Riverfront Times

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

Liz Miller Nov 27, 2019 6:00 AM

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."

Mary Bogacki in the kitchen at Yolklore.

In September, Bon Appétit magazine published a story about lauded chef Katianna Hong, who was the first woman to work as a chef de cuisine at a three-Michelin-starred restaurant in America. After earning that distinction at the Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena, California, Hong successfully opened its sister restaurant, the Charter Oak, in Napa, to rave reviews. So it was fairly shocking when, in July, Hong announced that she was leaving the restaurant for good following her maternity leave.

"I've been thinking about this question with my husband John Hong for a while now: 'What are we going to do next?' But once I became pregnant, we began asking ourselves another question: 'How are we going to still be chefs and start a family?'" Hong told the magazine. "I was always adamant that my career came first. To think about potentially throwing that away seemed scary. I honestly had no idea how someone could do both.

"I haven't worked with a lot of women in general, and the only women who were pregnant or had kids were always working in the office — never the kitchen. But there are tons of women who do this and have families and are successful. Nicole Krasinski. Karen Shields. Dominique Crenn. For me to think that it wasn't possible, I had to call my own bullshit."

Hong's solution was to work at the Charter Oak through as much of her pregnancy as she could before leaving — in the end, eight months — and then to eventually open her own restaurant with her husband. Working for almost her entire pregnancy taught Hong to feel more "entitled to things" such as working eight-hour days instead of fifteen and staying hydrated. "It empowered me to care for myself," she says.

Before her pregnancy, Hong says that she viewed chefs who prioritized family and work-life balance as "not really committed." Having experienced the stress and demands of pregnancy herself, her perspective shifted.

"Being pregnant changed things for me in terms of how I approached my work," Hong said. "It made me want to improve the quality of life for my cooks. I became more sympathetic to other employees who had things going on. Before at the Charter Oak, I'd get angry and want stuff done a certain way. There wasn't an awareness for others."

Hong's fame allows her the platform to talk about these issues on a national stage, but for many chefs, the choice to take a step back, even if temporarily, isn't an option financially. Balancing the strain and challenges of pregnancy is even tougher for people who aren't leading kitchens, running the joint or both — although being a chef-owner certainly comes with its own unique set of obstacles.

Since becoming a mother in April 2018, Mary Bogacki has wrestled with many of the same struggles as Hong, adjusting expectations and goals for herself as well as for Yolklore, the Crestwoodbreakfast restaurant she operates with her husband, John. For the Bogackis, there was no break — if one of them stayed home, the other had to pick up the slack.

"I just want to be thought of as a good chef," Mary says. "It doesn't have anything to do with being a male or female, and I hope it gets to that point, for sure, but I think there's definitely added stress of having kids and finding a work-life balance as a woman. And not feeling bad about that as a parent and a functioning workaholic ... Letting go of that guilty feeling. Really this whole year has been figuring out how to be OK with it and how messed up that is."

Before opening Yolklore in 2016, the husband-and-wife team had been working as chefs for almost a decade. Their careers advanced in tandem after graduating from Forest Park Community College's Culinary Arts program within a few years of each other. Mary eventually landed a coveted gig as the pastry chef at the Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis, and John worked the line at Old Warson Country Club and behind the butcher counter at Bolyard's Meat & Provisions. Mary remembers watching friends who she and John graduated with slowly start to exit the industry. Many were new mothers.

"Even though men and women generally start their careers at the same time, if women get pregnant, they go on leave, focus on taking care of the baby and often the husband goes back to work and really doesn't miss a beat," Bogacki says. "Depending on how many kids you have, men have more time to build their careers and be able to advance further and more quickly, and women are playing catch up. At the end of the day, [women] still have to carry this baby and physically and emotionally go through a process that men never will."

The couple welcomed their daughter Margot in April 2018, with Mary working up until the day she gave birth. Margot was born three weeks early, which threw the Bogackis off a tightly calibrated schedule. "Luckily, I could work through my pregnancy, but it was really hard, especially near the end, and luckily I had a smooth delivery," Mary says. "I always thought [Margot] was going to come early because I'm walking around all day and it's a lot to carry."

Less than twelve hours after giving birth, the husband and wife were back to work, submitting payroll for their employees so as to not miss the weekly deadline. Mary took five weeks of maternity leave following the delivery, so John worked full-time at the restaurant and helped take care of Margot when he got home. Like so many new parents, the couple were barely sleeping. Mary slept from 8 p.m. until midnight while John watched Margot. He'd then try to get some rest between midnight and 4 a.m., when he had to get up to go to work. Meanwhile, Mary was struggling to adjust to her new reality as a parent.

"After [you give birth], the part that everyone failed to mention to me is that mentally you've changed," Mary says. "It's the mental switch from going from being pregnant one day to not being pregnant. Yes, Margot is a year and a half old, but to me, she's a year and a half plus nine months. You are in charge of her from the time you find out you're pregnant, and that's nine months that dad will never have. Dad is never going to comprehend what it feels like; men just can't. And after [you give birth], it's a mental shift; just because you had the baby doesn't mean you snap back to your life before pregnancy. You're not the same."

Mary is quick to mention how supportive and helpful John has been as a business partner and parent; if they weren't both experienced and invested in the same industry, she says, the challenges they've faced would have been much harder. The balance they've struck at work is that Mary is more focused on menu development and working the line daily while John manages overall operations and administration.

"The business is a part of our lives, but it's not our entire lives," Mary says. "We really try to respect our life and why we're here, not just the restaurant."

Marie-Ann Velasco of Nudo House

Like the Bogackis, Marie-Anne Velasco can't imagine balancing work and home life without the support of a partner who is also in the restaurant industry. As executive chef of Nudo House in Creve Coeur and the Delmar Loop, Velasco works day shifts in order to balance out her husband, Eric Kessler, who works evenings in hospitality at Cinder House.

"I was married before to a business executive, and that did not work," Velasco says. "It didn't work because it was a different lifestyle; our ideals weren't the same, our schedules weren't the same. It was not a compatible relationship. Having someone who understands 100 percent and is 100 percent part of it is key."

Working opposite schedules is tough, Velasco says, but she and Kessler try to carve out one day a week of family time with their sons Joaquin, nine, and Hudson, five. Still, the couple has employed a nanny for the past eight years as well as a house cleaner to ensure that everything runs smoothly in their absence. "I feel I work to pay off the payroll for the house," Velasco says. "We've had a nanny ever since my oldest was one year old, because between my husband and I's schedule, there are gaps, and somebody has to take care of the kids, love the kids and be the kind of parent that we wish we could be when we're not home."

When Velasco first got pregnant a decade ago, she transitioned from cooking in a fine-dining restaurant to working as an instructor at a culinary school. The hours, pay and benefits were all preferable as a culinary instructor, and Velasco enjoyed the work, but she knew her destiny was to return to a restaurant kitchen someday. Still, she says that transitioning from twelve-plus hour days, seven days a week to 50 hours, four days a week felt necessary to "start a life."

"I originally didn't plan on having kids because I was working in fine-dining restaurants, and that was just one of the sacrifices I was going to put on myself," Velasco says. "I wanted to do fine dining for an endless amount of time and just knowing the pay, first of all, and the hours and the sacrifice of working fine dining — it's not just a job, it's your life. I don't think it's as heavy a burden [on fathers]. Unfortunately dads, when they go back to the kitchen, will always have more to give because they don't have to breastfeed; they don't have to wean their bodies off babies. They don't have to deal with postpartum depression."

When Velasco met Kessler, though, she saw a future for herself that had previously seemed improbable if not impossible.

"I just so happened to meet Eric while we were working at the Chase Park Plaza, and I thought, 'Maybe having a family would be awesome with this person,'" she says. "I don't think I would have been able to be pregnant, take time off and have the stresses of being a new mom and working in a kitchen for at least the first year."

Having that little extra time and support at work proved crucial for her during her first pregnancy, which required bedrest due to complications. Her oldest son was delivered via an emergency C-section. While recovering from surgery and navigating first-time parenthood with her husband, Velasco faced another immediate challenge.

"My oldest had a really difficult time gaining weight and eating, which was crazy to me, because I'm a chef," she says. "He wouldn't eat, he was colicky, so he wouldn't sleep. I couldn't nourish him, and it drove me crazy. Neither of us were sleeping, so we were both out of our wits."

During this time, Velasco also describes a feeling of detachment from herself and others and going through a bit of an identity crisis. At the urging of her husband, she went to the doctor and was diagnosed with postpartum depression, which affects about 3 million women in the United States each year.

"It sent me into a crazy postpartum depression that I didn't know was going to happen," Velasco says. "I'd read about it, I'd heard about it, but I didn't really know that I was going through it until my husband sat me down and was like, 'Are you OK?' I just didn't feel like myself; I felt like I was going nuts. It's crazy for someone who is in control all the time to lose that control. And then not really having a sense of identity. It was like, 'Is this me as a mom? This isn't my chef self; this isn't me.'"

When Velasco became pregnant with her second child, she was still working as a culinary instructor in Chicago but the itch to return to full-time restaurant work had not subsided. Velasco and family intended to eventually move to St. Louis to help open Nudo House, but the grand opening date was a year or two off.

"I still worked in restaurants [in Chicago] over the weekends because I was researching for Nudo," Velasco says. "I was pregnant, and I was going in and staging in different restaurants — because I can't stay away from restaurants. Even though I was teaching, I was still walking into restaurants and asking if I could come in that weekend and work, because it's Chicago ... How can you not? You've got some of the best restaurants there."

The couple were advised to list their condo for sale despite not intending to move right away, just in case the process took longer than expected. When their condo sold much faster than they anticipated, however, the family found themselves packing up and making the move about two weeks after Hudson was born. Velasco was able to transfer to teaching at a culinary school in the St. Louis area while working alongside Nudo House owner Qui Tran to further develop the menu and concept.

"That first month there was almost no time to feel postpartum depression; it was just crazy, crazy, crazy," Velasco remembers. "But I had postpartum depression with both children. I think it's also my perfectionism that made it so hard for me to go back to work and be a mom; it was so hard to do everything at the same time. 'Why can't I keep up? I can normally keep up!' It was a really crazy mindfuck. You just have to survive; you have to cope."

For the first two years after moving to St. Louis, Velasco and Kessler juggled their respective work schedules — her working from 4 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the culinary school and him working from 4 p.m. until well after midnight. They'd trade the kids in the hour between their shifts. After Nudo opened in July 2017, the couple hired a full-time nanny for both children.

Thinking back on that time now, Velasco says that the opportunity to build something at Nudo and to return to restaurant work — work where she'd found the most fulfillment over the years — helped carry her through the chaos.

"The creativity is the fulfillment," Velasco says. "The fulfillment is the rush during service. I catered for a little bit and there was no rush and it wasn't fulfilling to me. The fulfillment is having the success of Nudo at the end of the day, having the joy of making and serving a bowl of ramen and having people say, 'That was the best soup I've ever had.' All that blood, sweat and tears makes someone else happy.

"My mom still doesn't get it — I've been cooking for 25 years and she still says, 'I don't understand why you do this. Why do you want to make strangers happy and you're not home for your kids?' It's because I can't imagine doing anything else. It's our identity."

At Nudo, Velasco has found not only career fulfillment but also a second support system.

"You've got to have your support at home, but you also have to have a support system at work," Velasco says. "Just having the right staff to know who you can count on is No. 1. Being Qui's No. 2 is great but I, myself, have to have a No. 2 as well to keep me sane. It's really comforting to know that everyone at Nudo understands how important quality and service is to us."

Katie Collier of Katie’s Pizza & Pasta Osteria.

About six months after Margot was born, a tired and rundown Mary Bogacki contacted Katie Collier, another St. Louis chef and restaurateur who had recently given birth.

"She reached out to me and was like, 'Help! How do I do this?'" Collier remembers. "And I was like, 'Girl, I don't know. I can't do it either.'"

Mary, a self-described "functioning workaholic," saw some of herself in Collier. Before Collier's daughter, Nadia, was born in September 2018, she would regularly spend more than fourteen hours a day at one of her two locations of Katie's Pizza & Pasta Osteria. Since giving birth, Collier has taken a step back from her breakneck schedule, embracing the need to delegate and trust the teams at both of her locations. She still develops and helps curate the menus and mentors her managers, checking in with both locations daily, but she's had to create boundaries to balance being a stay-at-home mom and an entrepreneur.

"This change from being an aggressive businessperson to then being pulled totally away from that was very scary," Collier says. "I was scared that the business would fail without me and that my career was over. That all goes through your head, but you're also in mother mode, so I was just super conflicted. I'm sure other people have different experiences, but for some reason, that sharp change from working 70 hours a week to then taking care of myself was very scary. It forced me to really change how I run businesses, lead, create menus and all kinds of things. I had no choice but to adapt in order to survive both of those things."

Shortly after Nadia was born, she experienced health complications that lasted for about five months and disrupted her sleep schedule — something already precarious for a newborn. Collier describes her first six months postpartum as incredibly difficult for her and her husband, Ted, a visual artist and entrepreneur. "I forgot I had restaurants for a minute," Collier says. "The reason I'm still in business is that I kind of set myself up prior ... I had faith in the people I'd hired to do their jobs and just let them do it. It was kind of cool that I had a tough pregnancy because it forced me to set the business up without me early on before the birth happened. I don't know how the businesses would have reacted had I not set everything up prior."

Once Nadia was healthy and sleeping regularly, Collier considered enrolling her in day care so that she could return to work — she doesn't have family who can help with child care, as they work in her business — but ultimately decided to stay home with her, even if just for a few years. She is still working daily but now mostly from home.

"I decided that I wanted to enjoy this time with her because it is so short, and I'm old — I might not have another [child]. It took us like seven years to have her, so the idea that this is kind of it. ... I decided to sacrifice my career a little bit so that I could spend that time with her. And that's a tough decision that I still battle with every day. That battle and the consequences of both choices is really daunting."

As a restaurateur and operator, Collier says her pregnancy and subsequent leave from on-site work has opened her eyes even more to the challenges that working parents face.

"The entire time I was pregnant and the minute I had [Nadia], thinking back to all these women who had done this and how strong they were, it just blew my mind what some people do to support their families," Collier says. "I always had compassion for that, but now I really feel it, and you want to do whatever you can to make them feel comfortable and know that there is, especially at our company, the ability to take time if they need it."

Like so many small restaurants, Katie's Pizza & Pasta Osteria is not profitable enough to offer its employees' health care. (None of the owners interviewed for this story cover their employees health care for the same reason.) To offset the burden of cost for health care for her employees, Collier currently pays staff a higher wage — yet as the business grows, she's hopeful that she'll be able to offer employees medical benefits as well. "The cool thing about growth is that then you can start to fold that in," Collier says. "So by the third restaurant, we'll be able to do that."

Collier is currently in the real estate process for her third location of Katie's, which will require her to forge a new balance between work and home. "Opening something, you cannot hand any of those duties off, because you've got to figure it all out — the location, permits, paperwork, getting funded, designing the kitchen and the space. That's all the stuff that you can't compromise on. That's definitely going to be an adjustment again once that gets into full swing."

For Samantha Mitchell of Farmtruk, health care means maintaining four different plans, one for every member of her family.

"I personally applied for Medicaid government assistance, and my husband has Obamacare," Mitchell says. "He pays full price, and I'm on a pregnant woman's program through Missouri, which means that I will have health care while I'm pregnant and for 60 days postpartum, and then they drop me and I have zero health care. My kids are each on their own plans."

Soon, Mitchell and her husband, Justin, will have to figure out a fifth health care plan: In April, Mitchell will give birth to a little boy, the couple's third child after Gaia, five, and Sage, seventeen months.

"And then my husband is having a vasectomy," Mitchell laughs. "The prime of my career just happens to coincide with my child-birthing years, and this is a commitment that I made to my husband and myself that this is something we wanted to do in life. So guess what, we're going to figure it out. I need to get a minivan or something with a third row, and I'm pretty bummed about that. I'll have three car seats at one time; that's so gross to me."

When Mitchell got pregnant with Gaia, she was one of three sous chefs at Annie Gunn's. She recalls how supportive the entire staff was with her, including executive chef Lou Rook, but returning to the line postpartum still was not easy.

"I breastfed both of my daughters," Mitchell says. "So there's the challenge of being at work at say, Annie Gunn's, and I'm working the line in the middle of a Saturday night rush to the point where my breasts are engorged. I have to jump off the line and hop into an employee bathroom and pump my breast milk in the middle of the shift so I don't get an infection."

Now pregnant for the third time in six years, life at home is only getting busier — but Mitchell won't be slowing down at work. By summer, she's hoping to expand Farmtruk with a second truck so that the business can cover both St. Louis city and St. Louis County at the same time. Farmtruk recently celebrated its first season as a vendor at Enterprise Center, which Mitchell says is "kicking ass," and she's hoping to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant in the future.

On occasion, you may see Gaia and Sage aboard Farmtruk or behind the scenes at Mitchell's catering events around town. Although they're too young to help out right now, Mitchell is proud to show her customers the family behind the business that they're supporting.

"My kids enjoy people, and people enjoy seeing the kids," Mitchell says. "I think [a food truck] was the right path to be able to do it on my own terms. I didn't want to disappoint myself or anyone else based on my commitment, but if it's my own thing, I can make my own rules. And I wanted to do my own food. We took a leap of faith, which I think was the only way.

"To me, this is just the industry and I'm very lucky to have found a partner in life who is very supportive of it, but it's really hard. I think this industry is hard for anyone — male or female — with families. It's not conventional, it's not for the faint of heart. It's a grind. If you're not willing to pretty much give up the idea of a normal 9 to 5 existence, you shouldn't do it. It's just not what it is. You are a chef."

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