Last Wednesday, in between getting my daughter ready for childcare and heading to the office, I eagerly read Amanda Kludt's in-depth feature, "Escaping the Restaurant Industry's Motherhood Trap," on Eater, in which she explores the question, "Why aren't more women running kitchens and restaurants across all tiers of the industry, especially at the top?"
The answer, of course, is patriarchy and our culture's devaluation of women and their work. More specifically, Kludt cites the restaurant industry's "complete lack of support for pregnancy and childbirth" which "sends a clear message to anyone for whom it's a possibility: This world is not for you." Most restaurants and small business owners with more than 50 employees follow the federal government's minimum requirements for family leave, which is just twelve weeks of unpaid time off for full-time workers who have been with the company for over a year.
"It's not a child-friendly industry," Alex Pemoulie told Kludt. Pemoulie, the mother of a young daughter, is the former director of finance for the Momofuku restaurant group and former co-owner of Jersey City restaurant Thirty Acres. Pemoulie and her husband/business partner, Kevin, recently sold Thirty Acres and moved to Seattle, where she grew up, to be closer to family—and childcare. (Kevin Pemoulie was the longtime chef de cuisine at Momofuku Noodle bar and the couple plans to open a sandwich shop in Ballard later this year.)
Kludt also spoke with Molly Moon Neitzel, owner of Seattle's five Molly Moon's Homemade Ice Cream shops, who admirably offers employees twelve weeks of paid family leave, regardless of gender. Neitzel, whose workforce skews young, anticipates that only one or two employees each year will actually take advantage of the benefit. But she's still trying to set a new standard within an industry (in)famous for inflexible schedules and a country with little to no paid leave.
When I was pregnant with my daughter in 2014, I worked as a server at restaurant. I worked up until my 39th week, trying to make as much money as I could while I could, because I knew I'd be taking at least 12 weeks of unpaid leave before getting back on the schedule—and even then not as a full-time employee, but as part-time, last-minute shift filler. I actually felt lucky to have this arrangement, which I attribute to the fact that the chef and owner of the restaurant I worked at was a woman with two children herself. (Instead of returning to the restaurant, I ended up getting my job here at The Stranger.)
I was thinking a lot about Kludt's article last Wednesday night when I attended an event put on by the Toklas Society, a nonprofit organization connecting women in the food and hospitality industry, at Fremont's Vif, hosted by owners Lauren Feldman and Shawn Mead.
Both Neitzel and Pemoulie were there, as well as women from a range of Seattle food businesses including Tillikum Place Cafe, the Derschang Group, Beecher's Cheese, the London Plane, and the newly opened bike shop/cafe Peloton. Our discussion, which was both inspiring and empowering, covered topics including the challenges of working while raising children, and the frustration of dealing with male colleagues and business associates who look straight straight past you and speak to other men in the room as though they are the only ones qualified to make decisions.
I was still thinking about all of these things two days later when I received a press release announcing that Mutsuko Soma, whose handmade buckwheat soba noodles I recently wrote about, will be leaving her position as chef of Wallingford's Miyabi 45th. Soma is expecting her first child soon, which is part of why she is leaving full-time restaurant work.
"As my team and I embrace greater challenges ahead, I've made the difficult decision to step away from the restaurant for the time being," Soma said in a statement. "I am expecting a baby girl and will use this time off to focus on a more challenging job ahead, motherhood!"
Miyabi will continue to offer Soma's soba through February 13. After her departure, the restaurant, which is about to celebrate its third anniversary, will close for a "short break" and then reopen with a new menu and concept designed by sushi chef Masa Ishikura.
Soma, who believes she is the only chef on the west coast making fresh soba noodles daily, does plan on returning to the culinary world at some point. In the future, she hopes to bring soba back through her pop-up Kamonegi, events she could put on when her schedule allows. She also says that she "may return" to Miyabi 45th. If, after motherhood, Soma decides that's what she wants, then I really hope she returns as well.
If you're a woman in the restaurant industry—a chef, owner, GM, wine buyer, server, marketing manager, line cook, whatever—the Toklas Society's next event, a Q&A with Theo Chocolate co-founder Debra Music at the company's Fremont factory, is next Monday, February 8.