Fact: being a parent in the restaurant industry is challenging. The hours are long and the work is hard, but what better way for a chef or restaurateur to share their passion for cooking and community than with their children? With Mother’s Day coming up, we’ll be celebrating inspiring moms in the industry.
Today, Vivian Howard — Chef/Owner of Chef & the Farmer in North Carolina and recent James Beard Award winner for the PBS series A Chef’s Life — talks eating as a family, quality time, and staying in the industry for the long haul.
What’s the most important thing you’re teaching your kids about food?
We talk a lot about it in our house. Like most kids, they are drawn to things that I don’t want them to eat. We talk a lot about balance and how it’s OK for them to have sweets and hamburgers, but those things need to be in serious moderation. We focus on the things they seem to enjoy that are healthy: fruit and avocado and salmon and broccoli.
When we eat as a family — which is not as often as I’d like — I don’t fix a special meal for them. They eat what we eat or have put in front of them. Then I’ll supplement what we have with fruit or avocado. My parents never made a special meal for me, and that’s one of the things I’m really adamant about not doing for my kids. Eventually, as their palates develop, they’ll be more inclined to try what is on their plates. Now they’re influenced by what their friends say and by smells. Having it in front of them and exposed to it is important.
How did your food rituals change when you became a parent? Have you found any creative ways to keep up your passion and incorporate the little ones?
Before we had kids, our restaurant is closed on Sundays and Mondays, so we spent Sunday preparing an elaborate feast that was also research project. We’d work on things we might want to do for restaurant. We don’t do that now, because Sunday is one of the only days we spend together as a family. We can’t spend the whole day in kitchen.
Sunday morning is Pancake Sunday. We’re generally all at home, so my husband makes pancakes, and the children look forward to it all week. We sit down to eat together on Sunday evening as a family. Those are two meals that we really look forward to.
Actually, we have a proper breakfast every morning. We scramble eggs, make smoothies, cut up fruit, and everybody eats together before they go off to school. We take those moments more seriously or place more weight on them than other parents might, because that is the meal that we get to share on most days.
Everybody talks about how important breakfast is. We live 40 minutes from their school. It would be a lot easier to shove a granola bar in their hand and let them eat on the way, but we’re committed to not doing it and sharing that meal.
What’s your approach to balancing career and family life in this business?
I’m fortunate because I own my own business and can call many of my own shots. If I want to go to an event at their school, I don’t have to ask anyone; I can leave in a moment. That’s something that I’m aware not everyone in our industry has the luxury of doing. I try to be very forgiving with our employees who have children and provide the same experience for them.
I do work a lot and travel a lot, so I feel that quality time is more important than quantity of time. I try to make sure that when I am with my kids we are doing something fun together. That’s not always easy for me, because I’m distracted by my work.
For example, I’m picking my kids up from school today, which I do only once a week. When I do that we plan what we’re going to do so I make sure that we do that. There are things I’m good at doing with them and things that I’m not; I don’t like to play dolls, but I do enjoy puzzles and board games, so I make sure that we have those things lined up. We’re going to make a cake this afternoon because my daughter [was sick and] missed her birthday party at school. I try to organize our time together so we are actually engaging one another.
We talk a lot about the challenges of being a parent in the industry. What are some of the rewards?
Because I work in food and focus on it so much, I feel that’s a gift I’m able to give to my children that a lot of parents don’t. Their friends’ parents place less emphasis on what they eat and the meals they share, but I am so hyper-focused on food and the quality of it, which I think will be in the long run a great thing for my children’s future.
When they were very young and we were doing baby food, I felt like because I worked so much making all their own food was one of the ways my work could influence and improve their lives. Food is so important to me, and passing that value to my children — I do believe there’s nothing more important than what you put in your body.
Especially with your concept, which is so focused on seasonality and the quality of ingredients — it’s a great way for them to begin their relationship with food.
We have an event next week, and of course you write your menus six months in advance. I thought we would have watermelon rinds preserved left, but we used them all, so I was trying to find watermelon in the grocery store. My daughter just turned five, and she said, “Mom, why do you have watermelon. It’s not watermelon season?” It’s already something she’s aware of. She was also like, “These watermelons are not very good.”
What evolutions are you seeing in the industry today when it comes to having a family? Do you think it’s becoming easier?
I think in we’re in the very early stages of that. It’s a topic of conversation now, and that’s how everything starts. Some industry leaders are taking big strides to make sure that women get maternity leave and men get paternity leave, making it a more agreeable place to work.
It seems like a sacrifice now as employer, but in the long term it will make the industry a more attractive option for people. A lot of women don’t get into this business because they do want to be hands-on parents. It will in the end make the pool of people who want to work in the food business better, greater, larger, and more diverse.
What tips do you have for other moms in the industry (or someone thinking about having kids)?
If you’re interested in having kids and you’re a mom and you’re a female — meaning you have to be out of work for a period of time, there’s no way around it — it’s important to find a restaurant or group that you can really grow connected with and work there for a long time and treat that like an extension of your family. You will see that those people will also treat you like an extension of their family, and you will have more flexibility when the time comes.
There’s an urge in our business now to stage somewhere for six months, then stage somewhere else for six months, and you think you’re building your resume. But staying in one place for a longer period of time definitely garners a connection with the people you work with and the family atmosphere, which is great for people who want to have their own family.
Our pastry chef has been with us since the day we opened. We didn’t have a policy in place for people who have children, because we didn’t have a whole lot of employees. After four years she wanted to have a kid, and we said, we need to make this possible for her — make sure she has a job when she comes back and has an income while she’s out. We felt an obligation and commitment to her. If she had been there for six months, that may not have been the case.
How do you typically celebrate Mother’s Day? Any plans for this year?
Before we had kids we used to be open on Mother’s Day, even though we’re not generally open on Sundays. One year my husband asked what I wanted for Mother’s Day, and I said, “Not to be open.”
We will have a big lunch at our house, and my parents will come and my husband’s mother will come, and we’ll spend the day relaxing. Generally the traditional is for the man to cook or to go out to dinner, but based on where we live and the men in my family, that’s not going to happen.
So will you be cooking?
I probably will cook, which is fine because I really enjoy it and want to eat well. But I will not clean up.
What’s on the menu?
I like to roast chicken at home, so I will probably have roast chicken, lots of beautiful stewed greens, and probably make some pureed sweet potatoes because my children really like those. And some kind of dessert, spearheaded by my husband. Maybe warm banana pudding, because it’s my mom’s favorite. And my mom’s favorite thing that I like to make for her is deviled eggs. It’s always a gift for her for someone else to make them!
Photo Credit: Stacey Van Berkel and Doug Young