Six female chefs go behind-the-scenes to talk about sexism in the food industry

By Ale Russian
May 21, 2021 10:16 AM
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Her Name is Chef
Credit: Adrienne Longo, Electric Love Studios

It's never easy when a women joins a field dominated by men, and that's especially true of the food industry that notoriously runs rampant with sexism and harassment.

Peter Ferriero's new documentary Her Name Is Chef blasts the kitchen door open to follow six prominent female chefs who've fought against sexism to carve out space in the food world. The movie (streaming now on Amazon, Apple and Video on Demand) delves into the hardships women face when having to prove themselves in the kitchen.

Host Leia Gaccione travels the country to talk to Elizabeth Falkner, Esther Choi, Hillary Sterling, Juliet Masters, Caroline Schiff and the late Fatima Ali, who participated in the documentary before she died of cancer at 29 in 2019.

Below, PEOPLE talks with director Peter Ferriero and renowned chefs Elizabeth Falkner and Esther Choi about the movie, life in the kitchen and the work still to be done.

What was it like to be surrounded by women for this project?

Esther: It was really amazing. I think we shot this years ago when I had just opened my Brooklyn location and it was so much fun. It's super inspiring to meet all the other female chefs, and have a chance to talk about growing up in this industry, and what it takes to be a chef. And not only a chef, a lot of these women are also entrepreneurs. It was just so great to have that community, and be able to talk about it freely and openly, and just such a fond and amazing experience.

Elizabeth: I feel like this next generation of chefs that are in their 30s right now are very exciting to me because now they've heard a couple of generations of people talking about how we need to rethink the whole system. And clearly COVID threw it in our face about how broken the system already was, and then try to shut it down and have no government assistance for all that time it has a huge impact on so many different things. So yeah, I sometimes I feel like we're still just taking baby steps. And then at sometimes I think, no, actually we have evolved a lot because people just don't tolerate a lot of the bulls--- that used to be.

Her Name is Chef
Credit: Courtesy Peter Ferriero

Peter, how did you work to make the chefs comfortable while shooting?

Peter: Ot was really important that it was each of their own stories and that there was no manipulation or anything happening. I think I was really taken back by how every single chef had had that experience in some way. Yeah, so we just went from there and just let them speak and talk. The more we put everybody together, it was almost like therapy in a way for them to talk about these things together. And we were just there to capture all of that.

Esther, you talk about coming to accept the harassment that comes with being a woman in the kitchen when you were first starting. Has that mindset changed now?

Esther: You know, it's funny you ask that question because it's still something that I can't shake. I've realized that I take a lot without even knowing that I'm taking it, and then it takes someone else to say something or me to step away, and afterwards think about it over and over again to realize like, "Oh, that was harassment and I just did not know it." I just expected it to be like that. Now I feel like definitely it makes me think about situations a lot more, and being more mindful, and thinking about each thing that happens while it's happening, and not just later on being like, "Oh, I missed that. I should have said something. So it's still hard, and it's still work that I have to do within myself, I think.

The film touches on the controversies surrounding Mario Batali and other men accused of sexual harassment. Elizabeth, you talk about being friends with some of them. How have you come to reconcile what they were accused of with the people you knew?

Elizabeth: It was rough because I'm a 100% part of that culture that I was brought up in, meaning that I knew that some guys, some cooks, are just obnoxious. I've worked in kitchens where I had obnoxious guys say stuff to me. And I have always immediately turned around and said, "You've got to be kidding me." But then when I had my own places, I was very strict about an employee manual. We don't tolerate anything in this kitchen that seems anything like any kind of harassment. And I've of course fired people, mostly men, and I remember I had to fire one woman one time for harassment. And, so I'm personally just shocked. I've seen guys at parties and stuff, a party is one thing, but at work is a really different thing. So I was more surprised that the guys that I knew, couldn't draw the line between work and play.

Her Name is Chef
Credit: Courtesy Peter Ferriero

There's also a really moving tribute to Fatima Ali, going from featuring her as one of the chefs to honoring her memory. Peter, how did you balance telling Fatima's story with the original idea for the film?

Peter: It was really challenging because I didn't want the story of what was happening with female chefs to be lost. But I thought ultimately she, in some small way, could help lend her voice to something that is so much bigger, bring attention to the film with what had happened to her. And then also shed light on what we were really talking about in the movie. And she even says in the movie, "The best thing that other female chefs can do is just build each other up." And I think she did that in this movie.

Fatima talked about how Padma Lakshmi was really the only representation she had in the food industry. Esther, as a Korean-American, have you felt that gap in mentors as well?

Esther: I mean, I don't [have any mentors] at all. Even now it's really hard to find. I think that in the future, there will be more and hopefully, people like me can lead that way for the younger generation. But I just didn't have that at all. So I basically did everything on my own and it would have been really nice to have some sort of mentorship, but I actually did not have that at all.

Do you all hope this film changes the landscape for female chefs?

Elizabeth: Totally, there are so many great female chefs, that's why I love the film. I always talk with Peter about how I don't know what people are talking about, I happen to know a ton of great female chefs that just don't get as much attention.

Peter: I honestly, I had so many names on a list for this movie. It was not hard to find a female chef, which was so interesting to me because the question always has been asked, "Where are all the female chefs?" I was like, "I have a list of like 250 women. I don't know where the struggle is here."