This Documentary Explores the Lack of Women Leaders in the Culinary Industry
Filmmaker Joanna James explores sexism and success with A Fine Line.
Photo by Robert Featherstone
In March, filmmaker Joanna James kicked off an 11-state tour with a screening of her documentary, A Fine Line, which examines why less than seven percent of head chefs and restaurant owners are women. Featuring interviews with renowned chefs like Bastianich, April Bloomfield (formerly of The Spotted Pig), Cat Cora (First Female Iron Chef Champion), Barbara Lynch (James Beard Outstanding Restaurateur), and Carrie Nahabedian (Michelin star chef), A Fine Line follows the story of James’ mother, Valerie James, owner of Val’s Restaurant in Holden, Massachusetts.
Over the course of her career, Val endured challenges that women across all industries will recognize: financial discrimination, a lack of mentorship, and a nonexistent work life balance. A Fine Line addresses these all-too-familiar problems, as well as broader issues the industry has grappled with recently, including sexual harassment, media representation, and more.
A former investigative reporter, Joanna James makes her directorial debut with A Fine Line. We spoke with her about what the origins of this project, why this is an exciting time for women, and how to equalize the restaurant industry moving forward.
Have you ever been to the Hudson Valley before?
Joanna James: Yes, many times. I actually really enjoy the Hudson Valley. We have family that lives in the area there. We’ve spent many times in Hudson and Rhinebeck, so we really love it.
Hudson and Rhinebeck are great. Good dining locations, too.
JJ: Yeah, exactly. And that’s why I’m really happy that our New York premiere is happening at the CIA, because we did want to make it a community event. We’re including local restaurateurs and chefs in the pre-screening wine and appetizers reception, so we feature some of their cuisine, and we really just like to recognize some of the local talent when we do these screenings across the country.
Joanna James and Valerie James / Photo provided by Joanna James
How did the idea for this documentary first come about?
JJ: Basically, I was inspired to share my mom’s story. Growing up and seeing all that she went through as a working woman, let alone as a working mother, I just was always impressed by the sacrifices she was making for my brother and I, and yet staying firm to her dreams to open a restaurant and now 30 years later running it successfully.
I wanted to share her story, but when I looked more into it and did a little research, I was shocked to find out that less than seven percent of head chefs and restaurant owners are women. So we opened it up and decided to speak with all these world-renowned chefs and hear their experiences and how they worked their careers. It’s been really eye opening, because a lot of the findings that we’ve discovered really apply across all industries in terms of this disparity of leadership.
It’s a very striking statistic. And the opening credit in your film is a Bloomberg News quote that says, “It is easier for woman to become a CEO than a head chef.” Why is it that women are so undervalued in the restaurant industry specifically, when traditionally they’ve fulfilled that role in the kitchen at home?
JJ: Well, when you watch the film, you see there are many reasons. But one thing that happens a lot of times in male-dominated industries — whether it’s the kitchen and the culinary industry or the tech industry — is that it’s very unwelcoming to women. And for a long time — now it’s getting better obviously in today’s world that we live in — but for the longest time, it was just many men who kept running their kitchen in an archaic way to be honest. They didn’t want women to be there. And that’s why you would see these token women who happened to make it, but it was very few and far between. And then you add in other factors like the job just didn’t permit for a working parent, never mind a woman.
You started this project 2014. When did you wrap production?
JJ: We wrapped production in 2017. Maybe even a little earlier than that. And then what happened that really brought this to life and [made it] even more relevant to today was the #MeToo movement.
We were already done with the film. We had an edited, locked film. We had already done the film festival circuit. But it just didn’t sit right with me to not address it. Especially regarding the culinary industry with what was happening there. So I decided to do a very costly and time-consuming endeavor and open a locked picture, which isn’t easy, but I’m really happy with that decision because it made the film much more relevant and rich to the women’s stories.
How did the initial version of the film compare with the final version after taking into account the #MeToo movement?
JJ: We kept most of the storyline very similar after #MeToo. It was just a matter of taking that into consideration and addressing it. I think especially sharing a chef’s story who was very vulnerable and raw, and she was so forthcoming with what she went through 30 years prior. I think it made everything feel more full-circle.
A Fine Line filmmaker and stars / Photo provided by Joanna James
A lot of media sources have said the past few years have been a watershed moment for women. After speaking with your sources and subjects, does it feel that way to you as well?
JJ: Oh definitely. It’s the modern movement for women. It’s taken up a lot of different factors, whether it’s sexual harassment in the workplace, whether it’s equal pay for equal work, whether it’s on the personal front — which is also very important to have supportive family structures, so you can do what you love and feel like you’ve got that help at home. To have all of these conversations happening at the same time, and for women who are taking it all in, I think it’s making a huge difference. And we see it. We literally see it in the Congress. To have the most elected women in the House, that’s so affirming.
But that being said, I do think there’s a lot of work left. The fact that the U.S. is the only developed country that does not offer paid family leave, that makes a huge difference for a women’s trajectory in her career. I think this is the beginning of something really great to come, but I think we all need to be vigilant about it. Because last year the number of women CEOs at Fortune 500 companies actually went down. The year prior was 26 percent. Last year it went down to 17 percent because a few women retired and none were there to take those spots.
In the movie, a lot of chefs point to food media as playing a critical role in kind of opening up additional opportunities for female chefs. What other steps you think are necessary to decrease that disparity in the kitchen moving forward?
JJ: I think it’s important for number one, the women ourselves in the industry to take time. Because it’s hard, it’s such a hard job, especially if you’re an owner as well. You’re talking about managing staff, operating costs, expenses. Then let alone the daily operations and the menu, there’s just so much. So a lot of these women that I would talk to said they just didn’t have the time to look up, let alone think about publicity or think about networking. But that is also very important because as you get out there and go to these conferences or network with other women who had been doing it, you can prevent yourself from making mistakes or learn a new or better way of doing something. So, I think it’s important that these organizations like SheChef and Women in Hospitality United really make themselves front and center, very accessible and available to women in this industry.
What role can men play in helping to equalize the field?
JJ: I’m glad you asked that because we really think it’s important for men to embrace this discussion as well. I think a big part of why people are in the culinary industry and what they love about it is the sense of camaraderie. Obviously, that’s between men and women, so I think mentorship is really huge, and making a very welcoming environment so that woman don’t think they don’t belong.
Of course, all the big things that you would imagine: no room for sexual assault and harassment, or an undignified working atmosphere. But I think for the most part, aside from those places that had those types of hostile environments, the kitchen can be a very equalizer type of place, as long as we just sort of all work together.
There was one part of the film that said a lot of young culinary students are not necessarily entering the restaurant industry after school and going into catering instead because of that [hostile] work environment.
JJ: Exactly, and restaurants are feeling that. So I think that’s why they’re realizing they have to change and adapt, which is very doable. I mean a lot of these issues that we’re talking about, there’s a lot of restaurants that have done that and they’re thriving and they’re doing great. But ones that just don’t want to change their business model, I think they’re really just eventually going to expire. It’s just not going to work anymore.
I see it firsthand with my mom. She’s not a huge restaurant chain. She doesn’t have seven restaurants, she has one restaurant. It’s pretty large, she’s got about 50 employees, but that being said, even though she’s sort of a mom-and-pop establishment, she runs it very intuitive and up to date in the sense of the benefits she offers her employees.
What do you hope students entering the industry will take away from your event at the Culinary Institute of America next month?
JJ: What I hope they take away from it is not only to be inspired to enter this field and really go for it and give it their all, but to seek the truth of what you’re getting into and know that if it’s something you really want to do, you’re going to face some challenges, but you have to have that passion and resolve to do it.
I just really want them to see everything that the culinary industry embodies. Because today, that’s what’s so exciting to me. It’s not just about opening a restaurant; you see chefs who are on the front lines for issues like immigration or fair wages or environmentalism, and I think that’s what exciting for this generation. That they have so much power as a chef or restaurateur — in their purchasing power and the way they are going to run their own team or be part of a team.
I think it’s a great opportunity for these students to not only see the film, but get to hear from Lidia Bastianich, and to get to enjoy some food first. We really try to make it a fun, inspiring event. We hope the whole community comes out for it.