'Empowering' film shows women chefs in leadership roles

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

They make up more than half of culinary school graduates, yet less than 7% of American restaurants are owned by women. 

It's staggering facts such as these that are brought into the light in the documentary "A Fine Line," the first film by Joanna James. 

The New Yorker will be in Detroit next week showing the movie at an event that aims to celebrate the women who are moving Detroit's culinary scene forward. Besides a screening of "A Fine Line," local chefs will further dissect the state of the hospitality industry, including ecological impact of the industry, gender equality and paid family leave. 

Filmmaker Joanna James includes her mother Val James of Val's Restaurant & Lounge in her documentary "A Fine Line."

"This event for us is part of our mantra, ‘If you see it, you can be it,’" said James. "It’s about bringing out the local culinary talent that is part of your community and showing people that these great restaurants that you frequent and this food that you love is coming from women-led businesses."

The event is co-sponsored by FoodLab Detroit, a collective of local food entrepreneurs who want to foster businesses that are economically, socially and environmentally healthy. 

Metro Detroit chef Genevieve Vang, of Bangkok 96 restaurant in Dearborn and food stall at Detroit Shipping Company, will be given a special honor at the event, and one female entrepreneur will be named as the recipient of a $1,000 grant. 

“There may be a lot of women that are front of house or on the line, but when we start talking about chef de cuisine or executive chef and restaurateurs that number decreases dramatically,” says FoodLab executive director Devita Davison.

She said the documentary does an excellent job of creating a narrative that illustrates women in leadership roles. 

"We will see not only the story of a particular restaurateur in her journey but there will also be small vignettes dispersed throughout the film of women who are executive chefs and at the helm of their restaurants," she said. "It’s really empowering."

"A Fine Line" features nationally known chefs and restaurant owners such as Cat Cora, Dominique Crenn, Lidia Bastianich and Barbara Lynch, as well as James' own mother, Valerie James of Val's Restaurant & Lounge in Massachusetts. 

"I was raised in the restaurant industry, seeing what she was going through," said James. "Here was a woman who was so good at what she did, loved what she was doing, the restaurant industry, dealing with so many people in the community, her customers, her team, but then realizing for some reason she was always facing obstacles."

James said when she grew up and became a working mother herself, she realized the obstacles her mom faced were systematic and prevalent in most industries. 

Good Cakes and Bakes chef April Anderson.

"So that’s how we decided to open up the conversation and include all these world-renowned chefs and restaurateurs who were speaking toward a lot of these different issues whether it be the wage gap, access to capital, press and recognition, being taken seriously, all these different issues," she said.

James said in just the few years since she started working on "A Fine Line" the industry has changed. She points to a controversial Time Magazine feature that in 2013 named a group of people worldwide who were most influential to the food industry. Women were included in the feature, but none were chefs. 

"Today, all these different organizations are offering more awards and press and recognition to women, and that wasn’t the case five years ago," she said. "Today you see more women on the front lines who are also talking about it." 

At Wednesday's event, hear from some of Detroit's leaders in the food and restaurant world, including Kiki Louya of the restaurant Folk, Ping Ho of the Royce wine bar and Marrow restaurant, Lady of the House chef and owner Kate Williams, April Anderson of Good Cakes and Bakes and Sister Pie's Lisa Ludwinski. 

For now "A Fine Line" can only be seen at special screenings like this. It's expected to be broadcast on PBS in the spring.

Twitter: @melodybaetens

"A Fine Line" Film, Food and Female Heroes 

A screening with filmmaker Joanna James, plus appetizers, wine and a panel discussion featuring Detroit chefs Kiki Louya, Kate Williams, April Anderson, Ping Ho and Lisa Ludwinski

6-9:30 p.m. Nov. 13

The Jam Handy

2900 E. Grand Blvd., Detroit

Tickets: (search "A Fine Line")