New Documentary, A Fine Line, Explores the Challenges Faced by Women Chefs & Restaurateurs

Filmmaker Joanna James originally set out to make a movie about her restaurateur mom, Valerie (Val) James and the hurdles she faced as a female business owner. The rise of the hashtagged #MeToo movement in 2017 inspired James to go back into production and rework the film to consider the broader cultural implications and structural barriers faced by all women in the restaurant business. The resulting movie, A Fine Line, tells their story. We spoke with Joanna to learn more about how the filmmaker drew inspiration from her mother, Val, and explored the hurdles women chefs and restaurateurs face when building a restaurant business.

The statistic you present near the start of the film, that only seven percent of chef/restaurant owners in the United States are women, is shocking.

That is at the heart of what our film is about. When we set out to make the film more than four years ago, it was to be an inspiring, uplifting story, especially about my mom, Val, and all the things she faced. We wanted to show that even though female chefs faced all these obstacles, the spirit and passion for what they were doing helped them to achieve great success.

How did what happened with #MeToo change your film?

The film was finished before #MeToo happened. It didn’t sit right with me so we went back out and adjusted the movie. We really showed another side of the industry – how women have to double-prove themselves. But the heart of film looks at what was needed for these women to get ahead and how none of these women would take “no” for an answer.

This is your first film. What made you decide to become a filmmaker?

My background was news reporting. As you know, it has been a rough time in the industry. I went back to school for international communications but always loved films.  Making a movie felt like a far-off dream. I thought about writing a book about my mom but realized words alone would not do my mother’s story justice. She was so motivating to so many people and I felt she needed to tell her own story and film was the right format, to really see her energy and personality.

Some of the issues you bring up while interviewing your mom are intensely personal. That cannot have been easy for you to witness.

My mom put it all out there for us. She did a five-hour interview and I saw how raw she was. It really made an impression. That interview was shortly after Time Magazine’s The Gods of Foods [in 2013] and you may remember the article failed to include any women chefs. Not one. It was motivating. People were like ‘enough is enough, what about us.’ Restaurants are an industry where everyone is in the weeds every day, concerned with their daily operations, but that story in Time really woke people up that what was happening in the industry wasn’t right.

Later in the film, you introduce us to Dennis Coy, a corporate finance broker.  He talked about a problem within banking, that the authority to lend money now falls to a committee or an autonomous board who know nothing about the borrower. This group just sees a credit score and an income/expense ratio when making the decision to lend.

We wanted to show that finance is a form of gate-keeping. It doesn’t matter how hard you work, there are these major barriers for women and others.

It felt strange to watch this because the food industry is often held up as a model example of diversity and boot-strapping your way into the middle class.

The industry is large and diverse, that’s true. But when you get into ownership and management, it’s less diverse. The lack of access to capital and lack of media coverage or paid family leave or lack of mentorship are all real issues that women and others face, even in a diverse industry like restaurants. We are really exploring this, sorting out what needs to be done to shift the dial.

It goes back to that seven percent stat from early in the film.

Right. You think you have a talent and a skill and can get ahead. But the reality is, most women are not owners or executive chefs. Financing is a big issue. Less than 4% of venture capital is going to women-owned businesses.

Maybe there needs to be more micro-lending or women-led lending organizations.

More Kickstarters?

Technology can tear down some of these systemic barriers. My mom used a credit card to open her first restaurant. That financing choice can affect the course of your career. If you are always in the hole and always paying off debt, can’t go where you are going. Burn out is a problem too. The question is: how do you create more paths to leadership?

Some of this is generational, too. There is an important part of the movie where your mom talks about her frustration with the patriarchal system of inheritance her parents followed, leaving her with nothing.

It is a bias [to hand down a business to the male heir], My grandparents did not do that out of malice. They thought they were doing the right thing, that they were protecting her from the headaches of the business. Those should be the responsibility of the man in the family. Her parents realized that was wrong. By the time I was older and my mom had gone out on her own, they saw it was wrong and they realized that women have the same rights and opportunities.

I loved the advice Lidia Bastianich’s pediatrician gave her when she was a young mother struggling with wanting both a home life and an outside the home work life, that “children want happy parents. Make it happen.”

At one time, there was a lot of mom shaming and you shouldn’t dare to want something more for your personal fulfillment than the home. Today, more women are seeing that kind of fulfillment and grappling with the guilt of working outside the home. I thought it was so important to see that from Lidia, who is so accomplished and who started her career decades ago.

Why include the Escoffier dinner in the film?

[Auguste] Escoffier had such a huge role in the modern landscape of food and I felt it was important to get into that history a little bit. I also had to be cognizant of the larger story and weave that in with the central narrative which was my mother’s story. The Escoffier dinner she hosted was a big milestone in her career.

In the final credits, you thank many people and organizations. Was Women Make Movies a fiscal sponsor?

Women Make Movies was a fiscal sponsor. They are a great resource in New York. We did the grassroots way of getting this made – fundraising parties, women who knew women who volunteered time or said “I’ll get some food” and someone else bringing wine. We were  able to raise a lot of money that way. There were no big investors.

What would you like viewers to get out of the film?

The film tells some inspiring stories and women across the country can use it as motivation for what they are doing. I feel grateful to finish it and use it as a call to action to others to spark these important conversations around how to get more women into leadership.

Where can we see the film?

We start an 11-state tribute tour in March with special guests at each stop.

Lidia Bastianich will be at our first event on March 1 at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. We want to honor women who have done great things in the field and recognize local farmers and restaurateurs by having them on panels in each state.

Tour dates and locations include Boston, Chicago, Savannah, Denver, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. Find out more here :

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