Is Mom in the Kitchen? The Challenges of Being a Chef & a Mother

August 7, 2015
- written by Andrea Strong for Open for Business

In 2009, when chef Alexandra Raij had her first child, she was sure of one thing--she would be back to work within weeks, not months. She had no other option.

"It was just not possible to take more time off," said Raij, who is the co-chef and co-owner, with her husband Eder Montero, of the Basque restaurants La Vara, Txikito and El Quinto Pino in New York City. "I was the chef at a small restaurant where I actually cooked every night," she said. She and her husband hired a full-time sitter and began alternating nights at home with the baby to make it work.

Six years later, the couple has two kids, and they're still doing the circus act--juggling childcare with the running of three successful restaurants in two different boroughs. Given that she herself went through the hardship of having an infant and returning to work almost immediately, you'd imagine Raij would offer her employees at least some paid maternity leave. But you'd be wrong.

"As a small restaurant owner, I can't afford to provide paid maternity leave," she says. "The margins are too small and the reliance on the human hand is too strong. It would sink the restaurant. You can't just disappear and not make food for three months. The small boutique restaurant doesn't behave like the rest of America."

But the rest of America may not be the best benchmark. The U.S. is one of only four countries in the world--along with Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Papua New Guinea--that does not guarantee the right to paid maternity leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act requires companies with more than 50 employees to give new parents up to 12 weeks off--but that's without pay.

While President Obama is pushing for a national paid parental-leave policy, a few states offer taxpayer-funded family and medical leave, and leading companies like Toms, Facebook, Apple, Google, and Yahoo offer some of the most generous parental leave policies in the U.S. (up to 18 weeks paid leave) these companies are an anomaly. And restaurants, as Raij aptly points out, are unique animals.

The challenges facing working mothers--and fathers--in the restaurant industry are exceptional-- the hours are long and often at night (and most day care centers don't offer late night hours); cooks are creative, hands-on artists who cannot easily be replaced; and profit margins are notoriously small, prohibiting restaurants from paying maternity leave or other assistance with childcare. The result: most women who have kids get out of the kitchen.

"A lot of chefs who become mothers pursue corporate positions, jobs in public relations, move to recipe styling and developing, or to running non-profits," says Lisa Necrason, Executive Director of the International Association of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, a nonprofit whose mission is to support and promote culinary women through education advancement network and opportunity. "They follow paths that are more conducive to the more personal job of being a mom."

Take Ginny Iverson. In 2009, she was the sous chef of a small, popular restaurant in New York City's East Village when she became pregnant with her first child. She was working in a job she loved, happily married to Eric Korsh, also a chef at the restaurant, and her culinary star was rising. And yet, there was no expectation that she would return to work after her daughter was born. Iverson wasn't happy about it, but says the decision was a no brainer.

"There was no talk of me coming back because there was no expectation of maternity leave, and no way I could afford it otherwise. I was making $120 a shift, working nights, and what we would have paid in childcare would have wiped that out."

Iverson and her husband went on to open two restaurants--Restaurant Eloise in California closed in the midst of the recession and then Calliope, in the East Village, was lost to a frayed business relationship; yet both were very favorably reviewed. She's now a recipe developer at the Food Network.

"When we lost Calliope, I spent a lot of time just sort of reimagining myself as a chef. I wasn't happy with my work lifestyle. I was exhausted from coming home at 2 a.m. and getting up at 6 a.m. I was super stressed all the time because I was juggling too much and my kids were not getting quality time. It was brutal. I knew I had to parlay what I knew into something else."

At Food Network, Iverson says she has found balance. "Doing this makes me very fulfilled," she said. "I have quality of life, and the people I work with are so talented and thoughtful. It has been a great change."

Other women faced with the challenges of raising children from behind the line have returned to cooking. Chef Kathleen Blake has four children (one set of twins) and one restaurant--The Rusty Spoon, an American gastropub focused on local foods in Orlando, Florida.

"I always knew I wanted to have a family and I always knew I wanted to be a chef," she said. The way to do both: it helps to have a husband whose schedule is flexible, and she says, it's important to pick good bosses. "I always chose employers who understood the demands of raising children. Joyce Goldstein, who I worked for at Square One, was a mom too and she just got it," she said. Throughout her career, she and her husband, who works front of the house and in wine sales, would always make sure they had opposite schedules to minimize day care needs.

When Blake opened Primo at the Marriott in Orlando, the restaurant was only open for dinner, allowing her to have early afternoons and weekend mornings for sports games and family activities. Four years ago, she and her husband opened their own place to guarantee they had the added flexibility they needed.

"I wanted to close when I wanted to close," she said. "I wanted to have a restaurant and have a personal life, and I wanted people who doubted it to see that you can have a family in this business."

When Jennifer Webb Day, Executive Chef at Upper Story Charlie Palmer, an event space in New York City's D&D Building, had children, she initially took a break from cooking and went into business as a consultant. But not for long. "I don't thrive being home alone. The kitchen was in my blood and I wanted to get back to it," she said.

Webb Day returned to the stoves, working at Benchmarc (Chef Marc Murphy's events company) as Executive Chef. Her husband, a full time professor, took over the heavy lifting of parenting. The situation has worked well, but no rose is without its thorns. "I have missed a lot of things, lots of firsts in her life, and that is hard," she said.

That line--it's hard--is a very common refrain among mothers who have stayed in the business. "It's a tough industry to have a family in," says Alicia Nosenzo, who is the front-of-the-house partner at New York City's Perilla and Kin Shop and has two young sons, ages seven and four. The early years when her first son was a baby, actually worked well for her. Her husband, an actor, did bedtimes, and she spent mornings with her son until she went to work in the late afternoon.

But when her oldest son started pre-school, she had her second child, and the ground shifted just enough to make her rethink her role. "I wanted to do homework with my kids and wanted to be home for dinner. Young kids really need that parental time," she said. Nosenzo transitioned to a more administrative role, hiring and training, and gave up nearly all of her floor shifts. "The reason I got into this business is because I love service," she said. "I love talking to people, and I don't really do that anymore. And that's hard." There it is again.

Sara Jenkins, the owner of New York City's Porsena, who has a young son, uses this phrase: "Honestly, you're kind of screwed," she says. "I try to work Monday-Friday and take off on weekends, so I am not too exhausted. I comfort myself with the fact that every woman who works outside the home is struggling with this. I am not there for homework and bedtime. There are times when I say goodbye to him in the morning, and I don't see him again 'till I come home at night and he's asleep."

Continue reading "Is Mom in the Kitchen? The Challenges of Being a Chef & a Mother" on Open for Business.

Photo Credit: Erin Kunkel

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