A new food documentary is out chronicling three female chefs struggle to rise to the top. I’ve interviewed a lot of chefs in my time and looking back, all of them were male. Despite the fact that the number of women-owned restaurant businesses in the U.S. has jumped 40 percent in recent years, female chefs appear to be using their inside voice in touting their successes. Time Magazine’s 2013 article “13 Gods of Food” raised the big question: “Where are the Goddesses?”
As if the recent election and the public rhetoric have not amplified the incongruence and inequalities of women and men in the workplace, perhaps the industry where these struggles are most evident is the restaurant business. “Hungry” follows three rising female chefs over a six-month period in their quests to break that proverbial glass ceiling, while spotlighting the hardships they endure just to compete and gain recognition.
Chef Pink Delongpre (Bacon & Brine; Solvang, CA), Chef Sarah Kirnon (Miss Ollie’s; Oakland, CA) and Chef Dakota Weiss (Estrella and Sweetfin Poke; Los Angeles, CA) participated in the documentary to shed light on this “food fight”.
Women are unapologetically emotional creatures so the desire for authenticity runs high among all three chefs. “Hungry” goes behind the scenes and into the kitchens to show how real this desire is. Chef Pink’s minimal menu features only three items per day because “that’s what the farmers have available” which has led some patrons to accuse her and her partner of being “egotistical assholes”, yet she stands firm and will not alter menu items because “we like it the way it is”. Early in her career, Chef Sarah walked away from kitschy kitchens that “didn’t represent me anymore.” She sees her work as her moral responsibility to “represent people who look like me, and don’t have voice”, which is why she chose to open her restaurant in the challenging Oakland, CA market. The film shows how authenticity complicates the journey but only sweetens the pot.
Females, by design, are also nurturing, which is proving to be more of a blessing than a curse in the restaurant business. Chef Dakota is protective of Estrella and when tasked with leaving one weekend, likened it to “leaving my baby alone”, but she trusted her team because “we’re a family.” In the film, Chef Pink explains that when she started in the industry, it was “male dominated, dirty, rough and violent”. Now she feels like there’s more equal playing ground and she works hard because of “my personality, not my pair of t*ts.” An employee of Chef Sarah talks on camera and describes Miss Ollie’s as “more like a home” and “basically like a big family”. I would venture to say this familial environment is more prominent in female-driven kitchens and most certainly contributes to the quality and flavors of the food that is served.
The legitimization of female chefs is another challenge, especially when it comes to funding. Established Chef Susan Feniger of Border Grill Restaurants speaks out in the film on how the “financial world is the biggest struggle for women.” Chef Dakota got lucky with her Sweetfin Poke concept raising millions of dollars and attracting one of the food industry’s most successful fast-casual restauranteurs as an investor. But in order to expand her restaurant concept, Chef Pink had to launch a Kickstarter campaign after banks failed to approve her loan requests.
According to “Hungry” director Patty Ivins, “The real message of the film is that talented women are unstoppable! It’s no secret that change happens slowly, but determined women don’t always have the time or desire to wait for the establishment to change and as such, these same women create their own rules, blaze new paths and new opportunities for themselves and the women coming up behind them.”
Iconic chef Marcus Sameulsson brings it all home paying homage to the female chefs who’ve contributed to his success, citing Julie Child, Alice Waters, and Lidia Bastianich, saying, “We stand on the house they built” and that his charge is to “leave the house in better shape.”
Women Chefs and Restauranteurs, an industry organization formed in 1993, is working to attract and mentor more women in the industry as leaders say, “We’re the ones who bring balance to the workplace and a female-inclusive approach.”
But according to Ivins, the sad reality is, “Many prominent women chefs had mixed feelings about addressing the gender issue. One woman chef invited me to film her and then cancelled the day of, twice, explaining she had second thoughts and ‘had nothing really to add.” This was a humbling moment for her in realizing that gender equality is a difficult subject for people to address.
Even if you’re not a foodie, you’ll find the film enlightening from an entrepreneurial perspective. All three women profiled are pursuing, and succeeding in, an unrelenting passion despite roadblocks and setbacks.
“Hungry” is a Logo Documentary Films production in association with PB&J Television and Bunim/Murray Productions. Executive Producers for Logo are Pamela Post and Taj Paxton, and Executive Producers for PB&J and Bunim/Murray Productions are Gil Goldschein, Patty Ivins and Rob VanAlkemade. The film is directed by Patty Ivins. Hungry is available at www.logotv.com.
Beth writes about the things that feed her soul – food, wine and travel. As a PR consultant for more than 28 years, she represented some of the top luxury resorts, chefs and destinations worldwide. Now as a freelance writer, she draws on that storytelling talent to share the unique and often untold stories about the personalities behind some of the great food, wine and travel experiences.