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Documentary Co-Directed by Former Freep Restaurant Critic Is Nominated for a James Beard Award

The documentary spotlighting a prison culinary training program is also premiering at the DIA’s Detroit Film Theatre

Spoons hanging fin the utility room of Chef Jimmy Lee Hill’s highly regarded culinary training program at Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater, Michigan. Security measures at the prison require daily counts of all equipment used. Chef Hill and his program, which gives incarcerated men new skills and new hope, are part of the feature-length documentary film Coldwater Kitchen, produced by the Detroit Free Press. Photo credit: Brian Kaufman.
All equipment used for the culinary training program at Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater, Mich. — like these spoons — must be accounted for each day, according to the Detroit Free Press
Detroit Free Press
Serena Maria Daniels is the editor for Eater Detroit.

Just hours before its hometown premiere at the 10th annual Freep Film Festival, Coldwater Kitchen, a documentary co-directed by former Detroit Free Press restaurant critic Mark Kurlyandchik, has been named a finalist for a 2023 James Beard Foundation media award. The feature-length documentary debuts Wednesday, April 26 inside the historic Detroit Film Theatre inside the DIA.

Coldwater Kitchen tells the character-driven story of the Food Technology Program at Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater, Michigan, developed over the course of more than 30 years by veteran chef Jimmy Lee Hill to prepare incarcerated individuals for careers working in food service once they’re released — often serving as teacher, mentor, and father figure along the way. The filmmakers were granted access inside the prison, allowing them into the classroom to document the stories of Hill and his three students.

The film is being considered in the Beards’ documentary/docuseries visual media field, which, according to a press release from the foundation, “recognizes excellence in a food-related documentary production, whether broadcast, streamed, accessed online or through an app, or has been shown at a North American film festival.”

“It’s been a really long journey,” Kurlyandchik tells Eater shortly after he was informed of the nomination. “We’ve had a lot of bumps along the road, and things that we thought were going to come through that didn’t didn’t [like] funding — you know, it’s just the trials and tribulations of making a documentary film, especially out of a newspaper. To have it all sort of culminate on one day, it feels like the floodgates have just burst open.”

Kurlyandchik, who holds a masters degree in journalism with a focus on documentary filmmaking from the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, first became aware of Hill’s work in 2018 during his time as the restaurant critic for the Free Press when he was invited to dine at the prison.

Coldwater Kitchen was co-directed and co-written by Brian Kaufman, produced by Nicole Avery Nichols, Steve Byrne, and Kathy Kieliszewski, and executive produced by Desiré Vincent Levy, and the Freep’s former top Peter Bhatia.

Kaufman says he was interested in approaching the project from the point of view of the characters being featured — which he said was a departure for the newspaper’s prior documentary work, which previously included 12th and Clairmount, a historical account of the 1967 Detroit rebellion.

“The biggest joy for me after hearing the James Beard nomination, is we really went after cinematography that was beautiful and not reflective of a typical prison environment,” he says. “It resonated with other people.”

For Kurlyandchik, the filmmaking experience felt like a culmination of all of the previous experiences he’s had in journalism.

“It’s kind of like the perfect intertwining of the worlds that I’ve always sort of dreamed of,” Kurlyandchik says. “On a much on a much more meaningful level, because it’s not a story about restaurants, although it kind of is, you know, it’s really a story about humans making incredible impact on other humans. And that’s ultimately what drives me to be a storyteller.”

The James Beard Foundation announced the full list of nominees for its 2023 media awards on Wednesday morning. The media category includes cookbooks, podcasts, journalism, television, film, and more. The awards ceremony will take place in Chicago on June 5.

On March 29, the James Beards announced its slate of finalists in the restaurant and chef category, during which several southeast Michigan-based restaurants and individuals were nominated, including Hajime Sato of Sozai in Clawson who is in the running in the outstanding chef category; Ann Arbor’s Spencer for Outstanding Wine and Other Beverages; and Omar Anani of Saffron De Twah, Andy Hollyday from Selden Standard, and Sarah Welch of Marrow are all contenders to take home the award for Best Chef in the Great Lakes region, which encompasses Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio.

Disclosure: Some Vox Media staff members are part of the voting body for the James Beard Awards. Eater is partnering with the James Beard Foundation to livestream the awards in 2023.