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

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 have worked 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 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.”

Despite the challenges of being a chef/mother—working a minimum of 60 hours a week, late into night—many industry women say they cannot imagine leaving the business. “The restaurant business is a passion,” says Gina Chersevani, who has two kids under the age of two and runs two thriving businesses in Washington, DC—Buffalo & Bergen, a 1930s style soda, knish & bagel counter, and Suburbia, a 1967 Airstream trailer/mobile bar with 10 taps and six frozen drink machines. “It’s an expression of who I am and what I love and it feeds my soul. If I didn’t do it, I would be resentful of my children.”

A pioneer in the world of artisan cocktails, Chersevani was on her way to Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans when she found out she was pregnant. When she came clean that the reason she wasn’t drinking was because she was having a baby, she was met with this prediction: career suicide. “I was determined that it not be. I had to make it work to prove them wrong,” she said.

Chersevani’s career has not disintegrated; there has been no “suicide.” She works full-time and is a very active parent thanks to the help of a supportive husband, a full-time babysitter, and an endless supply of energy. She is also outspoken on the need to support women in the industry. “It’s just assumed that we will stay home once we have babies, but women have fought so hard to be recognized and there’s still five men to every woman.”

Chersevani has a point. Looking at the big picture, men overwhelmingly hold the highest paying and most prominent kitchen jobs at ambitious, independent restaurants across America. Women occupy just 6.3 percent, or 10 out of 160 head chef positions at 15 prominent U.S. restaurant groups analyzed by Bloomberg in 2014. Supportive parental-leave policies may in fact be crucial to changing this disparity.

“It can be done, you can give someone time off, and pay them something, even if it’s a portion of their salary, you can plan ahead to accommodate that leave,” said Chersevani.

Katy Sparks, a culinary consultant who had her son Luke in 2000 while she was executive chef at the well-reviewed New York City restaurant Quilty’s, is also adamant that the industry needs to step up to the plate (pardon the pun). At Quilty’s, Sparks was given paid maternity leave—full salary for six weeks.

“Every person deserves paid leave. It might be four weeks, it might be more, but it is short-sighted to not pay someone,” she said. “If you are a productive member of the team, it is an investment. The burden is on the employer to make it work. If you benefit from their top energy and best work you have to be there when they are sick or on maternity leave. You can’t cherry pick. That’s not cool.”

Other mothers in the industry say that while they’d love to see it happen, maternity leave is just not realistic. Blake says, quite frankly, she just can’t afford it. “I own my restaurant without investors,” she said. “I wish I could work out a great benefits program for my staff but it’s so hard, especially as a mom and pop. I’m hopeful that I can in the future.”

Amanda Cohen, the chef and owner of Dirt Candy in New York City, wants to see the status quo change. “Every other country has worked it out so that you are allowed to take maternity leave, and your job is held and you are temporarily replaced,” she said. “Sure, in restaurants, it’s hard with such small margins.” But Cohen says it’s a challenge the industry should try to tackle.

“We don’t charge enough for the experience, so as a whole restaurant nation we need to figure it out and offer health care and maternity leave. My best friend is in Ireland and runs a restaurant there and she has had two kids and has taken a year off with each of them. They worked it out, if their restaurant can figure it out I can do it.”

Some pioneering restaurants are in fact making strides. Molly Moon’s Homemade Ice Cream, a Seattle chain, recently began offering employees 12 weeks of paid parental leave. “It was not just the right thing to do but also a really important retention policy,” said Molly Moon Neitzel, the owner, to the New York Times.

David Chang’s Momofuku restaurant group offers up to four weeks paid maternity and paternity leave. Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group offers all hourly employees short-term disability at twice the rate ($340 per week), and an option to purchase additional benefits from Aflac. Last year the company started a pilot parental leave program offering salaried Union Square Hospitality office staff four weeks at 100% salary and the second four at 60% (for the birth mother), and two weeks full salary for non-birth mother.

In addition, parental leave is given to salaried restaurant workers based on years of service. There’s a graduating scale: employees with two years of service are eligible for two weeks of full paid paternal leave, and employees with 10+ years of service are eligible for up five weeks. (Non-primary caregivers receive one week of full paid paternal leave.)

“We are constantly looking for ways to make improvements and are trying to take into consideration all types of families,” said Erin Moran, Chief Culture Officer. “We offer some income replacement, but looking ahead I am thinking about a more holistic approach to take care of our people overall as new parents—childcare, career coaching, programs to enhance life-work balance. As a company we are committed to implementing programs to take care of our people first.”

Jamie Leeds, the chef and owner of Hanks Oyster Bar, which has three locations in DC area, offers paid maternity leave because she says it’s the right thing to do. “It’s very important to support women in this industry,” said Leeds, who has a son. “Being a woman, I know what it takes to be successful in this business. It’s very challenging, and any support any owner can give to help women become successful is very important.”

Leeds has given paid leave to both men and women who have had children on her watch—four weeks to a bartender and six to her beverage manager (Chersevani, mentioned above). And when a prep cook was having issues paying for a good babysitter, she also stepped in, paying for the sitter so her cook could come to work and feel comfortable knowing her child was in good hands.

“She was a very loyal, very committed employee,” said Leeds. “My feeling is that employees are the most important part of my business. You have to take care of your people.”