Motherhood Can End Women’s Careers, And Nowhere Is This Truer Than In Restaurants.
Despite positive evolution in the industry, including the institution of previously unheard-of benefits like parental leave, many new mothers still find the obstacles to being both mom and career professional insurmountable. Long work hours (typically including nights, weekends and holidays) and childcare costs can make returning to work impossible or nearly so. Add to this a lack of sleep, the unanticipated and often lingering postpartum aftermath on their bodies, and “mom guilt” about being away at work instead of with their children. However, letting the dream go of what some consider “having it all” — working and parenting — can be hard. Some moms can do both, by launching and building their own grassroots food businesses. Here we look at three such incredible mom-chefs.
Sarah Bonar was an award-winning pastry chef for Melissa Perello at Octavia and Frances. One day in 2018, at 32 weeks pregnant, Bonar was struck by a car in the crosswalk on her way to work. Two weeks later, her daughter was born. Bonar says, “After I gave birth, everything changed. I felt conflicted, wanting my career but not wanting to leave my baby.” Even with a flexible boss in Perello, the sleep-deprived mom couldn’t help but feel like she wasn’t the right fit for restaurant life anymore. She soon realized that she wasn’t going back.
Months passed, and the burn to return to the kitchen hadn’t gone away. An opportunity popped up to make a huge cake for 600 people at Salesforce, and she jumped at it. With her earnings, she purchased a 20-quart Hobart mixer and launched Lucky Penny Bread, named after her daughter, but her primary inspiration was Bonnie Ohara, the hip cottage bread baker and cookbook author with an enviable Instagram following.
Bonar converted her Terra Linda garage into a cottage bakery starting small by handing out flyers for a monthly neighborhood bake sale and working while her daughter napped and after she went to bed. Word spread like wildfire, and soon she was selling bread wholesale to local businesses and doing pop-ups. Eventually, she moved to a weekly bread subscription model to maintain quality and manage the booming demand while balancing time for her family. Bonar sends a monthly email for her bread subscription service, with options for weekly or biweekly pick-ups. The model has proven so successful that she often sells out of the 75 loaves she bakes weekly. She has expanded her offerings to include some staple sweet treats, such as salty, tangy, and sweet sourdough chocolate chip cookies and her buttery cinnamon roll scones. To help with the growing business, Bonar hired another former chef-turned-mother to work part-time. Of all of Bonar’s bread offerings, her favorite is a black-and-white, toasted, sesame-crusted levain with a chewy center, but, she says, she’s often so busy she forgets to save one for herself most of the time.
(Bonar was also featured on the cover of our Fall 2016 issue for a story by Sarah Henry, titled Girl Talk: Top Chefs on Why Women Don’t Get the Respect They Deserve in the Kitchen)
Monique Feybesse is another former chef and mother who successfully launched a small food enterprise. With her husband Paul, she’s been making waves with Tarts de Feybesse since a picture-perfect Instagram relaunch in 2020, at the height of COVID closures. At the time, Feybesse was on maternity leave with her second child, and Paul was laid off from his job. What was once a fun hobby that started in 2016 is now a full-time venture for these parents of three. Their globe-trotting fine dining backgrounds are evident in each exquisite contemporary French dessert they offer: expertly piped and skillfully toasted meringue atop a tangy, silky lemon tart; crispy, golden layers of brioche feuilletée shaped in soigné swirls; and of course, the creative, colorful eclairs in chef-inspired seasonal flavors like shimmering yellow corn vanilla and vibrant green kaya.
Feybesse notes that ownership allows her to manage her schedule to be available for her kids because if you’re a chef, you know how to multitask. You’re working harder because being a mom and a small business owner is expensive; she cites the astronomical costs of healthcare and insurance as one of the biggest costs.
Feybesse was pregnant four times and still managed to work and compete on Top Chef. When asked how she can keep up with it all, Feybesse responds, “I couldn’t have done it without my husband Paul; he understands what I need as a chef because he is one; he understands the need for growth and creativity.” It also helps that the two moved near her family in Vallejo for additional support. Since launching the business, the Feybesses have added savory French comfort dishes, including a decadent duck confit over creamy lentils and their vegetarian spin on a croque monsieur called the Croque Mademoiselle, oozing with leeks, bechamel and melty Point Reyes Farmstead cheese. They hope to open a brick-and-mortar location in Oakland next year, proving that flexibility, drive and the right support system can lead to sweet results.
After six years of working in the industry and giving birth to her son, Christina Teav-Liu launched Mama Teav’s. Its primary product Hot Garlic is a fiery, small-batch garlic condiment Teav-Liu developed at her brother’s urging. Teav-Liu started her culinary career later than most, at 29. After graduating from The Culinary Institute of America, she spent time in the kitchens of Napa Valley icons, chef Masaharu Morimoto of Morimoto Napa and Thomas Keller of The French Laundry, before eventually landing at The Progress working the hotline. She also helped establish the butchery and commissary alongside chefs Stuart and Nicole Brioza for The Progress, State Bird Provisions and their private dining room. Parents themselves, the couple fully supported Teav-Liu’s desire to grow her family.
Teav-Liu miscarried at first and later had a difficult delivery with her son. Complications put her in the ICU, and she could not return home for three weeks. Age 36 at the time, Teav-Liu says, “I was not ready to give up the career that I had worked so hard for.” With no pressure to return, a planned three-month maternity leave turned into five and a half months. She couldn’t wait to get back into the kitchen, but thinking of working 12-hour days and having to pump breast milk instead of breastfeeding made her rethink going back. What’s my endgame? she asked herself. “Even if I was a chef de cuisine, I’m still an employee,” says Teav-Liu. Ultimately, she decided to move on. Leaving was “the hardest breakup I’ve ever been through,” she says.
During COVID, Teav-Liu finally had time to research and develop a recipe for her distinctive condiment. Since then, she and her brother have hired two employees and continue making everything in-house in small batches (even the onion powder). Teav-Liu, who recently had her second child, finally feels like she has it all— the time for her friends and family and a satisfying culinary career that fuels her passion.
For this trio of inspirational mompreneurs in the food industry, the recipe for success and career satisfaction included starting small, following a schedule that met their needs and scaling up at their own pace. The secret ingredients were the flexibility to work at home and a sound support system.