The Story of NYC, One Meal (and One Minute) at a Time

November  3, 2017

A gay Syrian refugee spoons a browned eggplant onto rice at a pop-up dinner in downtown Manhattan. He tells of his journey to safety, to acceptance. Shantel Walker, a fast food worker rallies a crowd of protesters, she and her colleagues demanding change in their industry. A restaurant owner in Bushwick confronts the difficult realities of gentrification in the neighborhood she feeds.

These are just some of the stories James Boo holds a lens to in his digital documentary series One Minute Meal. He’s amassed an online collection, a virtual portrait of New York City in stories told by, for, or around food. Through him, a culinary mapping of those who cook and those who call this place home. Each episode teeters at around a minute—perfectly styled for the social media age. Yet something feels different about Boo's quick content. Don’t expect a fast-paced feature of the next rainbow delight, or shock and awe profiles of some new food phenomena. Instead, prepare yourself for a patient and honest look at the role food plays in NYC, told with a level of intimacy and charisma not often found in digital food content.

In this sense, Boo’s approach to food storytelling is unconventional, he focuses on people, not necessarily restaurants: “I make a really big point of going outside of the restaurant space because then people recognize that food does have all these different spaces where people have built different relationships around it,” he told me over the phone.

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Boo began his career in food writing but shifted to documentary when he realized the form was better suited to the type of storytelling he craved: one focused on the human narrative.

Pop up dinners, community kitchens, and even garbage heaps are the places on which Boo trains his camera. His works form a mosaic, a buffet of stories from across a city. Representation is important in Boo’s work—and it shows. The subjects he chooses span cultures, cuisines, flavors, neighborhoods, budgets, colors.

“Every time a story gets added to this collection I ask ‘where does it take shape in the whole picture?’” Boo is adamant that his selection process take into account many factors: “I’m very mindful of keeping track of the distribution geographically, who is being represented. It’s not me saying I want this percentage of this many people, it’s more [that] I’m always aware of who we’ve got, so what does it mean for the decisions I make.”

One Minute Meal recently debuted its third season, all of which is available to view for free online. When I spoke to Boo he was reveling in his recent success at the Brooklyn Web Fest, where his third season took home the award for Best Reality or Documentary Series.

Boo continues to seek subjects for his series, scanning New York for those who eat, cook or feed people in ways we might otherwise overlook. His pitch to potential interviewees is the perfect distillation of his mission: “We’re not reviewing your food, we want to know more about your life and we want people to see how many different kinds of lives are in New York City.”

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Valerio is a freelance food writer, editor, researcher and cook. He grew up in his parent's Italian restaurants covered in pizza flour and drinking a Shirley Temple a day. Since, he's worked as a cheesemonger in New York City and a paella instructor in Barcelona. He now lives in Berlin, Germany where he's most likely to be found eating shawarma.