Buns in the Ovens

A chef's life leaves little room for baby

A couple of years ago, while pregnant with my son, I had the misfortune of reviewing a Hollywood restaurant called Estrella del Mar. The place was simply awful, serving such old, stale food that we were afraid to eat most of it. Of course the owners disagreed, writing a letter to the editor that wanted me to do the following: "Do all of us struggling merchants a favor: The next time you can't get a sitter and are having a bad day of morning-evening sickness, stay home and away from us. Everything seems bad to pregnant women, perhaps you should take your taste buds and attitude on maternity leave!"

I wasn't surprised that proprietors Gail Winer and Sami Aziz took the opportunity to defend themselves. But I was shocked that there's still a perception out there that when pregnant, a woman cannot do her job, whether she's adding numbers, arguing cases, or eating for a living. But in retrospect I admit that being a restaurant critic in the family way was a fairly big challenge. Raw foods like sushi and eggs in caesar salad dressing are pretty much off-limits, due to the threat of contracting a parasite of food-borne illness. Constant nausea doesn't exactly stimulate the appetite, and aversions -- as opposed to cravings -- make the job even harder. But it's our duty to try and be fair, and that doesn't change when we are pregnant.

And while pregnant reviewers may see a leg of poultry like a vegan sees veal, at least we get to sit down while we attempt to keep it down.

Jeremy Eaton

Chefs don't usually have that option -- along with all those little luxuries like maternity leave and hours conducive toward making a baby in the first place, plus a work atmosphere that encourages family values over value meals. After all being a female chef in a position of authority is still a rare thing. As a result many chefs choose to not get pregnant.

Former Wish executive chef Andrea Curto-Randazzo, who is newly pregnant with her first child, nods in agreement. "I felt there was no time for it before. I couldn't believe the women who did do it, like Cindy Hutson [Ortanique on the Mile] or Eve Montella-Smith [Armadillo Café]." She recalls a 23-year-old line cook who worked until she was seven months along. "She just got so big. And being a line cook is really physical -- you get bumped and pushed around. It's got to be tough emotionally too. But she was getting it [her job] done."

Of course, Curto-Randazzo points out, this particular woman was young, filled with optimism and energy. And she wasn't in charge of the kitchen. Often the pressure to remain childless is subtle, but it's there nonetheless. Daphne Macias, the sous chef at Tantra and nine months pregnant with her premier offspring, notes, "It's very difficult for a woman in any field. We're expected to choose one or the other [career or motherhood]. But it's especially hard for a chef. Just being a woman, let alone pregnant, you're really expected to prove yourself."

Fortunately for these two women, circumstances have enabled them to do both. Macias always knew she wanted children, but waited until she had an appropriate environment in which to have them: a solid ten-year marriage to her husband, along with executive chef Willis Loughhead, who supports her little dish-in-the-making. "At times I think he's more excited than I am," Macias observes dryly. But she's also appreciative. "I always felt at other jobs that my position would be in jeopardy. I felt like I needed to be there 100 percent for the restaurant. So this [support] is kind of rare. But I'm very lucky and comfortable in what I am doing."

By contrast Curto-Randazzo's pregnancy was something of an oopsie, but the timing seems fated. She'd left her position at Wish last spring to plan her wedding to fellow chef Frank Randazzo, who gave up his executive chef gig at the Gaucho Room a few months later. After the couple married, they were intent on opening a restaurant together called Talula. And while events like the September 11 attacks have delayed matters, construction on the eatery will finally begin next month -- just when Curto-Randazzo's morning sickness should abate.

The Randazzos now anticipate an August opening and count on an October delivery. "It's fortunate about being part of a team. Frank is all about picking up the slack. I'll be in the kitchen being seen but I'll also be taking more of a front-of-the-house role." She adds that having a chef for a husband has proved convenient as she struggles with morning sickness and a bad bout of migraines. "At least he can cook for himself. My sister-in-law is pregnant too and my brother-in-law has been eating out of the microwave."

Regardless of their mutual sunny outlook, though, both women are realists. Macias is only taking maternity leave for a month, quoting others who have told her, "If you really spend a lot of time it's too hard to go back. You can't bear to be away from the child because you feel like you might miss something."

Obviously Curto-Randazzo will be able to negotiate her own leave, especially since Frank Randazzo thinks that "the whole being-a-father kind of thing is cool. We'll be busy as heck with it, but I feel really great about it." She does feel guilty. "I would do anything to feel better. I'm not my regular self; I'm not Frank's equal partner. We have parties to cater and I can't help him as much." But Curto-Randazzo is trying to look at the positives. "Being a chef, I've never had fingernails before. But now my nails are growing," she enthuses. And in the end, she's going to go with the age-old wisdom that got all us food-oriented females into this mess in the first place: "I'll let my body tell me what to do."

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