Chef Jody Adams was in the kitchen of her Cambridge restaurant, Rialto, when she received an urgent phone call from her husband. “He was taking our daughter bra shopping,” she recalls. “He wanted to know if she was allowed to get a bra with lace. I told him, ‘It’s up to you. I can’t see it from here.’ ”
Such is family life in the restaurant industry. It’s an unforgiving landscape. Nights are busiest. Long days are badges of honor. There are no nursing stations adjacent to the pass, and telecommuting is not an option. How do chefs with families make it work?
“Jody gives us all hope,” says Rebecca Roth Gullo, 37, owner of the South End’s The Gallows. At 56, the vivacious Adams is considered an industry trailblazer who has balanced personal life with successful restaurant work, while making it look (almost) easy. Active in numerous food charities while running Rialto and Boston’s Trade, she now has two grown children.
“Our family had a conversation that involved explaining that my job was to make money to support the family,” Adams says. “There were many times I would’ve preferred to be home, but I also really liked my job. The kids’ job was to go to school. And my husband’s job was to make sure the household ran,” says Adams. “But it was messy sometimes. Life is messy!” Her husband, Ken Rivard, is a writer who works from home. While Adams cooked, he was responsible for daily parenting duties. Now Adams is a mentor for younger restaurateurs trying to juggle.
A supportive family is key. Gullo’s husband has traditional hours, so he’s home at night to care for their 16-month-old daughter. “Your partner has to understand your priorities. There are moments with tears, but the joy far outweighs all that,” Gullo says. “In many ways, it’s the same dynamic as any working family, but with different hours.” And a different set of supporting characters: Gullo’s servers baby-sit; so does her longtime general manager, Seth Yaffe.
A sense of fluid identity also helps. Trina Sturm, 40, who owns Trina’s Starlite Lounge in Somerville with her husband, Beau, has 20-month-old twin girls. Once a saucy presence behind the bar, now she works one shift: brunch.
“Once I got pregnant, I worked the floor. It was more acceptable than being hugely pregnant, serving shots of tequila. Plus, I couldn’t fit behind the bar,” she says. Her mother baby-sits while she works. Otherwise, she stays home while her husband puts in long hours, usually coming home at 2 a.m., in time for a nocturnal feeding. “I’m lucky that I have the choice to stay home, despite the hours,” she says.
‘I’ve had the luxury of working for employers who understand [the obligations to my kids], if I need to do something related to my family, they’re OK. But I have to be creative.’
About those hours: Playing the supportive role in a restaurant marriage can be lonesome. “The struggles are many,” says Lisa Sewall, 48, wife of Jeremy Sewall, who runs several area restaurants, including Brookline’s Lineage and Fort Point’s new Row 34. They have three children, ranging in age from 2 to 12.
“Jeremy works seven days a week,” says Lisa Sewall. “He might come home at dinnertime once in a while; he might take Sunday afternoon off. It’s a rare day he’s not at a restaurant at least two hours. Some days I feel like I’m trying to keep my head above water.”
Sewall finds pleasure in her own work. She does the books for Lineage and has a hand in that restaurant’s dessert program. Family time, too, becomes a special refuge. “I’m trying to do a real Sunday dinner, where we’re all sitting down together,” she says. “Or I’ll pop into a restaurant to see Jeremy, and we’ll have a one-hour date.”
Supportive partners are ideal, but restaurant life takes its toll. Mathew Molloy, 38, former chef de cuisine at Newton’s Lumiere, is now opening Artistry on the Green in Lexington. It’s the house restaurant of the soon-to-open Inn at Hastings Park. He’s a single dad of 6-year-old twins.
“I’ve had the luxury of working for employers who understand that, if I need to do something related to my family, they’re OK. But I have to be creative. I’ve had to take the kids to work on recent snow days. They find ways to occupy themselves playing hide-and-seek in the nooks and crannies of the inn, and they enjoy the cookies and pastries we’re making in the kitchen,” he says.
Kids in the kitchen? Not a generation ago. Helping these chefs and restaurateurs is the fact that the notoriously taxing culture of restaurants — where Teflon workaholism is a sign of drive — is shifting as workers across industries demand a lifestyle that accommodates personal commitments.
Robert Sisca, 32, is executive chef and partner at Back Bay’s Bistro du Midi. He has 4-month-old twin boys. “I was nervous, because I didn’t want five years to go by and think, ‘Man, I wish I spent more time at home.’ But I’ve always worked with people who have children and understand,” he says. (Sisca previously toiled at New York City’s famed Le Bernardin.) He credits his staff with allowing him to come in later in the morning, so he can spend time at home before a long day.
Rachel Klein, 39, will open Liquid Art House in the Back Bay this spring. Before that, she helmed the Mandarin Oriental’s Asana, also in the Back Bay. “I’m almost 40 years old. I have two young children. My quality of life is really important,” she says. Klein left the Mandarin due to the 24-hour nature of hotel work. Liquid’s owner, Ruta Laukien, has children and understands Klein’s schedule (which is helped by a husband who works for himself).
“Chefs are scared to take a day off. They’re scared that things won’t go as well as they should. Just be smart and train your staff. People need to take care of themselves and their families, because it’s those relationships that matter. At the end of the day, you’re not curing cancer. You’re cooking a steak,” Klein says.
After more than 25 years of kitchen work, Jeff Fournier shares Klein’s philosophy. Now 45, he owns two restaurants, Newton’s 51 Lincoln and Waban Kitchen. He’s also a new dad with a new perspective: Gone are the endless nights and punishing shifts. “In the restaurant business, there’s an unhealthy balance. People get stressed, then they have a few drinks at night, sleep less well, and the cycle starts over. I came up in some abusive kitchens. I try to encourage my staff to maintain a healthy lifestyle, if that means coming in a bit later so they can do a yoga class or work out,” he says.
His fresh outlook manifests on the plate. “Having a child has matured me, food-wise. I’m not proving myself with every dish. I’m putting less on the plate, trying to express simplicity and truth,” Fournier says. He likens the technique to raising a child.
Fournier reserves Sundays and Mondays for family. His wife, Kate, 33, supports him wholeheartedly. For now, she’s a full-time mom. “If I’m happy at home, we’ll do it as long as we can. But ultimately I’ll be in the restaurants more, as a face on the front lines or working in the office,” she says.
Meanwhile, she has her own business cards. In French, they say, “meilleure moitie.” Translation: “better half.”Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.