Review: A Fine Line Documentary

Bailee Blankemeier

A Fine Line, directed by Joanna James, distributed by Bullfrog Films

During your last dining experience, did you wonder about the gender of the chef? Do you know if the restaurant was owned by a man, a woman, or a non-binary person? Due to their gender, men working in the restaurant industry have been exempt from obstacles that women chefs and restaurateurs have faced and overcome, making it easier and more common for men to own and run restaurants. A Fine Line explores obstacles to women’s advancement, including gendered workplaces and harassment within the industry. The documentary follows chef Valerie James, a single mother of two children who dreamt of becoming a head chef and restaurateur. This film was produced, directed, and edited by Joanna James, Valerie’s daughter. Throughout this film, iconic chefs based in the United States share their stories as women in the culinary industry.

Valerie James grew up with her parents and brother, and from a young age, found herself spending much of her time in her father’s diner and pizzerias. Valerie married young and had two children: Joanna and Christos. Valerie expressed to her family that she dreamt of being a head chef and running her own restaurant and decided to pursue that dream. Despite her family’s doubts, Valerie left her marriage, took her two young children, and set out to make an impact on the culinary industry. As she dove into her career as a single mother, she encountered very few other women in the industry and experienced rejection on the basis of her gender. 

The film first illustrates how the culinary industry has historically been a gendered institution. The Culinary Institute of America was founded in 1946 by two women, Frances Roth and Katharine Angell, but did not accept women as students into the Institution until 1970. Cynthia Keller, the associate dean of the Culinary Institute of America, explains that the culinary industry traditionally is based on the European model, specifically Auguste Escoffier’s brigade system, modelled on a militant structure where a head chef has divisions of people working beneath them. Today, the Escoffier Society honors exceptional chefs like Valerie James, yet some chapters within the United States still do not accept women as members. Renowned chefs throughout the film show how they have paved their way as women in this hierarchy where men dominate, such as Cat Cora, the first woman to compete on Iron Chef. Cora describes working in France as a culinary apprentice while simultaneously getting rejected from eight restaurants because they did not hire women as chefs. 

For women to pave their way in the industry as chefs, they must overcome further obstacles, including sexual harassment. Angela Raynor, co-owner of The Pearl and Boarding House, tells her story of working alongside a sous chef that had expressed interest in her. Each day, chef Raynor would enter the walk-in, and while inside, her coworkers would turn the lights off. The sous chef would then follow Raynor into the dark walk-in, and in the film, she emotionally expresses feeling belittled and trapped while in the company of this sous chef. She would then exit the walk-in to find her colleagues laughing at the situation. To combat this harassment, she started her workday earlier than her peers to work in isolation and in hopes of avoiding workplace harassment.

Angela Raynor’s experience with workplace harassment within the culinary industry was not unusual. In November of 2013, TIME Magazine published an article titled “Gods of Food,” which pictured three male chefs. This publication was highly criticized because of the exclusion of women. Perhaps even more alarming, the editor of Time Magazine claimed that the article didn’t feature women because their network of chefs was not as strong as men’s and that “it’s still a boys club”. Years later, April Bloomfield was working as the Executive Chef at The Spotted Pig under Ken Friedman and Mario Batali when accusations of harassment in her workplace surfaced. This news caught national attention, and awareness of sexual harassment within the industry grew with the help of the Me Too movement. Bloomfield found herself implicated because of her silence, which arguably victimized women more. Bloomfield maintained a power over her employees not only as the head chef, but also as a partner in the restaurants, and yet she opted to stay silent about the accusations rather than challenging the power dynamic between herself and her male business partners. The impact of Bloomfield’s silence exemplifies how the culinary industry must hold all members accountable to reporting knowledge of sexual harassment. Bloomfield tweeted an apology to her colleagues, and more broadly to all women within the industry, in response to the allegations of sexual misconduct where she addressed her shortcomings. In her tweet, she stated, “in meetings with my partner, I lectured, and I demanded, but now I know that it wasn’t enough”, alluding to the fact that Bloomfield was aware of detailed accusations, but ultimately failed to report, further implicating her. Although the film does not exclusively explore sexual harassment within the industry, these highlighted stories shed light on the issue and demonstrate one of the many obstacles women often face.

Moreover, the documentary helps to challenge traditional gender roles, but while doing so, featured chefs explain the challenges and personal costs of breaking gender roles. Mashama Bailey, named Food and Wine’s Best New Chef, expresses her hopes for a family of her own but knows it is only possible if she has an independent partner who is willing to work less than her. Lidia Bastianich, the owner of Eataly, became a mother while running her brand and shares her feelings of conflict, wanting to balance her role as a mother while also pursuing her passion for her career. It is important to note that despite the obstacles these women experienced while challenging gender roles, they have been successful in their endeavors and are an inspiration for young women.

While A Fine Line presents numerous challenges facing women in the industry, aspects of identity, like immigrant experiences, are underexplored in the film. Chefs like Lidia Bastianich and Dominique Crenn left their home countries of Italy and France to move to the United States. In doing so, they not only had to face the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated industry, but they also wanted to keep their culture, memories, flavors, and identities alive through their cooking. Their immigrant experiences, alongside the challenges of being a women in the industry, arguably created additional obstacles that this film does not explore. Moreover, throughout the film Valerie James, and the other featured chefs are seen working alongside kitchen porters and servers, posts which are often disproportionately filled by immigrant workers. There is a hierarchy in professional kitchens, and although the film clearly illustrates the gender discrimination that women chefs have endured, it neglects to recognize the unequal power dynamic and challenges that other kitchen staff members might experience on the basis of their gender, nationality, or ethnicity.

What is particularly interesting while one watches A Fine Line is the irony at the center of its story: cooking has long been coded to be “women’s work”, and while categorized as such, it has been seen as an undervalued form of labor. Yet when men pursue cooking within the culinary industry it is categorized as a high-profile, creative endeavor that women are systematically excluded from. This film alludes to generations of women sharing their cooking knowledge with men that have long occupied professional kitchens. Women are the foundation of cooking yet have been excluded from sharing their knowledge, skills, and passion within the culinary industry. So, if cooking is often generationally women-led, why are there less than seven percent of women-owned restaurants in the United States? Scholarship has explored the gendered culinary industry and found a belief that “although cooking is considered a feminine competence, it becomes masculine when it is considered a professional job”.[1] 

Overall, A Fine Line is a heartfelt film that beautifully tells the story of Valerie James and illustrates challenges that she and other women chefs have overcome. The examples of gendered workplaces, harassment, and nontraditional gender roles throughout the film help highlight the implications of a male-dominated industry, and arguably, more importantly, this film leads to a conversation about work-life balance and challenges the concept of an “ideal worker”. One of the largest obstacles women in the culinary industry face is a work-family conflict. Harris and Giuffre assert, “many women workers certainly strive for ‘balance’, but what ‘balance’ often means is increased stress or giving up on opportunities to advance at work.”[2] Furthermore, for women to balance their work and family life, often women opt for part-time careers; however, this highlights how the division of labor is largely gendered.[3] Additionally, the literature surrounding work-life balance often discusses the “ideal worker”, which Joan William defines as “a worker who works full time and overtime and takes little or no time off for childbearing or child rearing.”[4] For women to experience workplace equality and achieve a greater work-life balance, this idea of the “ideal worker” needs to be redefined to be more inclusive of employees like Valerie James, who have passion and skill and must juggle their nonworking life. The women in this film successfully earned their place in professional kitchens despite gender-based challenges. Now we must ask ourselves how workplaces can create a more balanced environment that suits people of all genders.

[1] Majd Haddaji, Jose Albors-Garrigós, and Purificación García-Segovia, “Women Chefs’ Access Barriers to Michelin Stars: A Case-Study Based Approach,” Journal of Culinary Science and Technology 15, no. 4 (2017): 320-338. 

[2] Deborah Harris and Patti Giuffre, “The Price You Pay: How Female Professional Chefs Negotiate Work and Family,” Gender Issues 27, no. 1/2 (2010): 27-52.

[3] Gretchen Webber and Christine Williams, “Part-Time Work and the Gender Division of Labor,” Qualitative Sociology 31 (2007): 15-36. 

[4] Joan Williams, Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 1. 


Bailee Blankemeier (she/her) is a Masters student in Sociology at California State University, Fullerton. Her research is centered around commensality and explores eating habits in relation to the work-life balance. She is the Outreach and Programming Coordinator on the student board of the Graduate Association of Food Studies. She is passionate about the importance of social eating, reading, writing, and furthering her academic career in food studies. Prior to starting her ongoing research, she received a BA in Sociology and a MA in Education from Concordia University. She tweets at @BayBlankemeier..