.
“I picked up film books at the library and bookstore, reading how Francis Ford Coppola came to make The Godfather, what struggles he went through. While watching movies, I would pause every so often and pay attention to what the camera was doing, what emotions were displayed on screen,” he said.
At home, he owned a tiny point-and-shoot camera, and would make “silly but fun” videos, with brother Philip and sister Sharon, and his friends, acting scenes out for him.
“Their support was a huge part of me wanting to pursue filmmaking – they are such a sweet part of my life story, and films are ultimately about telling stories.”
While working as an engineer, Gooi met Elise, who was born in Seattle; they were married in 2011.
“She’s always been so supportive. When we met in 2009, the US economy was spiralling into a recession, and there was no indication I could be a filmmaker apart from how passionate I was about learning! But we talked about how me taking this dive would require a first step,” he said.
They bought a better-quality camera and offered to make videos for free for businesses in Phoenix; slowly but surely, some of these turned into paid projects.
In 2013, he decided to work as a freelance filmmaker for a year. In 2014, with Elise expecting their first child, he went to work as a video producer for the marketing team of Sprouts Farmers Market, a growing supermarket company.
“It was in my last year there that I started creating culinary films, eventually branding them as Food Talkies,” he said.
In 2015, Gooi was in Haiti, shooting a short documentary for Sprouts. He got a call from his mother – his father had contracted dengue, and his health was rapidly declining.
“I rushed back home, and the doctor was telling us that we might have to face the possibility of losing him,” said Gooi. Miraculously, his father recovered, but the incident led to Gooi re-examining his priorities.
“I wanted to be able to spend more time with my family in Malaysia, but still provide for my wife and son,” he said. “I had already made a handful of food films that had gotten traction nationally through sites like Slate, Gizmodo and Vimeo, so I resigned from Sprouts, started creating more content for Food Talkies and freelanced on the side.”
“Through my food films, I’ve been able to find an audience that identifies with the people we document. I think films are most powerful when people identify with those storylines and words.”
Which is probably why one of Gooi’s most powerful films is that of his own grandmother. A few seconds into watching it, and you might realise your own heart has tightened up with emotion. There’s a palpable love in it, and we all have grandmothers, after all.
“I’ve always longed to capture the sight and sound of my grandmother in the kitchen. She helped take care of my siblings and I when we were younger, and was always chopping away in the kitchen, making soups and stews with amazing aromas.
“I was so happy to have documented and preserved a moment in time of my grandmother, and realised how impactful it could be to capture, preserve and share food stories in film.”
Steady hands, open heart
Gooi’s set-up is simple, and he likes it that way for nimbleness and ease of movement.
“That’s how I maintain a sense of comfort and trust with the subject and not be invasive with a large crew and equipment. I need the subjects to be extremely comfortable, because that’s when they’ll share their stories the best,” he said. He also produces most of his own films.
His process often begins with a conversation with his subjects – about utensils and inspiration, ingredients and meaning. This could mean going into the forest at dawn to source mushrooms, or cooking with other chefs. Either way, it’s a means to capture the essence of a subject.
“Right now, I shoot and edit all my work, usually alone. I carry two LED lights, and mostly shoot hand-held – I think I’ve been blessed with steady hands!” he said. He uses a RED Epic camera, one or two lenses that suit the story.
Gooi himself sometimes shows up in his films, as with The Good Luck Dishes, which revolves around auspicious Lunar New Year food, and the film on his grandmother. But he is always shown in profile or in shadow, rather than the clear light his subjects bathe in – his face never fully enters the narrative, though his presence is very much felt. Even more so since he prepared the food for The Good Luck Dishes himself!
“Over the last five to seven years, highly cinematic qualities and slow motion imagery have become the technique that suits culinary films really well,” said Gooi. “It’s done well in shows like Chef’s Table, Jiro Dreams of Sushi and has most definitely worked with Food Talkies.
“There’s an emphasis on the steps and care that goes into good food when you film in slow motion. With cinematic qualities like dramatic lighting, it helps highlight even more what you’d like your audience to focus on.”
In The Good Luck Dishes, the camera lingers lovingly on glistening fish, dumplings being folded, a single red date bouncing slightly in still-liquid nian gao; in Homeboy, the pace picks up slightly as Jacob Cutino of Homeboy Hot Sauce, talks about finding himself via his craft and picks out hot, sweet peppers to go into his sauce.
As effective as the cinematic techniques are, they also provide a challenge to the filmmaker. The audience can become jaded watching too much slow motion imagery, so every film must be underscored by a solid storyline, as it was with Elements.
“It was absolutely mind-blowing. For Smoke, to see, feel and smell the dishes brought up to a whole new level because of this smoking technique.
“In Ice, to see the intense detail that goes into making a pure sphere of ice, and the purity of a cocktail enhanced by that ice.
“With Earth, to walk in the forest with the chefs, climbing hills for grape leaves and seeing how foraged ingredients come together in an absolutely delicious dish because of the chef’s vision.
“With Air, seeing the passion of a beekeeper who focuses on preserving bees, because he knows how important they are to our crops and food.
“In Water, seeing a brewer work with the less ideal water flavours in Arizona to create amazing beer that mirrors those brewed in their home countries.
And lastly, with Fire, a chef who builds his entire kitchen and menu on the basis of using special fire techniques to cook – it takes courage to do such a thing,” said Gooi.
“Another big challenge we face is that food traditions are increasingly and rapidly being replaced by so much automation and machinery,” he added. Increasingly, he comes upon stories of food once crafted by hand, now made by machines in a factory.
“I’m not saying that everyone has to go back and do things the way it was done 50, 100 years ago – but what responsibility are we taking to preserve such traditions? I value that so much that it’s a guiding point with finding stories – how to help preserve a tradition.”
Good food and great stories are everywhere
With his focus on preserving tradition, Gooi is hoping to cast out the tendrils of collaboration over here in Malaysia to do just that.
“Malaysia has always been known for its great food, but I don’t think the preservation of stories has been done on a large scale. I hope I can collaborate with passionate individuals to do so.
“There’s so much colour and culture in Malaysia, so many stories to tell. But the times that I’ve attempted to film here, few have been open to it, with many saying they don’t feel like their story is worth it – but I see powerful stories, ready to inspire others.
Gooi is just the man to recognise the worth of a story. He’s used to working with the underestimated.
“Phoenix isn’t as old as many other US cities, so many people think it’s not a great food city. But there are many amazing chefs who are paving the way for future generations of amazing food, and when I featured chefs from Arizona, I never said exactly where they were from – and people would ask if they’re from Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York,” said Gooi.
“With the James Beard nomination especially, stories in Arizona have now risen to the national stage and shown the country what can come from there.
“I really hope we left Arizona better than we found it when it comes to food stories.”