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

todd and jess_close upJessica 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? Continue Reading

Chef-Mom Suzette Gresham of Acquerello on Mothering Her Daughters + Her Staff

Suzette blogWe 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. Continue Reading

Bauer’s Bay Area Top 100 Restaurants 2014

nowWe’re pleased to showcase this year’s San Francisco Chronicle Top 100 Restaurants in the Bay Area. Selected by esteemed restaurant critic Michael Bauer, the list represents the very best of the greater San Francisco area, from the city proper and Berkeley and Oakland to Mill Valley and wine country.

There are 20 new additions to this year’s list including Akiko’s Restaurant and Sushi Bar, Bar Agricole, Coqueta, Madrona Manor, Nico, Range, Sir and Star at The Olema, Sante, and St. Vincent, among others.

How many have you tried any– and how many will you try in 2014? Make a reservation today to get a jump start on eating your way through the Bay Area’s best restaurants.

Joan Schmitt + Susan Dunlop of Joan’s in the Park on Raising a Restaurant After Raising a Family

JoansIn our second interview with some of the talented women featured in our Top 10 Mom-Owned Restaurants in America spotlight, we spoke with Joan Schmitt and Susan Dunlop, co-owners of Joan’s in the Park in St. Paul, Minnesota. Joan’s opened in late 2011, has garnered many accolades locally and nationally, including a 2013 Diners’ Choice Award for Top 100 Best Overall Restaurants in America. The married couple’s blended family includes Joan’s children, Dan, 33, Mark, 30, and Kelly, 27, and Susan’s daughter, Lindsay, 26, all of whom work at the restaurant, either full or part time.

How did Joan’s in the Park come about?  And, how did you balance your family life while opening a restaurant?

Susan: Joan and I worked together at Morton’s Steakhouse in Florida. At that point, we’d started talking about doing our own restaurant, but Joan was from Minnesota, and her kids were all there. Our thought, this was in 2006, was that we would make a plan to get back to Saint Paul and do the restaurant and have our kids involved in it as well. They were all in the restaurant business to begin with. So, we had an opportunity to do something with our children, something that they were already involved in.

Did you both know that you wanted to work in the restaurant industry, and did you always know that you were going to be a working mom at some point?

Susan: Absolutely. I think I really wanted to have children, but I wasn’t a person to stay at home and not work outside the house and have a career. That was always important. Both things have always been important to me. My whole life has been balancing that, trying to make that work.

Joan: For me, I knew my entire life that I wanted children and if I could have been a stay-at-home mom, I would have done it in a heartbeat. Working in a restaurant allowed me the freedom to be home all day with them and still be involved in school and everything, and then also have a career.

What are the challenges around being the head of your family and the head of a business? Can you talk about some of the challenges around that?

Susan: I think for us the biggest challenge was that we both came from working in a corporate environment where you have departments that handle different things for you. To go from that kind of comfort to just everything being on us, that was the bigger transition than our families. Our children were grown and out of the house and financially successful before we started our own restaurant. I’ve always wanted to have a restaurant, but it wasn’t feasible when my daughter was still in high school or going to college because of the risk that you take when you leave a really comfortable corporate position and take everything you own and put it into a restaurant. I think sometimes that’s just not realistic, if you have a family that you’re responsible for.

There is a juggling act along the way of having to make hard choices and maybe sometimes either disappointing your child or disappointing your boss, I’m sure.

Joan: I think that happens to everybody, but for me, it was really hard and to have three that were all very involved in school and with friends outside of school. I was the general manager at Morton’s, and it was many hours of responsibility, but my kids understood that we had nice lifestyle, and that was due to me having to work. They didn’t mind a lot when I had to miss things, and we just prioritized what the really important events were that I always attended and I just let the little ones go.

Susan: I think also that things have changed. People’s ideas about things have changed in the 20 plus years we’ve been doing this. In the beginning, 20 years ago, the expectation was, and maybe this is what we call old school, that you took care of your work and work was your priority. Nobody wanted to hear that you had a baseball game or something to do with the kids. After 9/11, though, I think it really put things in perspective for people that work didn’t have to always come first, and I think that made it easier to start making some sacrifices at work to do more things with your family.

My expectation now, for all my staff, is a lot different, as far as making accommodations for things that they want to do outside of work. We have two women working for us who both have children, and we’re much kinder and gentler, as far as making accommodations for kids.

Do you think there is anything that the industry could do across the board, either in big or small ways, to help women who want to be in the culinary industry and still have a family?

Joan: I would like to see more restaurants change their hours on holidays. It’s really hard to be a new person in a restaurant and have to work Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and that part of owning is really nice, that we’re able to say, “You know what? We’re not going to open on Christmas Eve, so that people can be with their families.”

Susan: I don’t think it’s the industry that needs to change. I think it’s people’s expectations of things — as a society, saying, “You know, I’m not going to go out on Christmas Day because I know people have to work to take care of me.” However, if you want to accomplish something, you’re going to have to put long hours in. It’s a personal choice.

When we put together the list of Top 10 Mom-Owned Restaurants in America, we thought we’d come up with a lot more than we did. But, while there are many female-owned restaurants, there are far fewer of these women who are also moms. Does that speak to the fact that you waited until a certain point in your children’s lives to sort of tackle entrepreneurship? Continue Reading