NEW YORK – It’s called Val’s and if you are ever hungry in Worcester, Mass. that’s the restaurant to look for. Valerie James is the owner. Her son Christos is the chef and her daughter Joanne sings its praises.
Not literally. Joanne is not a singer; she is a filmmaker, and her documentary about the trials and triumphs of women chefs highlights her mom.
Joanne, whose website, alianaproductions.com, talks about the company she runs with Anastasia Ganias Gellin, a Greek-American Actress, and about the film’s Kickstarter campaign, was born and raised in the restaurant industry and worked by her mother’s side.
“As I got older and saw how hard she worked, 80, 100 hour weeks, bearing all the pressure and making a big sacrifice for us, I was inspired to share her story. She endured adversity and 25 years later she is a successful restauranteur.”
Joanne beamed as she told TNH, “Val’s is elegant and top of the line. My mother has fine taste but she also wanted a place where people would feel comfortable, but the reason it took off is because of its Greek hospitality, which is very important to her.”
The business environment she faced was not as welcoming. Before Joanne began her research “I was not aware of the staggering statistics about women in the culinary industry. Only 15 percent of executive chefs are women.”
Even in the classic male dominated fields like engineering or computer science have more women she said.
Change is coming however, as more than 50 percent of culinary school students are women. “Our film is looking to explore how we can help and empower this new generation.
Valerie’s story is the central narrative, but the film weaves in numerous renowned restaurateurs and celebrity chefs who have already been filmed.
Food Network TV personality Michelle Bernstein of Miami, Diane Cochilas who is well-known through her cookbooks, and Cat Cora will also be spotlighted.
Most of the filming is complete and everything is scheduled to be finished by summer. The Kickstarter campaign will help get the film finished in time for release and film festival submissions early in 2016.
It is shot documentary style but it won’t be news style. They are targeting the film festival circuit so “It will be very artistic. We are working with a Tribeca Film Festival veteran editor,” Joanne said.
Joanne and Anastasia trace the women’s sources of inspiration and the obstacles they overcame.
Joanne told TNH, “our mother was influenced by her Greek upbringing…her family is in the industry but she also learned just observing Greek holiday hospitality.”
The movie, whose subjects “pay tribute to women who came before them and who played central roles in kitchens that did not translate into careers,” is a classic American success story, with the additional dimension of the challenges faced by single mothers.
Valerie opened her famous Val’s in her home town of Worcester, MA after she was divorced. She was raising two kids and was carrying half a million dollars of debt.
After 10 years of successfully opening pizzerias – she learned the business from father Demetrios Pantos immigrated in the 1950s – Valery felt it was time for a restaurant.
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It was, Joanne said, and still is difficult for women to start their own businesses. “No bank was willing to lend to her and it was hard to obtain property.”
But there was an angel in the wings. “One of my mother’s best customers, Robert Erickson, just trusted her based on her character and reputation for success,” and helped her get started.
Thus, Val’s Restaurant was born.
“She kept working hard…paid off her debt and paid him rent, but was shocked when he told her ‘you should own this’ and urged her to work towards buying the whole strip mall that housed the restaurant,” Joanne said.
Of course, she succeeded. “It’s about entrepreneurialism and passion and believing in yourself.”
The movie also explores Greek culture. Some of its more dramatic moments entail family crises and turmoil, but viewers will also feel the love and support she got from her parents.
“She could not have done it without their help watching me and my brother,” Joanne said, adding that in those scenes the film explores what can be done to help women in business.
Joanne was born and raised in Worcester, MA. She studied journalism, began as an intern with the Boston Globe and covered the 2004 Olympics for the Hellenic Voice in Greece. Later, she got a Master’s in international communications media with an emphasis in film production and began Aliana with Anastasia so that – like good Greeks – they could call the shots on what stories to present.