Ridgefield premiere of 'A Fine Line' highlights Fairfield County's female chefs

RIDGEFIELD — Opening night of the 2021 Ridgefield Independent Film Festival will tantalize audiences’ senses of taste and smell as well as their sense of sight.

On Oct. 7, the Keeler Tavern Museum & History Center will host a screening of the award-winning documentary, “A Fine Line,” directed by Ridgefield resident Joanna James. Before the screening, guests will enjoy delectable dishes catered by female chefs from the Fairfield County area.

“A Fine Line” explores an alarming gender discrepancy in the restaurant industry as told by renowned female chefs and restaurateurs. It includes Dominique Crenn — the only female chef in the U.S. with three Michelin stars to her name — Emmy award-winning television host Lidia Bastianich and the first female Iron Chef, Cat Cora. It also follows the story of a small-town restaurateur, Valerie James, a single mother raising two kids while navigating the industry.

Fairfield County’s culinary talent was tapped to cater the event to highlight the hardworking women who take up space in the kitchen despite less than 7 percent of women owning restaurant businesses in the U.S., according to Susan Ungaro, president of The James Beard Foundation.

Hearst Connecticut Media spoke with James ahead of the local premiere.

Question: What inspired you to explore the gender discrepancy in the restaurant industry?

James: I was raised in the restaurant industry by the ultimate mom-boss who loved what she was doing and was really good at it. So I was utterly shocked to learn that less than 7 percent of head chefs and restaurant owners are women, especially when it comes to cooking — most male chefs credit their mothers or grandmothers for their success. But the sad truth is, across all industries, there is a significant void of women in leadership.

Question: How does your documentary serve to address or answer this discrepancy?

James: Using the culinary example to explore gender equality is very disarming as that is the beauty of food — it naturally brings people together, even on film. We’re able to dig deep as to what the reasons are, and they apply across the board. The film has resonated with women in various fields and with men, as well, because at the heart of the film is an underdog story — someone who is on a mission to triumph against all odds regardless of gender.

Question: How has your nonprofit worked to bring greater opportunities to women looking to break through or advance their careers in the industry?

James: MAPP was developed after taking “A Fine Line” on a cross-country screening tour recognizing incredible women chefs and restaurateurs who we felt weren’t getting the praise and press they deserved. We would screen the film, honor these women in their communities and have critical conversations getting to the heart of what (is) preventing more women from getting into leadership (roles). As a working mother, I also (know) firsthand how important many of these issues were — paid family leave, flexible scheduling, mentorship. MAPP is about showing the power of a sisterhood uplifting each other to advance in our careers and bringing our strong male allies into the mix.

Question: How do events like the Celebration of Food & Film highlight the unsung female talent in Fairfield County’s restaurant industry?

James: Many times people want to support women-led businesses because ... they do face more challenges to keep their doors open, whether that’s a lack of access to capital, less media coverage or burnout piling on the business stress (with) household responsibilities. We like to spotlight these phenomenal women and let the public know how important it is to these restaurateurs to know their community cares.

Think about Jessica Wolcott who has owned the Ancient Mariner for more than 30 years and is always there for her community. Or Barbara Nevins of Southwest Cafe and Sarah Bioussou of Bernard’s, who last year worked with MAPP to feed essential workers. It really isn’t about the money — it comes down to seeing people share a meal in their establishment creating lifelong memories. That’s why it’s so important to support our local restaurants.

Question: What does it mean to screen the documentary in Ridgefield?

James: As a new Ridgefield resident moving to town a little over a year ago, it has been so wonderful to have the support of the community. As a foodie and filmmaker I can tell you what a special privilege it is to have such a fabulous film festival with RIFF and such amazing restaurants to choose from on any given night. My husband and I still pinch ourselves.

Event proceeds will benefit MAPP and Ridgefield High School’s filmmaker lab. Tickets can be purchased at www.riffct.org.

alyssa.seidman@hearstmediact.com