Original-Cin interview/review: Doc shines light on women chefs who turned up The Heat

By Jim Slotek

Documentarian Maya Gallus – director of The Heat: A Kitchen (R)evolution - says that, even when she waitressed, she never paid much attention to what was going on in the kitchen. 

She finally started to notice it when she made Dish, her previous doc which was inspired by server experience. 

“I had made Dish because I had been a waitress for many years and I knew from my own experience what it was like. It was a rite of passage for many women.

“As a waitress, I’d go in and get the food. I wasn’t particularly fascinated with it. It wasn’t until I went in and started shooting in kitchens for Dish that I thought, ‘There’s something interesting about kitchens, I can’t put my finger on it.’

New York celebrity chef Anita Lo and The Heat director Maya Gallus

New York celebrity chef Anita Lo and The Heat director Maya Gallus

“Of course, it was male dominated. But the articles I’d read were not so much about how few women were in the kitchen, but how rarely they were mentioned. The headlines were, ‘Why is nobody talking about the women chefs?’

“I thought, ‘Gee that’s interesting. Women fought for so long domestically to get out of the kitchen. Now they’re fighting to get back into the kitchen. Okay, I’ll go from the front of the house to the back of the house.’”

She discovered that not talking about women chefs is a practice that goes back generations. Her globe-trotting doc took her to New York, Toronto, the U.K. and France – the latter being where one of the greatest women chefs in history had effectively been erased.

There, in the ‘30s, a self-taught chef named Eugenie Brazier became the first person to earn six Michelin stars. But in 1998, when chef Alain Ducasse did it, he was generally celebrated as the first.

Meanwhile, one of Gallus’s interviewees, Anne-Sophie Pic, the highest-Michelin-rated woman in the world, was taught by her Michelin-rated father, because women were denied acceptance to French culinary schools.

What the f--- is wrong with that country? I ask Gallus. The word “chauvinism” is actually named for a Frenchman.

“What the f--- is wrong with the world,” she replies. “It’s not the only country where women have been erased from history.”

(We can talk that way because we’re old schoolmates from Ryerson Journalism. Maya took a left turn after graduation and made a name in documentaries).

“But for sure France is a particularly conventional or traditional place when it comes to protecting these culinary traditions. You see the photos of famous chefs in the Academie Culinaire de France, she’s the only woman amid, like, a hundred guys. It’s actually shocking.”

The reigning Queen of French Cuisine, Anne-Sophie Pic

The reigning Queen of French Cuisine, Anne-Sophie Pic

Of a piece with the resistance to women in world class kitchens is the sometimes brutal environment, an offshoot of the military-based “brigade” system of kitchen management, with ranks of chefs and different levels of authority.

“Women really did have to have exhibit tough, old-school macho behavior, otherwise they wouldn’t last. But there were also many men who, once women entered the kitchens, started to talk about how the system has to change. Men started admitting that it was too rough sometimes for them, and they’d also go home and cry.”

The message seems to be sinking in, she says. "David Chang (of Momofuku fame) admitted he’d been a macho, yelling leader of kitchens and he felt it wasn’t working any more. And Rene Redzepi (of Copenhagen’s Noma) wrote a book about how we need happier kitchens.”

Old war stories abound in The Heat: A Kitchen (R)evolution, a film that profiles some stellar and charismatic women and, unhappily, sees a few establishments close in the course of filming.

One can only imagine how many stories could be told by Angela Hartnett, profane Gordon Ramsay’s longtime protégé who finally started restos of her own. “She’s amazing, and I loved hanging out with her, however briefly, because she was so much fun to be with. 

“She was Gordon Ramsay’s first female protégé, mainly because she lasted. She really took the whole experience with a sense of humour. She wasn’t traumatized by it. She kind of would take the piss out of him as well and kept her head down and worked. 

“Interestingly enough, she didn’t mimic that behavior herself. She said she used to try yelling and it didn’t work for her. It just made everybody stressed including her.”

The film tour of female-run kitchens had its obvious benefits. “I made a point of eating at each restaurant and they were all amazing,” Gallus says. “The biggest surprise was Amanda Cohen’s (vegetarian resto) Dirt Candy. I admit all of us in the crew were shooting the food, but it was like ‘Yeah, but what can you really do with vegetables?’ And it was so creative and tasty.

“And Annie Sophie Pic had a whole meal arranged for us. The pastry chef made a special dessert for me because I can’t have gluten or dairy. 

“There were seven different treatments of apple. And then there were these round balls, like a little golden sphere, And you bit into it and this burst of bitter and sweet tea would explode in your mouth.”

Gallus says her cameraman joked about getting fat on the shoot. “But it was all handheld verite, so he was moving all the time and shooting in tiny kitchens. So, he had to be very limber like a dancer.”

Review: The Heat: A Kitchen (R)evolution

Rating: A-minus

It’s hard to tell in Maya Gallus’s Hot Docs Fest opener The Heat: A Kitchen (R)evolution where the “Hell’s Kitchen” meme ends and the struggle for gender parity begins. We know by now, it’s a hard knock life in the kitchen for all.

But some of the women in the film, including Toronto freelance chef Charlotte Langley, have tales to tell that probably wouldn’t have been believed before the #MeToo era. 

Gallus is a people person, and gives us a gallery of personalities that suggests the heart that goes into running a successful and beloved resto. There’s Anita Lo, the proprietor of the erstwhile Annisa, in New York’s Greenwich Village neighbourhood, and Torontonian Suzanne Barr of the now-defunct East End Saturday Dinette.

And there are legends like the reigning Queen of French Cooking Anne-Sophie Pic and Gordon Ramsay acolyte Angela Hartnett, who now runs four London restaurants of her own, including the formerly Ramsay-owned Mirano. (Plus the unbelievable tale of forgotten Michelin Queen Eugenie Brazier, see above).

For all that, The Heat is not exactly The Food Network material. As is her style, Gallus focuses on the people and the action. But she doesn’t linger on the food, which is the art these women produce. Fair enough. There’s food porn a’plenty on cable these days. The Heat opts instead to put a human face on some people who feed us and the challenges they've faced doing it.

The Heat: A Kitchen (R)evolution. Directed by Maya Gallus. Starring Anne-Sophie Pic, Angela Hartnett, Anita Lo. Opens Friday at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Theatre.