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2019 Crave: Joanna James’ ‘A Fine Line’ is a labor of love

Documentary filmmaker Joanna James is one of the headliners on the Northwest Passages Main Stage at the 2019 Crave Food and Drink Celebration at CenterPlace Regional Event Center in Spokane Valley. Crave is Thursday-Sunday, and this year’s Main Stage on Saturday is spotlighting women in the culinary industry.

James will be discussing her film “A Fine Line,” which she began working on in 2014 and is about the disparity women face in the culinary industry. She’ll be on the Main Stage at 2 p.m. Saturday, then takes part in a free full screening of “A Fine Line” and question-and-answer session at the Bing Crosby Theater at 7 p.m.

James, a mother of two who is expecting her third child very soon, answered questions on the Fourth of July while her two children played in the background during a quick family vacation:

What inspired you to film “A Fine Line”?

The reason is very personal. I wanted to share my mother’s story, a woman in the culinary industry for 30 years. I was raised in the restaurant industry and saw what she was up against despite being so good. She had many challenges along the way. When I became a working mom, the barriers for women today in all industries became readily apparent. In doing my research, this film became a much bigger story.

This quote from Bloomberg News used to promote “A Fine Line,” “It is less likely for a woman to be hired as a head chef than a CEO,” is provocative.

Yes, the truth is women in leadership disparities are there everywhere, in restaurants, medicine, law, you name it. With “A Fine Line,” we want to set a model for change. The culinary industry has a large and diverse labor pool, but there’s still the disparity.

We’re fighting for mentorship and paid family leave, advocating for their importance. The U.S. is the only industrialized nation without mandatory paid family leave. It has been inspiring to share this film across the country the last five years. It is resonating with women.

How long did you work on “A Fine Line” until the finished product?

I started work on the film in late 2014, and we premiered it in the film festival circuit in 2017. After the #MeToo movement and Mario Batali news broke, I had to address them. We did more filming, and it was costly and timely, but it was a necessary endeavor. We released the updated documentary this year. It was shown in 12 states in March, and it was a way to recognize women in local communities and congratulate and empower them.

How was it working with your mother, Valerie James?

It was funny. I don’t think she realize what she signed up for with “A Fine Line.” She went into it thinking filming would be a couple of days, and it ended up being a year. I think it is cathartic for her to see her story on the big screen, and she cries every time she sees it. It has been a great experience as a family and as a woman.

And Cat Cora and Lidia Bastianich and all the other women?

They were very encouraging and motivating and giving of their time. To sit with them in interviews for three to four hours, to talk about what worked for them, was very insightful. As a mother, it was great to hear about their successes.

What was the most surprising aspect of filming “A Fine Line”?

The fact that I was so surprised at the disparity, about how these women experienced similar challenges as women in other industries. I just wasn’t aware of it, but this documentary has become a call to action, to change the disparity and create a more level playing field. It has been very encouraging. What started as a family film has become much bigger.

In promoting the discussion of gender equality, diversity and leadership in the culinary industry, has anything stood out in the continuing dialogue?

Women are being recognized more with awards and in media. Change is happening. We have started an important conversation, but there is still much more to do.

In terms of your impact campaign with “A Full Line,” are you near your goal of increasing the number of female head chefs and restaurateurs to 25%, up from 7%?

It’s a little too soon to see results, but one aspect of this is that the James Beard Foundation, culinary schools, the business community and policymakers need to come together to see what they can do to affect change. This big disparity exists despite the fact that more than half of culinary school graduates are women.

What do you think are the main or largest obstacles for women in the culinary industry in 2019?

Part of our work culture needs to transform. We can’t expect women to work 70 to 80 hours a week and have a family. And why do we have to choose one or the other? We have to address those issues – paid family leave, flexible work schedules and mentorship. Providing paid family leave helps small businesses. It keeps existing women in the workplace.

This is off topic, but you’re traveling and appearing here while 8 1/2 months pregnant. Now that’s dedication!

Yes! This film very much resonates with me. When we started filming “A Fine Line,” I had my first daughter. When we finished the film, I had my second daughter. I was delivering two babies at once.

What’s next for Joanna James?

I’m developing a show. It’s a little too early to talk about it, but in the course of making this film, I’ve met a number of women who are changing the world of food – women who have a local impact and are making a global impact.

The Spokesman-Review is partnering with Crave for the first time this year. For more information about Crave, go to