‘A Woman’s Place’- On Trailblazing Women In Culinary

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In a world leagues away from achieving equity, works such as A Woman’s Place offers a fresh perspective on the seemingly mundane odds one encounters on a daily. Directed by Rayka Zehtabchi, the aptly titled documentary flips the normative gendered narrative on its head by adding to the question- why it is that the kitchen is a “woman’s place” only within the four walls of a household?  A Woman’s Place is a story on trailblazing women in culinary. Created with the aim to empower women in the industry, the documentary looks at how three women, Karyn Tomlinson, Etana Diaz and Marielle Fabie, are carving out their own niches in the cut-throat world of the same. With a humble smile and an enthusiastic demeanor to match, the Academy award winner opened up to Cliché about her most recent work.

I would love to know how this project came to be. 

This project came to me through Ventureland, which is a production company I work with quite a bit. The project really originated from KitchenAid. They essentially saw that there’s this issue in the culinary industry. I think around 50% or so of culinary school graduates are women. But when you look at the statistics for executive chefs, only 7% of them are women. So there’s this disparity between culinary school graduates and what is actually happening in the industry. And, they wanted to look at these biases that female chefs face as they navigate the culinary industry. KitchenAid basically partnered with Digitas and Vox Creative to help them make this film. 

They did a lot of heavy lifting before I even came into the picture… in terms of choosing the subjects for the film, interviewing them beforehand, and really kind of whittling things down. So when the project came to me, we knew that it was going to be these three subjects- a restauranteur, a butcher, and a chef. Really, when I came on board, it was a question of… what is the creative vision of the film? 

The three subjects… they encounter different glass ceilings, different pushbacks. I was wondering if you could comment on that? 

I think it is interesting that you ask about me having to shatter glass ceilings. And I think this was one of the main reasons why I was so excited to direct this film. I felt so connected to the project and to the women as well. Even though I knew nothing about the culinary industry before I came on to direct the film. I just felt like I understood the women and so much of what they were going through. I understood so much of what they had to fight for every day, just working in their industry. And that is why I felt so connected.

A crew member with a camera in hand- behind the scenes of the documentary shooting

Adding to your point, another thing that I felt was wonderful about the project is that they all touch upon different biases. They all have their unique, distinctive experiences. No one experience is ever the same. But I do think there are significant overlaps and similarities between them. At the end of the day, they are trying to climb the ladder in an industry that really does not support them. They have to fight, not just for themselves, but also to be leaders. It is about trying to figuring out what is important to you as a leader… what is your management style? Are you going to repeat the same acts that were pressed upon you when you were trying to climb the ladder?

Or are you going to lead in a different way by trying to garner respect by respecting other people who are climbing the ladder with you? 

Bearing in mind the previous question, what kind of glass ceilings have you had to encounter and shatter yourself?

I really enjoyed speaking to the subjects about a lot of that. I felt like it is very much something that I experience being a young filmmaker. We had a lot of discussions about questions like- what is it that you have had to fight through to get to the place you are in? What does the future look like for you in this type of an industry? It was really great. Another thing that I really loved and appreciated about the project is that KitchenAid as a client fully financed the project. Yet, they had no interest in having their logos or product shots all over the film.

They really wanted us to make a truly authentic film that came… not from KitchenAid but from the subjects themselves. Let them guide the film. I really appreciated that as a filmmaker. Authenticity, for me, is really important in my work. I also think it is one of the most effective ways for audineces to connect with the characters on screen. I just think audiences are smart and nowadays, we can tell when brands are trying to attach themselves to a cause. 

We see different approaches to leadership in the documentary short. One of the subjects, Karyn, states that she does not want to be the archetypal “rough tough chef”. Could you perhaps comment on why that is important?

The question is… why do we all have to be that way in order to be taken seriously. I love that. In my eyes, these women are trailblazers. They are kind of going out there, kind of into the wild wild west, and figuring out ways that work for them. Ways in which they can be leaders. They are creating a world that they wish to see, a world that I think we all wish to see. In that world, you can be a boss and have people working under you but you can still respect them. It is a collaboration between the team members as opposed to there being just one superior. 

I think this is especially interesting as Karyn wants to take up space outside of where she is expected to, she does not just want to be a pastry chef.

Rayka Zehtabchi and Karyn Tomlinson while shooting A Woman's Place

And there is nothing wrong with that. What a lot of them are saying is… there is nothing wrong with being a pastry chef. But why should that be the only option available to me just because I am a woman? Etana says, “I want to be a butcher!” She has had all of these experiences coming into the industry where the men sort of set the rules. They tell you what your role is in their world. By taking the leap, selling everything she had, and moving across the globe to be a butcher, she sort of rejected all of that, that certain narrative. She said… I am going to create my own story.

I think that is why, in my eyes, these women are trailblazers. It is because they do not continue to play a role in the patriarchal structure. 

Has there ever been a moment in your life where you have felt like it was time to change things up and amplify unheard voices? If so, how do you incorporate that into your creative voice?

I have always kind of felt like an oddball. I think it was just the fact that I was an Iranian growing up in America. Inherently, you sort of feel like an outsider sometimes. My identity is one of the reasons why I feel so compelled to be a filmmaker and tell stories. Growing up, I did not see a lot of people like me on the screen… whether that be seeing a lot of women’s stories or Iranians that were being accurately portrayed. Once I started growing up, I think I knew that I had a distinct voice. I had something to offer since I have a more unique perspective. My way of seeing the world could offer a lot to the film industry as a storyteller. 

Every project I look at is automatically filtered through that perspective. It is not like I intentionally go out of my way to tell certain stories, it is just who I am. I think it is what I will always naturally gravitate towards. 

What can we expect to see from you next?

Speaking about identity and being Iranian, this is a project that I feel like I have been working on for forever now! But I finally feel like I am getting there. It is a script about my family coming from Iran to America and settling here. It is a story that is really close to my heart as it includes a lot of my personal memories. I do not know when that film is going to be made, but I am getting close to the script, hopefully!

More about Rayka Zehtabchi- here

Photos by Amanda Scherping.
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