As women in the East Bay food scene gain more recognition for their place in what can be a male-dominated industry, I have often thought about how some of them may be balancing motherhood in addition to the chaotic whirl of the restaurant world.
As a mother of two who recently returned to work, I wondered how these women manage to keep all the balls in the air in the ultimate juggling act of work and parenting. What I learned is that no matter what hat we don in our daily working life, 9-to-5 or otherwise, we share many of the same joys and struggles in our roles as working moms.
Chef Dominica Rice-Cisneros was a mom to a seven-year-old, daughter Xiomara (now 13), when she opened her California-Mexican café Cosecha inside Swan’s Marketplace in Old Oakland. Ironically it was motherhood and the need to slow down that led to the café’s inception. Rice-Cisneros chose to scale back on her career during the first five years of Xiomara’s life. By saying no to opportunities that came her way during that time, she was able to focus on motherhood, and also remain selective about what path would bring her the most balance; in that process, the concept for Cosecha was born.
Both Rice-Cisneros and her husband Carlos Salomon come from families that prioritize their elders and children, their Mexican-American traditions and their extended community. Despite this, she confirmed that her biggest challenge is one that many working moms struggle with: “Guilty Mom Syndrome.” Her hope is that all women can work to let go of the unnecessary burden of feeling they need to take care of everything and everyone. As she said, “No matter what situation you are in, you always think you can be doing better for your family.”
Sequoia Vennari of popular Sequoia Diner in Oakland’s Laurel District gave birth to son Joaquin in 2016 at the height of the diner’s success, which she opened with husband and business partner Andrew in 2015. She admits to being naive about what motherhood would look like while owning a restaurant; she just imagined having her son with her all the time, in her arms while she went about her business. When she quickly learned that having a baby on her hip was not going to work, she hired a part-time nanny and turned to family for help.
As many moms often feel, Vennari shared with me that nothing could have prepared her for motherhood. Yet, what it has taught her is to ease back on her “control freak” side, and go with the flow. She said this is what has been her biggest challenge and her biggest triumph to date. Her advice to other moms, in the food industry, or any industry for that matter, “It’s ok if you can’t do it all. Be kind to yourself.”
Melissa Axelrod, of seasonal neighborhood eatery Mockingbird in Downtown Oakland, juggles life as a chef and restaurant owner with raising her daughter Lily and step-daughter Elodie alongside her husband and business partner William Johnson.
“Sometimes they are sick and I want nothing more than to stay with and take care of them but I need to go to the restaurant,” Axelrod said. She is lucky to have a husband she can tag-team parent with, and a mother who lives nearby. Axelrod says she is not a perfect mother (or chef, or restaurant owner), but she does the best she can on a daily basis, and in the end, her children are loved and happy.
Axelrod said her biggest challenge in balancing motherhood with being a chef and restaurant owner is no different than the struggle every working mom faces: finding time and energy. She goes on to say that both roles have taught her patience and to delegate when she can. The ability to multi-task and react on your feet is something the restaurant business has taught her, skills that are an ever-present need in motherhood.
A new mother in the food world shared how learning to adapt and react in business helped her prepare for motherhood. Helena Sylvester of Happy Acre Farm, a local organic farm in Sunol which brings seasonal produce to East Bay farmers markets such as Jack London Square and Pleasanton, said that in the farming industry it’s inevitable that something will happen to throw off your plan, whether it be “gophers, geese, early heat waves or late frost, you name it.” Since she and husband and business partner Matthew welcomed their son August into the world, they’ve realized that plan will continue to change. Sylvester shared that being used to having flexible expectations has been extremely helpful as she adapts to motherhood.
Sylvester, the newest mom of the group I talked to, made a realization that resonated with me. As someone who, just like me, loves to cross everything off her to-do list, she said, “I had to start changing my personal definition of feeling accomplished. Yes, I still make lists… but my day’s achievements are no longer measured by what’s crossed off of it.”
She is grateful for the decision she and Matthew made early on during her pregnancy, to hire help. They agreed that she would take over the bookkeeping and work the farmers markets — anything above and beyond that would be a bonus. So far. she has been able to find that balance, spending time with August on the farm in the greenhouse, where tasks that once took her a day, now take two. She knows she’s making accomplishments, but in a redefined way.
The consistency of sentiments expressed across my conversations with these women spoke to my own experience as a working mom. In this shared reality, I found inspiration and comfort. None of us are perfect, we all do our best, we accept (as best we can) the need to slow down and go with the flow. And for goodness sake, we should ask for help when we need it.
I had one last question for each of these amazing women in the food: What do they feed their kids? I giggled when Axelrod shared that her step-daughter Elodie has spent the past two years living in fear that she will try to cook her eggs in brown butter again. Rice-Cisneros said Xiomara loves her homemade corn tortillas and pasta carbonara. Vennari said Joaquin loves sauerkraut, green olives and her housemade sourdough with extra butter. Sylvester hopes that when August is ready for solid food, it might be something from her own farm, perhaps a sweet potato or summer squash. Lucky kids!
Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there!
Cosecha, Swan’s Marketplace, 907 Washington St. (between 9th and 10th), Oakland
Sequoia Diner, 3719 MacArthur Blvd. (near Loma Vista), Oakland
Mockingbird, 416 13th St. (between Broadway and Franklin), Oakland
Happy Acre Farm is at Jack London Square farmers market (10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sundays) and Pleasanton farmers market (9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Saturdays), June to December.