In 2022, Twin Cities filmmaker Daniel Klein jumped from his freelance work on the documentary series Perennial Plate to join Masienda — a company, founded by Jorge Gaviria, that supplies heirloom corn and masa to chefs and home cooks — as creative director for video content. One year in, his Masienda films have earned two 2023 James Beard nominations in the commercial media category.
One nomination is for the web series Masienda Presents, which delves into the stories of the cooks, farmers, and chefs that partner with Masienda. The series features Minneapolis’s own chef Gustavo Romero, who helped catalyze a local heirloom corn tortilla renaissance when he opened Nixta Tortilleria & Mexican Takeout in 2020. Preparing masa in Nixta’s neat kitchen, Romero recalls the fresh, handmade tortillas of his childhood in Hidalgo, Mexico, and his quest to bring nixtamalized tortillas to Minneapolis, preserving Mexican foodways through the careful boiling and soaking of pink, yellow, and slate-blue heirloom corn kernels.
Other shorts feature tlayudas — huge, almost pizza-like Oaxacan tortillas — prepared fresh on the streets of South Central LA; the family pozole rojo recipe of Ana Castro, chef and owner of New Orleans’ Lengua Madre; Honduran tortilla mavens Hellen and Dayanara Villafranca of East Austin restaurant Suerte; and other subjects. Though, strictly speaking, the videos are commercial, they function more as artful mini-documentaries, capturing both the traditions of heirloom corn and masa and its more recent renaissance in restaurants and home kitchens.
Klein’s second James Beard nomination is for the short film Las Chicatanas, which gives a rare glimpse into the harvest of chicatanas, a Oaxacan ant delicacy. Chicatanas are harvested just once a year late at night, flashlight in one hand and bag in the other. “Our crew in Oaxaca was very unprepared because the ants bite,” says Klein. “It’s recommended to wear high boots or to put your feet in buckets of water so you don’t get attacked. It has to be done at night, so most of the film was shot at 3 a.m. to 4 a.m.” The chicatanas are roasted on a comal and eaten as a snack with Mezcal, served as tacos, or made into a smoky salsa and spread on tortillas.
Klein shares the nominations with his Masienda colleagues Jorge Gaviria, Yazmín Ramírez, and Hallie Davidson. It’s not his first recognition by the Beards — Perennial Plate is a two-time winner. “I’m so happy that these films, which are really unconventional for a small company like Masienda to invest in, are getting recognized,” says Klein. “Instead of going for influencers filming their food with their phones (no offense), we dove in and celebrated the stories behind the chefs, cooks and farmers who work with us. I feel very lucky to get to tell these stories.”