Joanna James’s documentary ‘A Fine Line’ shines light on the struggles faced by female chefs
In Joanna James’s documentary “A Fine Line,” Barbara Lynch, Lidia Bastianich, April Bloomfield, and other well-known women from the food world detail the challenges they faced on their way to celebrated careers in an industry where fewer than 7 percent of restaurants are helmed by female chefs or owners. But it’s the filmmaker’s mother, Valerie James, owner of Val’s Restaurant in Holden, who brings the story close to home.
Valerie started and grew the business over 30 years in the kitchen, dining room, and office while also juggling responsibilities as a single mother. Joanna and her brother, Christos, grew up along with Val’s, a staple of the dining scene in Central Massachusetts. Christos now serves as chef at the restaurant, and Joanna spent four years documenting her mother’s story. In the film, James compares the experiences of many women to illuminate how challenges of mentorship, access to capital, child care, and maternal leave have shaped opportunities for women in the restaurant industry.
Let’s Talk About Food and the Museum of Science will host James for a screening and panel discussion of “A Fine Line” at the museum on Sunday, April 8, at 2:30 p.m. The discussions will continue after the screening with small dinners at restaurants including Teranga, Mei Mei, Pagu, Myers + Chang, Porto, and Oleana.
Q. As you were growing up, did you recognize that your mother was in an unusual position?
A. While we were in it, no, because she just always worked so hard. I worked by her side growing up, so [I saw] how she always dealt with the staff and customers and how she was such a people person. I think she faced challenges on so many levels, not just the business side but also even culturally with her family. Access to capital, which is a huge obstacle to women in business, that was always the big issue with her. She had expanded the restaurant at least four different times. Each time, wasn’t necessarily that easy. And also media coverage, to be quite honest.
Q. Are those conditions are changing?
A. [The women I talked to] all shared the same sentiment that they never considered their gender when they were in it. It was just this level of passion and intensity and dedication. I think that was needed for women to get to this level of ownership or executive positions. I think it’s getting better, and I think that’s very recent — over the last five years.
Q. How did juggling family responsibilities fit into the chefs’ stories?
A. Speaking to the other chefs, it was interesting what they faced. For instance, Sylvia Weinstock, she decided to get into her career as this world-class, world-famous cake maker in her fifties. So, she wanted to start after she had raised her kids and they were in college. Then you have someone like Barbara Lynch, who didn’t have kids until she was just about 40. She waited until she really made a mark in the industry. I think it’s interesting that it is a huge determining factor in their career, when to have kids, start a family. That also goes toward paid parental leave, which is a big part of this.
Q. April Bloomfield of the Spotted Pig shares that she initially had a very small equity stake in the restaurant. That surprised me.
A. I think that is so telling of what women have to go through. Here she was, wooed by Ken Friedman at the time who really wanted her to be the chef and a business partner, and yet to only offer 10 percent. She just put her head down, worked really hard, and realized I’m worth a lot more than that. And then got 50/50. She’s now again having to endure what’s happened with her business partner.
Q. How do you deal with sexual harassment allegations against Friedman and others in the film?
A. We were done with sound finishing and color treatment, but in light of what happened with Mario Batali and Ken Friedman, and so many of these prominent male restaurateurs, I decided to put some of that in the film. I just couldn’t leave it out, especially because it does affect some of the women chefs I have in the film. People really appreciate that.
Q. Your mother and other women chefs will be attending the Boston screening. What do you look forward to with that?
A. Doing these dinners with the film is such a great way of having a dialogue after watching the film in an intimate setting. It’s just a really rewarding experience to have these screenings where women restaurateurs are in the audience and say, “Thank you so much because people get what we went through.” A lot of these are single moms or women who really faced an uphill battle to make their dreams come true and did it.
Tickets for the film screening and panel discussion are free. Post-screening dinners are $50. For a full list of restaurants and tickets go to afineline.eventbrite.com