Top St. Louis Chefs Get Candid About Their Full Plates at Work and Home

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Farmtruk’s Samantha Mitchell
Farmtruk’s Samantha Mitchell RONALD WAGNER

Ten days after undergoing a C-section, Samanatha Mitchell was back to selling burgers out of the window of her food truck. As a successful chef and entrepreneur, Mitchell is uncompromising and ambitious, characteristics that have served her well with her business, Farmtruk. Yet those same qualities are also what led Mitchell to return to work well before she was ready.

It was June 2018, and Mitchell was determined to make sure Farmtruk didn't experience a slump due to her absence during its busiest season. Her truck doesn't have air conditioning, which meant that Mitchell would not just be on her feet for hours on end in a tin-can-sized kitchen shortly after a major surgery, but there would be no relief from the 95°F heat outside.

"I did Food Truck Friday because I told myself that I'm not going to miss any of them, just to be stubborn, and so I didn't, but I ended up getting an infection in my C-section, and they almost had to recut my incision back open," Mitchell recalls. "I couldn't close down my business in the middle of one of our busiest months. The winters are hard with a food truck, and we don't make any money; we spend money. So I was like, 'Nope, we're doing it.' And my staff is great; they ran the truck without me, but it's also my baby and I had to get back. It's my other kid."

The struggle to find a work-life balance is one that touches all working parents in every industry, but the restaurant business presents unique challenges: constantly working on your feet, shifts that run twelve hours or more, clocking out at 1 or 2 a.m. The pay is sometimes low, and medical benefits and child care support are rare. One of the chefs interviewed for this story relayed that a colleague often feels like a single dad, as his partner works a 9-to-5 job forcing the couple to parent almost exclusively on opposite schedules.

"There's an ego and selfishness to this career, and that's the hardest part for me in being a parent: You can't be selfish, but being a chef is selfish," Mitchell says. "You work long hours, you work holidays, weekends, and not for the pay — it's because you love it. It's all about you; it's all about me doing my food and kicking ass. It's a very selfish lifestyle."

In recent years, the profile of the St. Louis food scene has risen considerably, with national publications lauding area restaurants like Vicia, Balkan Treat Box and Grace Meat + Three — all co-owned by women — and one wonders how many tourism dollars are funneled through the city as a result. This is something that we as diners don't often consider before booking a reservation at the newest restaurant in town or complaining about slow service on Yelp: the emotional, physical and mental toll that this demanding work takes on the men and women who make the restaurant industry possible. For women working in the business, these challenges and sacrifices are usually even greater — but the alternative for many is unthinkable, not to mention unfair.

"I went back to work way too early and I paid for it," Mitchell says. "The recovery and having to slow down is hard because I'm not one to ever slow down; I just go, go, go, and I'm very impatient. I want to be able to do everything and I can't. For me, not being able to bounce back and be myself right away is extremely disheartening and hard. But I couldn't imagine, no matter how hard it gets ... I still could never see myself doing anything else ever."

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