A documentary chronicles the rise of women chefs.
Valerie James has spent 25 years serving everything from soups and pizza to classic New England lobster at her restaurant in Holden, Massachusetts. Val’s Restaurant has become a community landmark, and James’ story recently inspired a documentary, Celebrity Female Chefs Transforming the Food Industry. The film, created by Aliana Productions and slated for release in 2016, explores the challenges women face when trying to open and operate restaurants.
Women outnumber men in cooking schools and throughout the culinary industry, yet the presence of female executive chefs continues to lag behind. According to Bloomberg Business, for every 160 head chef positions in the U.S., only 10 of those are held by women.
In the past two decades, however, a group of powerhouse women have gone against the industry grain. Aliana Productions co-founders Anastasia Ganias Gellin and Joanna James Moschos, Valerie James’ daughter, are capturing the transformation in their documentary.
“I spent my childhood in my mother’s restaurant kitchen, so to me, it always seemed natural to see a strong woman in charge,” says Moschos, the film’s producer and project director. “I thought 80-hour work weeks were normal. I knew my mother sacrificed a lot to run her business, but it wasn’t until I was older that I understood the scope of her dedication.”
Moschos describes how her mother was a savvy businesswoman who dealt with gender discrimination and unscrupulous vendors in the early years: Divorced, raising young children, and shouldering $500,000 in loans, James was determined to open her own place. The film illustrates James’ struggles and success.
Co-producer Gellin, a veteran of the film industry, has worked on popular shows including Showtime’s Dexter, NBC’s Parks and Recreation, and ABC’s Desperate Housewives. She was instinctively drawn to the subject. “We’re both Greek-American, which means food is in our blood,” Gellin quips. “I learned to cook from my mother, and after reading statistics about women executives in the culinary industry, I thought it was a paradox that deserved to be examined.”
Funded by a campaign on the global crowd-funding platform Kickstarter, which raised more than $60,000 in April, the documentary also profiles celebrity chefs Barbara Lynch, Elizabeth Falkner, Cat Cora, and Diane Kochiles. Before conducting interviews, Gellin and Moschos thought they would hear about discrimination and failure, but were surprised by what they learned.
“These women never thought men would stand in their way,” Gellin says. “They’re pioneers. We did hear some shocking stories about the culinary underbelly, but overall the women were gracious and positive. Many had worked and learned from men, and expressed gratitude for those opportunities.”
Still, hard choices were required, like when Barbara Lynch made a conscious decision not to have children until after securing her career. Lynch, the second woman ever to be awarded the James Beard Award for outstanding restaurateur, is CEO of the Barbara Lynch Gruppo in Boston, a $20-million restaurant empire. She employs talented women in her kitchens, cultivating the next generation of tastemakers.
“The heart of the documentary is spotlighting women’s success in the industry,” Gellin says. “Transformation is happening, but many of the women felt they had to prove themselves twice as much as the men working alongside them.”
Once complete, Celebrity Female Chefs Transforming the Food Industry will be submitted to various festivals on the 2016 film circuit.