Jessica Maher of Lenoir on Balancing a Life in Food with Family Life

todd and jess close up Jessica Maher of Lenoir on Balancing a Life in Food with Family LifeJessica Maher is an award-winning pastry chef and owner of Lenoir in Austin, Texas, a recipient of a 2013 Diners’ Choice Award for Top 100 Fit for Foodies Restaurants in America. Before moving to Austin in 2007, she worked at top Manhattan restaurants, including Bouley and Savoy. She is mom to Hollis, 3, and is pregnant with baby #2, who is due any day now. Jessica and her husband, Lenoir chef Todd Duplechan, are also opening a kitchen store right next door to Lenoir later this year.

I read that you and your husband had been talking about opening Lenoir and then you got pregnant, so you waited until your son was born to pursue it.

Well, it’s more complicated than that. It’s actually that we looked at spaces for a really long time, and we just couldn’t find a one that worked. I don’t know that if we had been pregnant or not it would have made any difference because it doesn’t make it any easier to already have a child. The one thing that did make a difference was that my husband was working at the Four Seasons, and he had really amazing benefits.

We felt like we should take advantage of that while he still worked there because after he did leave, it was going to cost a lot of money. We have health insurance now, but it doesn’t cover maternity because we are in Texas and they just don’t really care about women’s reproductive rights at all, unless you’re on group insurance.

Because of the changes in the health care laws now, they can’t deny people maternity coverage, but our insurance is such that if we changed and added that coverage, we’d have to change our policy entirely and our premiums would go up, as would our deductible. It is literally like six times as much at least, six or seven times more, this time than it was for us to have our first child.

When I spoke with Joan Schmitt and Susan Dunlop of Joan’s in the Park, they mentioned the benefits of having a corporate restaurant job while raising your kids because it can be a bit more predictable, in terms of finances, or as you mentioned, benefits.

I honestly don’t think there is any more predictability about working in a corporate restaurant environment than there is in an independent one. Because it is still the food industry, and it is still events, parties, holidays, all of that. My husband’s schedule at the Four Seasons was not any better than it is now; actually, it is better now. We have more control over it. He might have made a little more money and had a 401(k), but his life was not his own. He had no say over what he could and couldn’t do.

Having not ever owned a restaurant without having a child, I couldn’t tell you if it’s any easier or not to raise a family in a corporate restaurant job. I can’t imagine it is; the stress is the stress, and then the stress of having a family is just different. I think it is the reward, though; something I can come back to and know I’ve realized my priority in life is my son’s emotional and physical well being and that I can separate myself from the stress of life because I’ve got this other thing that’s actually more of a priority to me.

You are a pastry chef, who met and fell in love with your husband, who is a chef. Did you always know, then, that you were going to have to balance motherhood with your career? And, did you always know that the two of you wanted to have your own restaurant?

I did not always think I wanted children. It wasn’t an accident that we had our son at all; it was definitely that my biological clock set in big time. I really was more focused on what I wanted my career to be than having a family. We knew we wanted a restaurant, always — even when we first started dating. We kind of daydreamed about it in Austin, specifically. It’s worked out, and then the family part of it is just a layer that’s added on, which is also great because we really enjoy that, too.

How challenging is it to take all of this on at once?

It’s incredibly challenging, but we are also in the really early stages. Young kids just need you all the time, and I know when they get older, it is a little bit easier. I just try to keep very mindful of the timing; nothing ever lasts forever. The hard things eventually become something in your review mirror, and then you have other challenges ahead of you. I wouldn’t say that I would recommend anybody to open a restaurant with young kids.

Also, we have a very small restaurant, and that’s another big challenge. I think if we had a place that’s was larger, say 60 seats, then maybe we could afford to hire more people to help run it. It’s very challenging, but it’s also what I’ve always wanted — a small restaurant.

Did friends or family caution you when you were saying that you were going to start a family? 

They think we are crazy anyway because we are in the restaurant industry.

Are there any women that you have looked to you as a role model or inspiration, in terms of having a restaurant and having a family?

Yeah, there are actually couple of people. I have a close friend, who I actually went to college with, not culinary school, but she went into cooking first and then I was inspired to follow her. She worked in New York, and now she and her husband own a restaurant in San Francisco called Rich Table, and we talk almost every day because we are literally in the exact same position. We all met at Bouley in New York, coupled up, and branched out from, and we all wanted to open restaurants — and we did it.

She just had her second child, and our kids are about the same age apart. They opened their restaurant maybe six or eight months after we opened ours; it’s kind of amazing. Now I feel like she is my — it’s not even example — but my person to lean on and to talk to about these challenges.

I wouldn’t say there is any woman that I met who ever feels like she’s totally got it down. We are making it all work.

What are some of the challenges of having a family and a restaurant – and then layering on top of that being pregnant? You’re helping around the restaurant, working on opening your new store, raising your son, and then your body is…

Not working properly. The first time around, I really felt that pregnancy is hard, and I had some stuff happen to me that was really emotional, especially being pregnant for the first time. Now, I’ve got almost three and a half year old, and this is by far the most challenging stage of his life that we’ve been through. His brain is developing and he’s very independent. And, he is strong and big, and I can’t carry him anymore, but I have to. I think people tend to think if you’re pregnant, there are these physical things that you can’t do, that you should not be doing, because you have to take care of yourself. You need to sleep more, you need to do whatever, and I don’t have that option.

That is really challenging, and I also don’t have the option to not work — not that I wouldn’t want to work either, but I have to work. With my son, though, you don’t get this time back, so it is really important for me to be able to spend time with him as well.

I’m guessing then that there is a big guilt factor.

Completely. No matter what, you feel guilty about work, guilty about the kid, guilty about not taking care of myself, guilty about not being able to be as cool to my husband as I should be, and being emotional.

Your restaurant is also getting a great deal of attention now, so I imagine there are increased demands and expectations around that, which sounds quite overwhelming.

It is. I’m actively trying not to over think it because it’s not going to do any good. My mom just told me last night that I inherited the worry gene from her and worrying never really changes anything, so I just have to relax a little bit.

You just have to let some of things go because there is not enough time in the day to make sure that your life is completely organized, to have the Martha Stewart lifestyle that we all want to have. You’re constantly showing your kids how to hand-make everything and teaching them how to do all these things for themselves. When I can do that, I love it, and when I can’t do it, I’m beating myself up that I’m not doing it.

Plus, childbirth, having gone through it once, is no small endeavor. Yet, I’m planning around it like a doctor’s appointment, like, okay, I’ll do this, and then I’ll come home. But we haven’t even met this baby yet, so we don’t even know what it’s going to be like. Maybe he’ll be chill and healthy, and maybe he won’t be and we’ll have a whole new set of challenges.

Were you able to take some leave after your first pregnancy?

Yes, I stopped working, not entirely, but for about the first nine months, I didn’t work full time. Then, it kind of made me very nervous to finding someone who could take care of him and just leaving him with someone. This time around, I’m more open to the idea of hiring someone to help me — and very soon — because I just know I’m going to need it. I just have a lot of responsibilities, and I’m not going to be able to handle it all.

I also did cloth diapering the first time round, and I still have them all. But, I’m going to give myself a pep talk: If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. Because you have to wash diapers every day and then sun dry them. Is that ridiculous or what?

I interviewed Suzette Gresham from Acquerello and she mentioned that she had done the cloth diaper thing, too, and she thinks taking that on is an indication of the fact that people in the restaurant industry and chefs are already really ambitious people, so, of course, they will take that challenge on.

I was talking to my friend Sarah from Rich Table and she says she feels guilty all the time. Like, here is something in my son’s lunch that I didn’t make myself. It’s so silly; we put all these pressures on ourselves to do all these things, but, at the same time, that’s why we are where we are because we are really ambitious and we are striving for perfection. We are never satisfied, so we keep trying to make it better. I’m sure a lot of people are like that anyway, but I definitely have friends who are not in the restaurant industry who don’t put those pressures on themselves at all.

Do you think men are able to compartmentalize the guilt better than women? Sort of, when they’re at work, they are able to put aside the pangs a bit more easily?

Yes, absolutely. That’s the thing. I know that my husband is as stressed out as I am, but he’s not going to talk about that. He can definitely push it inside. But it manifests itself in different ways that are not healthy either, like physically.

You’re thinking, “Please don’t have a heart attack.”

Exactly, it happens all the time, and it’s terrifying because we are all doing it; we are all trying to achieve a goal, but it is constantly the rabbit chasing the carrot. The carrot is financial success because that is going to make our lives so much easier, but it never does; it just doesn’t. At some point, we just have to be content with the level of success that we achieve and and just that.

In my mind, when I thought of having a restaurant 15 years ago, I thought it would be so cool to have this family-owned restaurant and that was just what we did all day. I would come in early, water the flowers, and make everything look nice, and then work in the kitchen. But, it has gotten so far away from that. It’s like celebrity is the dream — not the dream, but almost as if that’s what you have to do to be successful.

What are the things that are most rewarding, in terms of being able to model to your children that you have opened a successful business and you have a great family?

One of the big ones for me is that I can make my own schedule. I can bring my son to the restaurant, and he can see us working. He is a growing up kind of early, but he gets to participate and he gets to learn about cooking. The thing that’s not great is that he does not have a consistent life; it’s just different than other kids’ lives.

Another thing I really love about having the restaurant is being able to identify and support causes I’m passionate about. I also have a wider audience to talk to about things, which is really wonderful. I just feel very lucky to have a restaurant because it’s truly like one of the coolest businesses to be in. You get to meet so many people from all walks of life who are touched by our food and the service experience.

Chef Gabriel Prune and a few other women chefs have said the best way to really balance being a mom and being a chef or restaurateur is to own the restaurant that you work at.

In Blood, Bones & Butter, she writes about expecting her second child and having half her staff quit. She ends up having to call the doctor to schedule an inducement because she didn’t have time to wait around to have this baby. You do get to control things a little bit more as an owner, but it is the restaurant industry, and, no matter what, there’s going to be a certain amount of lack of control.

Even if it’s not your own restaurant, something is going to pop up that you have to take care of as the chef or owner. The expectation is more that you can’t just say I’m not doing this; you have to do it. The decisions your staff members make will affect you greatly because you are the owner, and you don’t have any choice but to work when they cannot.

Is there some overlap between the skill sets you need for motherhood and running a restaurant?

I would say it’s exactly the same. It does feel like being a parent to people at the restaurant and trying to get the best out of them and still make them happy. I think about everyone’s financial well being and making sure that they are eating. I’m totally mommy-ing everybody around me, just everybody. I can’t help it; I just want everyone to be healthy and happy.

Do you think there is anything the industry could do as a whole to sort of help women who are in the industry and want to have a family?

No, I don’t think so. I mean that would be great, but you can’t give special treatment to women just because they are women. We want to have it all, and I really feel like the best thing is to just kind of accept wherever we are in our lives and be happy with that.

My mom had the same challenges, and she’s not in the restaurant industry, so there is nothing different about being in the business than there is in being in any industry if you are a working mother.

Is there anything, such as your phone, that just helps you stay sane and organized throughout all this?

No! I would love to say yes. I make a Google task list every day, and I just try to get through it. I’m really glad that I have my mobile phone, but it also has become a  conflict of interest with being a mom and being a good, attentive parent. Because now I feel I have to be just as attentive to the emails that are coming in as I do to what my son’s needs are.

Balance – is it possible to achieve?

I will say that I’m doing a very poor job of balancing my life, but, also, I’m still doing it, so maybe I’m not doing a poor job. Maybe I have been doing a good job of it somehow. I am amazed at how much we have been able to take on. We are opening a kitchen store next door to the restaurant, and it is a completely new type of business. The idea that we are actually opening this thing at the same time as we are having a new child is pretty insane. I would say that it’s not impossible to balance your life; it’s just that your idea of what balance is has to shift.

Do you have any advice to people for that pastry chef or  sous chef who is thinking she wants to have her own restaurant and family?

Make sure it’s really what you want to do and know that it’s going to consume your life. I’m not really sure how people do it when they are not in a situation like I am, where they don’t have a spouse who does the same thing and can understand.

We have both been doing this for so long that we totally get that this is what the restaurant industry is. If you think that there is some kind of magic cure to having to work all the time, there isn’t. It only gets more complicated and harder. Only do it if you really, really love it and you really want to do it. I think that the important thing is that people know what their priorities are.

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