Motherhood on the Line
An essay by Ingrid Chen McCarthy.
March 24, 2016
Ingrid Chen McCarthy has over 15 years experience working both front and back of house for restaurants all over the U.S., including Remedy Wine Bar, Aviary, and Ten01. She is currently managing office operations at Ataula, Chesa and 180 in Portland, Oregon, with lauded chef Jose Chesa. She's also mom to Mabel, the most flippin' cute baby ever.
I remember the first time it happened.
I was eight and a half months pregnant, eating lunch at a restaurant whose chef was a friendly acquaintance of mine. He’d known me since I was a lowly pantry cook, and continued to check in through the years as I moved my way up the kitchen ranks in Portland. He came out of the kitchen to give me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek, and I told him I was celebrating my first day of maternity leave.
"That's great!” he said. “When do you go back to work?"
The thing was, I wasn’t going back. I had resigned my job as the chef of a wine bar, and was taking an extended maternity leave of up to a year. I wasn't returning to cooking. As I explained this, his brows furrowed, his smile weakened, and there it was: pity, written all over his face. With a hint of what a shame.
Among my peers, the reaction to my leaving cooking was almost always some version of "What the fuck?" I know intimately what most of them were thinking, because at one point in my life, I felt the same way.
I loved the adrenaline rush of being a young line cook, of standing in the walk-in after service, happily drinking piss beer after sweating over a grill for six hours straight with burns up and down my arms, exchanging high fives with my fellow cooks as we crushed another 200 covers. To be a cook was to devour that life — the burns, the heat, the long hours, the shitty sleep, the crappy bar food, the terrible dating life and the joint pain. Missing holidays, birthdays and weddings. Getting a paycheck that barely covered my bills and feeling lucky to get that extra $80 in cash tip out every two weeks. I remember nodding in agreement when one of my sous chefs called out a certain chef in town for doing "speed rack food" — two seatings per night, communal dining style. That wasn't "real" line cooking.
It wasn’t until six years and a marriage to a pastry chef with two dogs later, the thought of babies on the horizon, that I began to view that chef’s "speed rack food" with reverence. I had been gifted the opportunity to be the chef — a one-woman show — at a beautiful new wine bar. I got to create my own menu, and I also came to understand how unpredictable and fickle an audience could be. If I put fava beans on the menu I was the asshole shucking the fava beans; I would sweat for weeks creating a special, hand-picking the right produce at the farmer’s market and picking up my will-call orders at my meat and fish purveyors, only to sell grilled cheeses all night. After years in the fast lane, running on adrenaline highs and the rush of an unexpectedly crushing service, I was starting to crave predictability. “Speed rack food,” from my new vantage point, was actually a really fucking smart, predictable and organized way to do service.
Chen McCarthy in 2012, teaching a consumer pasta class to a corporate group.
But it wasn’t just the routine I craved. As a chef, at the ripe old age of 34, the sheen of line cooking had long worn off. My time as a chef was one the best working and learning experiences I could possibly ask for, but after over a decade, I began to question if it was worth it. I was getting paid the most I had ever made cooking professionally, after putting in 15 years of solid FOH and BOH experience in restaurants all over the country, with the title of “Chef” next to my name — and still made half of what my sister made as a design firm intern. Was my love for the craft enough anymore?
When I became pregnant in the summer of 2014, this really incredible thing happened. Anything I had ever doubted, or wavered on, I now felt a very definitive yes or no. When I was just a few weeks pregnant, I knew, instantly, that I was going to leave behind eight years of line cooking, kitchen managing and cheffing and 15 years of working service — and not ever look back.
At seven weeks, I had my first pregnancy meltdown, grieving over the loss of a cooking career I had worked so hard for. My colleagues joked about having a crib set up in the dish pit and wearing the baby in a carrier during service, which wouldn't be the first time I had seen it.
Many months later, I somehow managed to push an overdue, nine-pound baby out of my hoo-ha. The weeks following my daughter's birth could be generously described as a shitshow. Besides general recovery from birth, which involves feeling like I had been run over by a bus, over and over again, and caring for a newborn, which means you never sleep more than two hours at a stretch, I was handed post-partum depression and anxiety; a baby who had difficulty latching while breastfeeding, cracked nipples, mastitis, and in an incredibly tragic bout of timing, both of our dogs dying within weeks of each other. My diary entry for April 7th, 2015, a week after my daughter was born, reads simply, "This is terrifying."
Now that I'm on the other side (and that precocious daughter is almost a year old), I try to imagine myself at that point, except I’m back in the wine bar or on a line at a restaurant, managing prep, orders, menu writing, and five hours of service a night while pumping breast milk every two to three hours, with weak and loose joints from the pregnancy hormones, bleeding profusely and 20 pounds heavier than I used to be. I try to think of myself giving a shit about picking up 20 steaks to perfect temperature — which used to get me off — and all I can think about is how obsessed I am with keeping this tiny human being alive and safe. It seems insane to think I could return to that life.
And yet, although I planned on staying at home for a year, I made it to five months before I started dipping my toes back in the workforce. (Apparently if you spend your entire adulthood working towards a career and then abruptly quit that career, it doesn’t exactly prepare you to be a stay-at-home-parent, go figure.) I landed my current job as an office manager for a small restaurant group where I could not only utilize every skill I had picked up in every role I had ever worked in restaurants, but I could join my family for dinner and tuck my kid in every night. I’ve finally stopped feeling guilty for leaving cooking.
Still deep in the weeds of new parenthood, I know I made the right decision. I do sometimes miss the rush of service. But these days, as I leave through the kitchen, right as dinner service starts to ramp, I get another kind of satisfaction: that giant grin on my child’s face upon seeing me. Right now, that’s the only thing I need.