Dining Matters

Balancing Chef Life and Motherhood Threatens to Drive Some Culinary Talent Out of the Industry

Here's how four women make it work.

By Allecia Vermillion October 19, 2016 Published in the November 2016 issue of Seattle Met

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Mutsuko Soma rolls soba noodles in her home studio, little Hibiki in tow.

After the birth of her daughter, Lauren Thompson returned to work at Cafe Juanita, not as a line cook, but as pastaiolo, able to make pasta by her own hours and even sit on a stool, which helped enormously when she got pregnant again, with her son, a year later, in 2008. Which isn’t to say the gig was overly cushy—the only available electrical outlet for her breast pump was in the doorless beverage storage room. She installed a curtain and, during pumping sessions, fielded requests from servers on the other side: “When you’re done can you bring down four Cokes?” 

So when her boss, Holly Smith, offered Thompson the chef de cuisine position, her first reaction was, “I have to say no.” Her then husband disagreed: Opportunities to run one of the region’s most respected fine dining restaurants don’t come along that often. He soloed with their infant and toddler five nights a week; Thompson traded flexible scheduling for the vagaries of dinner service and a chance to design a menu alongside the James Beard Award–winning Smith.

Cafe Juanita is one of about 15 establishments in our accounting of the city’s 100 best restaurants where a woman’s in charge. Earlier this year, the national website Eater examined the myriad ways—lack of paid leave, lack of evening and weekend child care, lack of anyone to cover your shift—the restaurant industry makes it nigh impossible to have kids and stay in the game. Seattle may be the land of equal-opportunity parenting and increasingly prevalent paternity leave, but gestating and dispatching a tiny human into the world is one of the few duties unequivocally specific to women. And if those chefs don’t come back, their culinary talents and perspectives leave us too. 

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This sort of
culinary deficit was readily apparent when chef Mutsuko Soma announced in January she would leave her post at Miyabi 45th in Wallingford in anticipation of having a baby girl. Referencing your uterus in a press release is weird, she acknowledged recently over a beer, six-month-old Hibiki (named for the whiskey) in tow. Soma was the only chef on the West Coast rolling Japan’s traditional soba noodles by hand. She initially planned a maternity leave, but when the owners redirected Miyabi’s focus toward sushi, Soma chose to stay home with her daughter, at least for now, and revert to her popup origins. She puts on soba dinners—to keep skills sharp, maybe attract investors—and teaches noodlemaking classes in her home studio. 

Owning the restaurant can certainly help when women add children to the mix; chef spouses Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi arrange their schedules to have one night a week with both parents at home with the kids. But in some ways, ownership presents even more challenges. The couple debuted their first child (Pike) and their second restaurant (Revel) six months apart. Because Revel focused on Yang’s Korean heritage, she remembers, “I couldn’t take a backseat and just be at home.” Having children can even impact the dining geography: By the grace of family, a fantastic nanny, and a network of ancillary caregivers, Yang and Chirchi now have two sons, three Seattle restaurants (Revel, Joule, Trove) and a fourth, Revelry, in Portland—a decision influenced somewhat by Chirchi’s parents living just outside town. 

When it comes to accommodating new parenthood, there’s not an industry in this country that couldn’t improve. And when it comes to making a big deal about the challenges of balancing work and childbearing, there probably isn’t a group less inclined to complain than female chefs, who historically edged their way into this male-dominated industry by being as tough as their cohorts. Carrie Mashaney of Mamnoon gets twitchy about any implication that moms on the kitchen line merit special consideration over anyone else’s life challenges: “You just do it like everyone else. Make the sacrifice. Period.” Mashaney was chef de cuisine at Aragona before having her son, Felix, almost two years ago. After seven months at home, she was wondering what else she could possibly do—work at a bakery? sell real estate?—since a stimulating gig with flexibility seemed unlikely. Until her old boss, Jason Stratton, moved to Mamnoon and tapped her to take over the restaurant’s first-rate bread and pastry program, a part-time day role. “They were really willing to make concessions for my schedule and my family,” Mashaney says of Mamnoon’s owners, Wassef and Racha Haroun, themselves parents. Recently, with Stratton at their new restaurant Mbar, the Harouns asked Mashaney to take over as executive chef. After some real talk with her husband and her nanny, she heads up a kitchen once again. 

To have children and remain in this demanding, unforgiving, but entirely irrepressible calling of a career also means forgoing evenings together, seeing them for maybe one bleary-eyed hour each morning. Lauren Thompson rises a few hours after getting home from Cafe Juanita to drive her kids to school—even when they’re staying at their dad’s house—otherwise she might not see them for days. Her career choice comes with trade-offs, yes, but parenting is a long game. 

“If they see me doing something I’m passionate about, following my dreams—hopefully they’ll learn to do the same.”

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