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Synchronicity and Serendipity: Director Tomas Reyes Discusses Documentary, ‘Beyond Food’

Reyes talks with PopMatters about the motivations and ambitions for creating Beyond Food and the evolution of American attitudes toward food and health.

Beyond Food (2017) follows chef Tomas Reyes and his co-director Juan Paredes on a journey across the US to challenge mainstream health advice. Their road trip is documented through in-depth interviews with a diverse group of people, including amongst others: Big wave surfer Laird Hamilton, actress Mariel Hemingway, businessman and author David Asprey, President and founder of Biocybernaut Institute, Inc Dr. James V. Hardt, neurochemist Steven Fowkes, neuropsychologist Mario Martinez and physician, exercise physiologist and health strategist Dr. Justin Mager. In citing its challenge, Beyond Food paints a picture of individual empowerment through food and a broader healthy lifestyle.

Private chef and founder of Delicious Thought, Reyes also serves as Director of Research and Content for a Think Tank exploring regenerative practices in agriculture, food production, soil management, medicine and ecological anthropology. In conversation with PopMatters, he discusses the motivations and ambitions for the documentary, while reflecting on the evolution of attitudes towards health that have led to an individual freedom to pursue a creative lifestyle.

What was the motivation behind the documentary?

We had a very clear motivation to tell a complete story of what amazing health looks like today in the US, or at least attempt to do that. The specific goal was to move the conversation of most food and health documentaries away from pushing the dietician agenda, or scaring the audience one more time. Instead, it was to paint a picture of how there is this group of very different people living amazingly healthy lives, and each with their own unique approach.

There is only one health, yet it is so individual because it feels very similar to each one of us. When you feel healthy you don’t feel tired, you’re not sick and you don’t have brain fog. There are all these similarities of what it feels to be healthy, but creating that level of health for each one of us is completely different. I’m sure your health is completely different to my health, and so is the way we get there. From the beginning that was the main driving force.

I’ve perceived a shift in the emphasis placed on a healthy diet and lifestyle over the years, and there’s now a growing focus to create a conversation around mental health, which is impacted by lifestyle choices. How do you think the social perception towards health has changed over recent decades?

Dramatically! I think we’ve changed so much as a society, and even globally from what we experienced at the end of the 20h century, to where we are now. That goes along with the story of the documentary, which is called Beyond Food, because if you want to experience amazing health, then you don’t just eat well. Some people are obsessed with pushing one diet and saying that’s what makes you healthy. But as you were saying, being healthy has to do with your mental and emotional health.

I feel it’s part of a global movement of reconnecting with nature and cycles, and having a more dynamic relationship with our life as opposed to a cookie cutter relationship. This is what we saw happen in the second half of the 20th century, where the majority of people had nine to five jobs, were subject to a certain lifestyle and if you were different, you were either a rock star or some maverick crazy person. Today I feel there’s a little more acceptance and people are more open to being free, creating their own lifestyle and managing their own time — being a little more creative with their own life. I feel having that brings a tremendous amount of pleasure, as opposed to having something that is more rigid and imposed.

Picking up on your use of the word pleasure, my own pursuit of a healthier lifestyle has led me to realise that a more proactive engagement with food, health, and lifestyle can be a source of pleasure. This is something I sense in others who spend time cooking and preparing their own food rather than buying processed meals. Yet is there still a stigma attached to a healthy lifestyle that goes beyond food?

Absolutely, and because we are complete hybrids and there’s no diet for every single one of us. This is exactly the point that we are trying to communicate. I’m a multicultural and genetic hybrid; we are all mixed and live in different places. We travel around the world and therefore our gut bacteria gets inoculated with all these different foods from around the world.

The first documentaries like Food, Inc. (2008) were so important. If people haven’t seen that they must watch it because it exposes the reality of feedlot meat production in the US, which is completely unacceptable in my view. It’s slavery and it’s damaging to the lives of the animals and the environment — the same for agriculture.

But essentially there’s a journey, a sense of adventure in the discovery of your own health that’s filled with pleasure. If you start experimenting and you move away from the fear of, Oh my God, I need to do this diet and you just listen to how your body feels, because if I feel bloated or I wake up and I feel tired, then I’m not going to eat that again. But if you’re not experimenting, then you’re not having fun.

Once you start replacing all that fear and judgment with curiosity, and you are able to enjoy the process, then I’m sure if you have tried Paul, you discover levels of mental clarity or lightness, physical strength or energy that you didn’t know you had. It’s like someone Photoshopped reality. There’s so much more contrast and saturation, where everything looks or feels more lively. But there’s a lot of work to do in that department to take the conversation to a higher level.

In UK state schools, foreign languages are only taught in secondary education, as is cooking. I often question why neither are a part of a primary education curriculum, as these are the ideal years to learn a language and begin experimenting with food.

I grew up in Paris, and the best memories I have from childhood are those three weeks of the year around May to June when we’d travel somewhere in France. We would have half a day of class and half a day of discovering the local crafts and food, the landscape and the farms, how ingredients were grown and cheeses were made, or even how to sail. Those are some of my most precious memories from elementary school. They definitely marked me and were fun times when I reconnected with nature.

It’s in our relationship as human beings to nature that we create beautiful things. Nature doesn’t make a spectacular meal, that’s what we humans do. Nature provides the amazing ingredients, the raw material.

Looking back on the experience of making Beyond Food, how did your expectations compare to the realties of the experience?

Well, we didn’t really have specific expectations other than our overarching objectives. It was a project that started and was driven by synchronicity and serendipity. I was in New York doing research on food and health, and my co-director Juan was in LA doing research on biohacking. We met in LA and thought, no one is telling this story that is so important — we need to do this now. He had just divorced and I was ready to leave New York, so we thought: Lets do it, and so we started e-mailing and calling all the people we had been researching.

If we had planned it and fundraised, then it would probably not have worked out as well or gone as smoothly with everyone we wanted to talk to. We were curious what they had to say about how they create amazing health, and they said: “Yeah, come on over. Let’s sit down.” We had great conversations and the challenge in terms of expectations was that we expected the editing of the documentary to be easier. We had 40 hours of footage with 30 people, and only 12 people made it to the final cut in order for us tell this story the right way. So I could do it again and I do hope to continue with this work, and there will probably be other series’ rather than just this one documentary.

Have you observed any geographical patterns to the ideas or attitudes towards food and health across the US?

Well, we in a way skipped the Midwest, which is the area that’s more famous for not having such great food, or being so health driven. So we were mostly in New York and West Palm Beach, Miami on the East Coast, Montreal, Canada, then Seattle, San Francisco, LA, and Phoenix. What was interesting was we went to Idaho to visit this grass-fed beef ranch, which was fascinating because those ranchers are foresters by trade, who then became ranchers. They wanted to create a classic beef ranch that was as wild as possible. Over the years they’ve changed the way they raise their cows, letting the cows choose which grass to graze on — they are 100 percent grass fed. It ‘s such a beautiful ecosystem and when you see that, you realise what’s wrong with feedlots, which is the other extreme.

On the road, it’s very challenging to eat the way you want, and you have to step up and remind yourself that you can ask for certain things, and make choices that are good for you. But it was a journey and an adventure, and there was nothing else going on in our lives so we would sometimes choose not to stop at a restaurant on the freeway, but stop at a supermarket and buy some ingredients and improvise a salad. It was all very dynamic and in the US in general, there’s a beautiful movement to reconnect with good food — seasonal ingredients, local organic food or even bio-dynamic vegetables that is so important for this country. I know the mainstream population in the middle of the US and some other places are still struggling, but that’s always changing, and I’m very optimistic about it.

You speak of the film as a journey. What are your hopes for the film as it engages with an audience?

Firstly, I hope the documentary is an inspiration, and it has been an inspiration for many people in terms of being a breath of fresh air. The question everyone is left with is: ‘So what do I do now?’ My invitation is for the audience to see that you don’t have to look outside and ask for some guru to tell you what to eat, but rediscover your own relationship with your food. Clearly, there are a few base elements you need to research and to learn why you shouldn’t eat this or that, but we live in an amazing time in which knowledge is vast.

There are so many people doing great work not only with food but in science, making discoveries about the human body. It’s a fascinating time to be alive and it’s also a time of personal empowerment when you can know all about food, make your own choices and order amazing ingredients online — it’s just a click. It’s not only a growing knowledge of the foods that are going to help you support your health. Moving forward it’s this exploration — because it’s accelerating the discovery of science — that’s reconnecting with nature and ancient knowledge. It’s a great story, and there’s so much education and exciting work to be done around the subject.

Beyond Food is available on VOD courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.