Film Reviews

Review: ‘The Heat’

Hot Docs 2018

Anita Lo in The Heat
Red Queen Productions


The Heat: A Kitchen ®evolution
(Canada, 75 min.)
Dir. Maya Gallus
Programme: Special Presentations (World Premiere – Opening Night)

There’s a bad meme called ‘Get back in the kitchen!’ that social media users (male ones) use to keep women in their place. The “joke” is gendered and draws upon outdated roles in which women cook for their breadwinner husbands. The line is a symptom of the culture of toxic masculinity that’s finally seeing a reckoning.

Kitchens are nevertheless traditionally domestic spaces in a complicated social history of prescribed gender roles. For many, the best memories of home often centre around the dinner table with mom’s home cooking bringing the family together. (Even if one grew up in a home like mine where most of the cooking was by President’s Choice, we still had mom to thank for putting it in the oven after a full day of work.) Despite this history of gender roles, men far outnumber women in the kitchens of restaurants around the world. Women, according to memes and men stuck in 1952, belong in kitchens, but not those within the professional sphere.

Women take back the kitchen in Maya Gallus’ The Heat. The director returns to the world of restaurants after 2010’s Dish and asks why so few women enjoy lead roles in restaurants when the domestic space is traditionally dominated by their gender. If women want to take pleasure in creating culinary delights and satisfying hearts as well as bellies, patriarchal society tells them they had better do it at home. Many male chefs owe their mothers credit for being their first teachers, yet the toxic work culture of the food industry is past its expiry date when it comes to treating women respectfully.

The chefs’ creations photograph beautifully in Gallus’ film, as they always do in foodie flicks, but The Heat isn’t mere food porn. The Heat offers a warm plate of expertly made food—and a lot of comfort— as Gallus goes into various kitchens and interviews the women whipping up change. Restaurants in Toronto, New York, and London provide a diverse chorus of chefs who dish the pains and virtues of succeeding in a traditionally male dominated field. The film shows pride and joy from women who break glass ceilings like crème brûlée tapped with a spoon.

Gallus admirably approaches the topic from the perspective of intersectional feminism and ensures that women of varying races and orientations have a place at the table. The conversation for representation only works if it’s inclusive and The Heat encourages audiences to consider diverse hands chopping, preparing, mixing, and plating the foods that consumers see as high cuisine. The stories illustrate how much a diner can take for granted.

For example, just take the perspective of Toronto chef Suzanne Barr who chats with Gallus from behind the counter of Saturday Dinette, a now defunct hole in the wall on Gerrard Street in the city’s East End. Barr dishes about the satisfaction she enjoys serving hearty meals in a space she carved for herself in a field dominated by white men. Her kitchen is a quietly political act that continues the legacy of shared experiences through food passed down from her mother, but more significantly, the greasy spoon lets Barr reclaim a space previously denied to Black diners. The walls of Saturday Dinette, adorned with photographs from sit-ins during the Civil Rights movement, acknowledge the systemic inequality on both sides of the counter. Other sequences observing chefs such as Amanda Cohen, Anne-Sophie Pic, and particularly New York chef Anita Lo highlight how increasing representation in the kitchen matters.

Gallus interviews the chefs in addition to filming them on the job. The chefs outline several awful experiences with the bitter taste of toxic masculinity that too frequently overwhelms kitchens. Stories of verbal and physical abuse, shot in interviews prior to the downfall of Harvey Weinstein and the larger cultural “reckoning,” are not unique in this film. However, the chefs shake off these tales and frankly admit that the toxicity is a product of a fast-paced workplace they had to deal with while advancing their careers. It’s not a necessary factor, though, as the hustle bustle Gallus observes in the kitchens commandeered by woman is often one of orderly, respectful chaos.

One also can’t overlook the chefs’ agreement to be defined by their creations rather than their gender. More than one chef acknowledges that a unique “female” flavour doesn’t signal to diners the gender of a cook. They just want a fair shot at the same opportunities men enjoy, and in that regard especially, The Heat is an appropriate, positive, and inclusive selection for opening night at Hot Docs’ female- friendly festival.

One can’t overlook how relevant the conversation of The Heat is to the film industry. One could easily substitute each chef with a director and each restaurant with a film to drive the same conversation encouraging the film industry to push for change. The doc leaves ample food for thought as the festival serves a buffet of female-driven stories. Bon appétit!

The Heat screens:
-Thurs, Apr. 26 at 9:30 PM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
-Sat, Apr. 28 at 1:15 PM at TIFF Lightbox
-Sun, May 6 at 3:30 PM at Isabel Bader

It opens theatrically at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Friday, May 11.

Hot Docs runs April 26 to May 6. Please visit hotdocs.ca for more info.

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival!