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Maya Gallus turns up The Heat on male-dominated cooking industry

Director Maya Gallus.

Courtesy of Red Queen Productions

Maya Gallus is the director The Heat: A Kitchen (R)evolution, a Canadian-made film about international female chefs that is opening the Hot Docs festival April 26. Visiting with pioneering chefs in rural France, London, New York and Toronto, the doc questions why more attention is not paid to the few women who counter the macho stereotype of culinary cowboys ruling over fiercely hierarchical kitchens.

How did you get the idea for this film?

After I made Dish [in 2010], about women in the service industry, I became interested in the women in the back of the house, working as chefs. Why weren’t women chefs being talked about? The timing wasn’t right, so I went on to other work and then revisited it two years ago, but didn’t anticipate that everything was going to explode with the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.

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My interest was in continuing to explore what is it like to be a woman working in a male-dominated industry. The chefs were entering kitchens where there were no women, or women were very low on the totem pole, being assigned the traditional gender roles of salad or pastry, sometimes referred to as a pink ghetto. Here were women who were actually running kitchens – working at the hot stove. Of course, the irony wasn’t lost on me that women were having to fight to get back into the kitchen, after all the battles to get out of the kitchen.

Where did you find the chefs?

I knew I wanted a range of chefs, from grassroots to haute cuisine, chefs in different cities and at different stages. I wanted chefs who either directly spoke to the issue of gender or who were breaking the glass ceiling. In the case of Anne-Sophie Pic of Maison Pic in France, for example, I really wasn’t sure how much she would speak of it, but I wanted her in the film, of course, because she is one of only a handful of female Michelin-starred chefs in the world. I was happy when we met to discover she is actually extremely open to speaking about her experience of taking up her space in her own kitchen.

After her father’s death, she assumed that since it was a family business she was the new boss, but it didn’t work that way …

Sometimes speaking about these issues, if too much time is spent talking about it, people feel dragged down by the optics. What moved me was that she trusted me to tell her story, which I found quite extraordinary, typical of a woman having to assert her authority but not in an old-school patriarchal way. There is a way of women taking up power and not having to mimic the old ways.

Was #MeToo happening while you were filming?

We started filming interviews last April and #MeToo wasn’t until the fall. I was speaking to them generally about abuse in kitchens and any experiences they had; then #MeToo came along and there were male chefs being called out, as men were in other industries.

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There’s only one person who describes actual physical violence in a kitchen. If you did the interviews today, a year later, would they have more stories to tell?

The more women speak out, the more others are likely to speak out. Many of the women did have negative experiences, some of whom I talked to during my research ended up leaving the industry. The ones who persevered either didn’t have those horrific experiences or they just managed to elude them.

How do they feel about their industry?

I think they feel very positive. All of the chefs are passionate about working with food, about the social and emotional connections to food and despite the challenges of running a restaurant, which is a precarious business, they are so committed to making the industry better for all, to making “happy kitchens.” Everyone is recognizing the old ways are just not working any more.

And your own industry, how’s it doing?

There are some very direct parallels, particularly in terms of the difficulty that women have raising financing. They don’t tend to draw the money to open the big splashy restaurants and as a result, it follows they don’t get the attention and the rewards. In the film industry, women don’t draw the big budgets. I love that Hot Docs has achieved gender equity, but we aren’t there yet. There is still work to do. My concern is this will be a wave and it will pass.

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