By Allison Gray, PBS Food
Kate Thorman and Nora Chovanec are exploring the land they traverse through the scope of food. The duo created Abbott & West Productions with the aim of making “spirited, creative, and thoughtful media for our interconnected world.” For their first production they created a web series called “The Innocents Abroad,” which focuses on food and traveling. Already they have covered destinations such as England, Venezuela, Canada and Mexico. Learn about these woman adventurers as they divulge more about their inspiration below.
Abbott and West are two of many women who have made successful careers in the media. Why do these figures stand out among the rest for you?
Because we see what we’re doing as something spirited and innovative, we wanted our brand to be represented by women who changed media in a tangible way: women who not only paved the way for other women, but who shaped the industry overall.
Berenice Abbott is often recognized for bringing Parisian photographer Eugène Atget’s work to the attention of American audiences, but she herself was at the forefront of street photography in the 1920s and 30s, changing the world’s vision of New York. While many artists have photographed New York over the years, her work continues to be recognized as a definitive record of the city. Right now, there are many talented people in media – especially in the food and travel arenas, where we’re focusing with The Innocents Abroad – but we feel there is certain whimsical, yet informative quality that is missing. We bring a different energy to the table and, just like Abbott, are attempting to craft a new vision of our interconnected world.
While she is best known for pushing the envelope with media censors, Mae West was an early female pioneer in writing and directing plays and movies. She was also one of the most influential figures in an industry and era dominated by men. While much has changed since her time, much has still remained the same. One of the reasons we started the company was because, looking at mainstream food and travel media, we didn’t see many people like us – fun, fearless, intelligent women in their 20s who are engaged in the world around them. West broke from the mold and made a crucial place for herself in history, just like we hope to do!
As women in media, we wouldn’t be able to be where we are, wouldn’t be able to see the world the way we do without these two and neither would many of the other women who’ve had successful careers. There are numerous other groundbreaking female figures we could have chosen, but we liked that these two were both relatively early in the industry…and their names sounded good together!
Which one of you is “Abbott” and which one is “West”? Why?
The best answer is probably neither and both! We didn’t pick these two because they’re each like one of us, but rather because we liked what they stood for in terms of our company. That said, we both have aspects of each of them. Nora’s background is as a photographer, like Abbott, while Kate is a writer and has more of a narrative film background, like West. To flip it around, Kate used to live in Paris and is a complete francophile, like Abbott, while Nora is more of a performer and used to act on stage, like West. So, basically, we’re the perfect combination of the two.
In what ways are you similar to and different from Abbott and West?
We like to think that our tenacity and drive are similar to theirs. They certainly encountered more obstacles than we will ever have to, just purely by being women in that era, but media is still a difficult industry to succeed in and we take inspiration from their perseverance and dedication. We also share with Abbott a love of travel, destination and the cityscape, as well as a respect for arresting images that tell stories and transport you to other places. And, obviously, we’re working with moving pictures as a medium, like West.
On a superficial level, though, we are quite different from them. We both come from the west coast originally, and live in an era where we didn’t have the opportunity to dive right into our passions, the way these two were able to. We’ve gone through more circuitous routes to be able to work on projects and in the industries we love, but, at the same time, those varied experiences have greatly shaped the work we do. Also, Abbott and West hustled alone, while we find that being partners in the company, bouncing ideas off of one another and bringing different experiences to the table certainly improves our work and perspective.
Why do you feel it is important to pay homage to your predecessors?
Well, we don’t exist in a vacuum. That’s really a key tenet of our whole production company and, obviously, our first project, The Innocents Abroad. We can’t survive or accomplish much without others, and we want to find new and thoughtful ways to connect people. So, it goes back to the idea of us not being able to be here without those who’ve come before us. Even more than that, we wouldn’t want to be here without them; there’s a whole tradition and story that informs who we are and the work that we do, and we think it’s worth sharing.
On a less philosophical note, we wanted to imbue our company and our projects with a sense of history, both in a sort of return to the glamour of early films and photography and travel, as well as in exploring the histories and evolution of different cultures and cuisines like we do in The Innocents Abroad. So, honoring two landmark figures from an earlier era played into that.
How do you go about giving your readers the “all-encompassing media experience” while still channeling women who were born in the 1800s?
Again, it’s about channeling women who’ve changed the landscape of the media industry. Both Abbott and West were ahead of their times, leading the way for others. So, while we’re in a completely different era and set of circumstances, we hope we’re doing the same thing. An “all-encompassing media experience” is not just about producing a lot of content in different fields, whether it be in a video, photograph, article, tweet or media community, but extends beyond that to creating quality work that connects people across cultures. Information is constantly available in this day and age, but society is still figuring out the best way to curate the worthwhile media. The hope is that our company’s keen eye for both production and curation channels the same high content standards and individuality of Abbott & West.
Meet Kate Thorman and Nora Chovanec
A California girl at heart, Kate Thorman came to New York City after years of traveling around the world and living in Paris. She told her first story before she could write and made her first movie when she was 13. Everything she has done since – from crashing motorbikes in Bali to nannying in Istanbul – has been in pursuit of the stories she’d tell through her writing and with her own production company. Kate now splits her time between Abbott & West, freelance writing, and an editor role at Mr & Mrs Smith, all of which provide her plenty of opportunities to travel, eat and meet people.
Originally from Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Nora Chovanec ended up in New York by way of Mexico City. As an artist and designer, much of her work focuses on the environment and agriculture. Nora currently works for the world-renowned artist Maya Lin (of the Vietnam War Memorial and, most recently, the What is Missing? Foundation). She bakes pie like nobody’s business, is a killer backgammon player and adores riding her Linus bike around the five boroughs. A seriously impressive cook with an inquisitive mind and a taste for the unexpected, Nora uses any excuse to travel, eat and learn about other cultures, which Abbott & West has allowed her to do.