Jessica 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.
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