We continue our conversations with some of the esteemed women featured in our Top 10 Mom-Owned Restaurants in America with Suzette Gresham. Chef Gresham is an owner of Acquerello, opened in 1989 and regarded as one of the finest Italian restaurants in San Francisco and the nation. She has established herself as one of the Bay Area’s most respected chefs and guided Acquerello to numerous accolades, including a 2013 Diners’ Choice Award for Top 100 Best Overall Restaurant in America. She is a proud mom to two daughters, Bibiana, 22, and Azaria, 18.
Twenty-five years ago you opened Acquerello. In that time, you became a mother and have successfully raised your kids and your restaurant into adulthood, yet you don’t dole out advice on this topic too often.
Passion makes up for a lot — lack of intelligence and lack of experience. If you are passionate about what you are doing, whether you are raising children or running a restaurant, you have a fighting chance. I think the main thing in life is just believing that you can do something and finding a way. Chefs are kind of like firemen and policemen. We rush right in. We do what we have to do, and we don’t think about ourselves. It’s that attitude of ‘I can do it, I can fix it, and I can save it.’ Maybe it is foolish on some level, but it is what you do and how you are as a person.
You didn’t necessarily set out to become a mother. That wasn’t on your must-do list, but you have two wonderful daughters.
No. I even went to a therapist when I found out I was having girls, and I said, “This is an error. This is a huge error. I can’t have girls. I must have boys.” He said, “Why?” I said, “I’m such a terrible role model for a girl. I’m working in a male-dominated field.” He said, “You are the perfect role model for girl.” It made me feel so much better. What he did was he gave me license. He gave me permission to just love my daughters the way that I want, the way that the world was, and the way that they were going to be in a less perfect state.
The one thing about chefs is we are forever seeking perfection, and we are our biggest and hardest critics. I had to learn: Don’t be judgmental. Don’t be so harsh. Let it go. That is one of the hardest things ever. Things will not be perfect. You will settle for a little bit less, but you will get further and probably do better in the long run. I know what maturity parenthood brings. Part of your soul opens up that isn’t maybe sincerely as accessible without kids. They make you humble.
Chefs work odd hours compared to the rest of the world, yet you’re able to be present when other parents are not. How did your daughters handle this, though, when they were little?
They realized later, but when they were younger, I had to sit down one Saturday when I was at my breaking point and explain. I said, “Do you realize what I do? Do you realize that I was chairman of the book fair? Do you realize that I am at your Girl Scout troop meetings? Do you realize I bake the cakes for your bake sales? Do you realize I bring all of the products whenever you have an event and you need food? Do you realize that I e-mail and talk to all of these parents and I’m involved in all of your educational aspects hands on? The only thing I can’t do is show up at six o’clock in the evening for a PTA meeting because I’m at work.”
In the early years of Acquerello, working moms were certainly common, but I would venture to guess your daughters were probably the only kids at school whose mom was a chef/restaurant owner.
Yes, they were the only ones, and there was not a lot of support in some respects. Some people understood, and some were very disapproving, quite honestly.
It was interesting, yeah, because I was outside the home in the evening when my children needed me, and that’s the way they thought.
Right, it’s like you’re in a circus or something.
You are not there cooking dinner and you are not doing these various things. When I said I couldn’t come to an event and I would ask someone else to either drive my child or if I could share some task, I always reciprocated. I either reciprocated by dropping off pasta or making food. I was so appreciative of anybody who would help me co-parent. Especially when my husband got sick in the year 2000. I think one daughter was maybe 8 or 10 and the other one was 3 or 4, so it was horrible. Actually, my oldest was at a Catholic school at the time, and these parents who I didn’t even know came out of the woodwork to help me because my husband was going through chemo and he was either sick or throwing up or sleeping. He couldn’t tend to the kids. I would have to bundle them up and make sure they had their backpacks for school and their backpacks for that night and arrange for them to go to somebody’s house and sleep over until the next day when I could pick them up in the morning, take them to school, pick them up after school or whatever I could do. I am no stranger to adversity. It was a tough time.
In terms of maternity leave, how much downtime did you have after you had given birth to your children?
I was at the restaurant until the bitter end, and the line cooks were terrified that I would be dropping the baby on the kitchen floor. I was like, “No, no, no that’s not going to happen.” With the first one, I was able to get a good chunk of time, like six weeks or nine weeks or something like that. Plus, I’d had a C-section and I had never had surgery before. It completely took me off my feet. I was unprepared for that.
The second time around, I almost had a nervous breakdown because I had lined up five different people to cover me and everybody fell through. The last person fell through the week before I was going to deliver. Once again, you do what you’ve got to do, but it was less than perfect.
What was coming back to the restaurant like?
When I was just returning to work from having Bibiana, I had to breastfeed and my all-male crew came to me, and they said, “Chef, we have to file a protest.” I said, “What?” They said, “We think it’s disgusting that you have breast milk in the freezer.” I opened the walk-in door and I counted the cartons of dairy milk and I asked, “Do you know any of these cows?” They just looked at me blankly. “When you can answer that question, we will speak,” I said, and I walked away.
I was determined that my daughters would have everything the best, the best of everything. I made it breastfeeding for six months with Bibiana and for six weeks with Azaria.
That is very impressive given the demands of your work life.
It’s idealistic motherhood, of course, thinking that I’m going to do it all. I even had cloth diapers back in the day when, of course, disposable were readily available. But not me! I had to pick the hard road. Chefs are kind of sick like that sometimes.
So, you’re doing all of this and when do you sleep exactly?
You don’t. That’s it. Sleep is not on my list. You just don’t. You make do with what you’ve got to do. The year my daughter was going to start third grade, she was in the Christmas play, and she said, “Mommy, guess what?” I said, “What?” She said, “You are going to make me a sheep hat.” She was going to be in the flock in the Christmas pageant. I’m like, “Oh, that’s great.” She goes, “There are 12 of us.”
I’m by myself running off to Jo-Ann or Michael’s and buying fleece to make little lambs’ ears and sewing until four in the morning making 12 little sheep hats for the Christmas pageant like the day before. And, of course, you can’t go into work and say, “Yeah, I was up until four in the morning making sheep hats.” They are going to look at you like you’re crazy — and you are. You are crazy, but that’s okay.
One thing I’m noticing is that while there are a lot more female chefs out there each and every day, there are just not a lot who are moms. Do you think people are just making the choice, feeling like they can’t do it all, they can’t have it all?
Sure, if you are on the outside and you are looking at this proposition, you would be crazy to pursue it. Why would you want to do that? It seems like insanity. It seems impossible. I didn’t think I was ever having kids and then I had my “oops” moments. The Old World philosophy is one in which all of a sudden you have dinner for two on the table and four people show up, so you add a little water to the soup. That is my mother-in-law’s little thing. You just find a way. You make it work. You do the best you can and don’t give up. You just make it happen. On paper, looking ahead and planning? Hell no! It does not seem like it’s even doable, but, if you are in the middle of it, you just do it.
Are there things big and small that the industry can do to help women who are in the culinary industry have a family, just make it a little easier?
I just think if you ever are in a position to have a co-chef, that’s probably the wave of the future. If you can co-chef with somebody, male or female, the industry is a whole lot more doable. It’s something that we have not tapped into enough as other industries have.
Several female chefs have said they felt like it’s best to own the restaurant to have some semblance of sanity, in terms of being a mother and a chef. Do you feel that way?
You would think that is the answer, but it isn’t the only component. Certainly it is helpful because it makes you feel that you are in charge and you can decide your schedule. But, you still have the same rigors and you still feel guilty for whatever you don’t do, can’t do, or didn’t do. It might be better, but it isn’t necessarily the only way.
Are there any tactics you’ve used that have helped you balance home and work a little bit and stay sane?
I would write notes in my kids’ lunches. I read somewhere that even if you can’t be there, just let the kids know no matter how bad or good their day is, that you are thinking of them, how you love them, and what you are looking forward to. Writing notes was something that I thought was silly, and then, as my kids got older, they would say, “Mom, would you put a note in my lunch?”
Also, when I’m off on Sundays and Mondays, they don’t book events. They don’t go to their friends. They don’t hang out. Sundays and Mondays are for mom. Conversely, if I am doing something, they go with me. They have been to more food events than I don’t know whom, but if I’m doing something, they are a part of it. If not, then I am making some concessions on some other level to try and make up for it or to gain that time back in some way.
What were some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced over the years?
In my world, what was hardest, I think, was hearing what they had done that was wrong and missing that opportunity to correct, guide, or discipline them and hold them accountable. Being able to hold them accountable from a distance is a whole different thing. I had set them up to believe that if I didn’t find out today, I would find out tomorrow. If they think they can pull the wool over your eyes, people do whatever they feel like. You have to be vigilant, and you have to be tough.
Is that unlike the restaurant?
Oh, hell no. It’s the exact same thing. It’s parallel; parenting and running a restaurant are very synonymous, especially if you are the chef in the back of the house with the crew and the crew is on the young side. I’m probably a chef/mom, mom/chef combination. I mother everybody. I do it to my cooks, and I do it to my kids. I just want them to all be good at what they do and be happy.
Do your kids have a sense of how successful your restaurant is after 25 years?
I think the most important thing that comes through is, yes, they are immensely proud, which I never got until they got older, but also I think they are determined. They have the can-do-it attitude. Shoot for the stars. Go for the best you can possibly get and be and do.
Is this idea of balancing a family and a restaurant a bit of bull, if you will?
If you are a perfectionist, yes – and most people in this industry are always striving for perfection. It is really hard to be absolutely perfect at everything every day. Some days you need to choose. You choose and you cover yourself where you can’t be, and you do the best you can where you are. That’s what you have to do with parenting, and that’s what you have to do with running a restaurant.
Is there any advice that you would give to a woman who aspires to build a family and a successful restaurant?
Just gather as much as you can, be as good of a person as you can, keep your objectives and goals in the forefront of your thoughts, don’t give in, and don’t do less. Try hard. It is difficult. There are times you have to adjust on a day-to-day basis and just remember the overall picture.
At the end of the day, if I have inspired anybody that really floats my boat because I love my industry. I love what we do. I love what we represent, and I like who we have become.