What Started As A Film About Her Mom Became A Docu About The Lack Of Women In The Culinary World

In a world where everyone is a foodie thanks to awesome Instagram filters, and our digital streaming platforms are filled to the brim with highly-produced food documentary series’, this film gets to the heart of one of the biggest things missing in the culinary world – women. Specifically, female head chefs and restaurateurs.

‘A Fine Line’ is a feature length documentary about women who have broken barriers in the culinary world while also exploring the stark lack of women in leadership. The film was directed and created by Joanna James, a media professional and co-creator of Aliana Productions, as well as food lover, based out of New York City. Her initial idea for ‘A Fine Line’ was very different to what the finished product is today.

In an interview with Catherine Smart for The Boston Globe, Joanna says she began working on the film 3 years ago while she was pregnant with her first child.

“Initially, it was just going to be a story on my mother, but then I was shocked — being born into the restaurant industry — to not know that less than 7 percent of chef-restaurant owners are women. I just saw my mother doing it so well, and just loving it, that I just never would have thought that,” she said.

Yeah you read that right, 7 percent…

When she began filming her mother Valerie at her restaurant Val’s Restaurant & Lounge and learning more about her story, it opened up her eyes to the wider problem within the restaurant industry.

“Obviously the restaurant industry isn’t the only industry that has really low numbers [of women in leadership positions], so we use that as an example across the board to really talk about a lot of things, like equal pay for equal work, and paid parental leave, things of that nature,” she said.

Joanna and her production team, which included Executive Producer Anastasia Ganias and Cinematographer Katy Jordan, launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2015 and raised just over $60,000 which gave them the means to film in 6 locations on the East Coast, complete post production, and create marketing and promotional materials thereafter.

The 4 minute teaser trailer that has been released really whets your appetite (pun intended!) to learn more about this issue, specially at a time when women’s rights in the workforce and gender equality are major issues socially, politically, and economically in the United States.

It features 3 Michelin Star chefs, one ‘Iron Chef’ winner, and 2 women who you may recognize if you are a fan of Netflix’s ‘Chef’s Table’ series – Dominique Crenn and Nancy Silverton. The women Joanna and her team interviewed, along with her mom Valerie, are a wide variety of ages and bring a very diverse culinary palate to the restaurant world with their various cultural backgrounds including Greek and Italian cuisine. But they all have one thing in common – they refused to heed the “no’s” they were given when trying to get their careers started.

“People tried to pick on me because I was female, and so I had to work harder to show them that I could be at their level,” said 2x Michelin star chef Dominique Crenn. We’d like to add that she has exceeded MANY of her peers’ level throughout her career so far!

In their Kickstarter campaign description, the production team broke down the major disconnect happening for women and the restaurant industry. While there is some slow progress being made in a number of male-dominated industries, women still only make up 19% of engineers, 20% of US Congress, 25% of the technology sector, and only 15% of executive chefs. But while the former industries mentioned have deep roots in male domination, you’d think the food industry would see more women in leadership.

“One of the more striking male dominated industries, where the inequality gap is perhaps the MOST PREVALENT, is within the CULINARY world. 15% of Executive Chefs are Women. A stark irony when compared to the longstanding tradition within households — across cultures — where women have always been the central character in the kitchen. Yet the transition from household to professional kitchen has been painfully lacking. Why?” the campaign asks.

In the trailer for ‘A Fine Line’, James Beard Foundation President Susan Ungaro exposes the breakdown even further.

“Over half of the graduates of culinary schools are women, yet less than 7% of women own restaurant business in [the United States],” she said.

We are starting to see growth in this area, especially over the past decade, but there is still a long way to go.

“Between 2007 and 2012, the number of women-owned restaurants jumped by 40 percent, and today 33 percent of American restaurants are majority owned by women. Another 15 percent are equally co-owned by women and men,” said Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association a year ago.

But one of the major issues that women in the culinary world, and indeed across the American workforce in general, face is the lack of paid leave as a national policy, protecting women’s careers long term and allowing them to progress without “penalties”.

“For instance, when a woman is doing well on the job but then decides she is going to have a child or start a family, she is no longer someone that they can rely on, someone who will excel in their field. Some restaurateurs are hesitant to even hire women at a later stage of life. And so this keeps sort of perpetuating. I think it’s something we’ve all been talking about for the past however many years, but it’s just come to the forefront recently with a lot of women of today’s generation trying to figure out how they can do this,” said Joanna.

FYI, America is the only industrialized nation in the world not to have any form of federal paid family leave law, but US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn) have plans to reintroduce the Family And Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act. This bill guarantees workers at least two-thirds pay for up to 12 weeks when they take time off for their own health conditions—including pregnancy and childbirth—or to care for others. They are building on legislation which already exists in California, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and soon New York (January 2018).

Throughout the interweaving of all the women’s stories featured in the film is the story of Joanna’s mom Valerie, bringing the issue to a very personal perspective for the filmmaker, and any viewers who have seen their own mothers work in this industry. Joanna believes it is important to share stories of these pioneer women if we ever hope to see increased change in the status quo for future generations of female chefs.

“I think we do have to acknowledge what the women before us went through and what they were up against, and that we are standing on their shoulders. We need to talk about these things and lobby for changes that are reasonable and logical but will make a world of difference,” she told The Boston Globe.

With the film finally finished, Aliana Productions are yet to announce screening dates but have started showing ‘A Fine Line’ to selected audiences, most recently at the “Farm to Fork to Film” event in the Boston Public Market, where viewers also got to hear a Q&A with some local female chefs. Proceeds from ticket sales went to the film’s campaign for workplace equality and paid parental leave.

We highly encourage you to follow Aliana Productions on Facebook and Twitter as they release information about future screening dates, as well as their website. In the meantime, you can view the teaser trailer below, and allow the messages you hear be food for thought when you are next watching shows about chefs or the restaurant industry in general.


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