Cooking is already relentlessly grueling work, and doing it while pregnant is next to impossible—especially with the kitchen being the merciless world it is. In the industry, there's a perception that to be a real chef, you work the dinner service. Going on to pastry, the lunch shift, or managerial positions meant that you've given up and you'd never be on top. But expectant chefs are staying in the kitchen for as long as they can, and returning as soon as they can to keep up.
Toronto chef Suzanne Barr found out she was pregnant on the opening night of her restaurant, Saturday Dinette. "That first trimester was brutal," says Barr, who is now 35 weeks along and is due next month. "I couldn't smell food or touch meat without feeling sick. I couldn't work the line."
It is common for pregnant women like Barr to develop a heightened sense of smell, so imagine working in a kitchen for 12 hours a day. "There are some things on the menu now that I can't wait to take off just because the smell of them makes me sick," says the four-months-pregnant chef Alexandra Feswick from Toronto's Drake Hotel. "Anything acidic, like the Chalet sauce we used to have on the menu. I took it off because I couldn't stand the smell of it. I can't handle the smell of shellfish cooking either." In addition to her sense of smell, her palate also changed. "I was getting blisters on my mouth from eating super-spicy food that I didn't realize was so spicy. The heat wasn't registering," says Feswick. She now relies on her crew to taste everything she makes to ensure it is seasoned properly.
Manavi Handa, a registered midwife and assistant professor at Ryerson University's midwifery program, says that working till the end of pregnancy isn't the issue; for some, sitting around bored and waiting for the baby to come is even more anxiety-inducing. The even bigger problem is workplaces not accommodating pregnant women. "I think for a lot of women, when they suggest slight modifications at work, it comes across as them not fitting into the workplace, but why not have the workplace fit them?" she says. "There are ways to make that person just as valuable without it being a strain. Changing the menu is a good example of thinking outside the box. You can also give them a higher stool to sit on, or a room where they can lie down or pump breast milk." Of course, it also helps to have other women in the kitchen.
"Instead of responding with, 'Sure, Kate. Take it easy,' they're all like, 'Oh, Kate doesn't have to clean down. She won't help us close!' I just wanted to be like, 'Fuck you!' Guys totally don't get it."
After the restaurant she owned with her husband closed, Brittany Peglar landed a unionized job at the Art Gallery of Ontario as a pastry cook. "I hate to say it, but I've deliberately stunted my career so I could have a baby," she says. "That's the only way I could do this; I couldn't run my own restaurant or work in a regular restaurant." Since Peglar's job is unionized, her job will still be there when she comes back from maternity leave. "In a regular restaurant, they could just give your job to someone else," she says. "At the AGO, a lot of the management are women. They either have been or can see themselves in your shoes, and that definitely helps. If it were a bunch of male chefs I don't think I would have been given the same accommodation."
Just ask Katie Hayes of the Bonavista Social Club in Newfoundland. She cooked her way through two pregnancies and remembers all too well what it was like being in a male-dominated kitchen while pregnant. "I remember at the end of the night saying, 'OK guys, I'm 30 weeks pregnant. I just worked 12 hours and I'm probably going to have to go to the doctor tomorrow because I've got a horrible pain in my side,'" she says. "Instead of responding with, 'Sure, Kate. Take it easy,' they're all like, 'Oh, Kate doesn't have to clean down. She won't help us close!' I just wanted to be like, 'Fuck you!' Guys totally don't get it."
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Now, as the owner, Hayes closes her place at 8 PM so she can be with her family. "It's very difficult to be away from your kids every night, and if you're breastfeeding you can't just walk off the line for half an hour," she says.
Meanwhile, chef Connie DeSousa of Calgary's CHARCUT worked the line two weeks before she was supposed to give birth to her daughter last summer, crediting 12 years of ballet training for giving her the stamina to do so. She even flew to Maui at seven-and-a-half months to take part in a food and wine festival. "We worked like dogs on that trip. Every single day: cooking, judging events, doing speaking engagements, all in 32 C [90 F] heat. The humidity in the kitchens were so intense, I spent most of the time feeling like I was going to pass out."
Each of these chefs says that the time they spent (or will spend) outside the kitchen after giving birth is the longest time they've been away from work, even though it's far shorter than the average office worker's maternity leave. "My biggest fear was losing control, being away from the kitchen. But now I know that four months was too soon; six or seven months would have been better," says DeSousa. Barr only plans to take off three months so that she doesn't miss her restaurant's first summer. Hayes also left for three months when she had her second child.
"I say to my clients that if they're going stir-crazy by staying at home after they've given birth, then don't," says Handa, who has worked with cooks in the past. "But the idea of going right back to work isn't honoring what your body is going through. In many parts outside of North America, a woman isn't expected to do anything for the first 40 days because that's how long it takes for your uterus to get back to how it was, so to speak. There's an expectation in our culture that after that you'll be doing everything in the same way as before."
Being pregnant doesn't make it impossible to stay in this career, but it doesn't make it easy. Maybe when DeSousa's baby girl grows up, more restaurants will encourage career development and job security, but until that becomes the norm, women whose loyalties are divided between family and career have to balance the difficulty of raising a baby while holding down one of the toughest jobs.