Culinary Craft Meets Parenting Wisdom

Being a working mum is difficult in any given profession. But the long gruelling work structure of the F&B industry make it especially challenging for those with young kids. In celebration of Mother’s day, we asked four inspiring women at the forefront of culinary innovation in Asia, to spill the tea on finding success in raising young children and balancing that illustrious and delicious career in the kitchen.

Vicky Lau

Vicky Lau, 43, is the founder and head chef of  2-Michelin star Tate Dining Room and 1-Michelin star (also Michelin Green star) Mora with a culinary concept that is defined by the versatility of soy.

Based on my friends advice that it was best to have children before the age of 40, I made the decision to have one at the age of 37. Coincidentally that was the year that I decided to move Tate to my current location. Hence, you can say that the timing was perfect since I was able to give birth and then start my career afresh in my new kitchen.

Motherhood has taught me many things. It has taught me to patient and understanding. I better empathise with the challenges and responsibilities faced by my team and I understand the importance of work-life balance. While working at the restaurant requires a lot of face time, as long as it is well planned and everyone knows their roles, it is manageable. My main responsibility is creating concepts and dishes as well as resolving work related issues, these can sometimes be done remotely.

My daily routine now kicks off at 6 30am and involves waking up and preparing Kory for school. Sometimes I would drop her off myself before diving into work-related tasks – emails, conducting research, listening to podcasts, acquiring new knowledge and practicing meditation. By 10 30am, I make sure to drop off her lunch box at school before heading into work. If time allows, I will try to pick Kory up from school at 3 30pm and take her to her extracurricular activities. After which , I return back to the restaurant to prepare for dinner service. On less hectic days, I typically wrap up my responsibilities around 9 30pm at which point my focus is putting Kory to bed. It’s often a bit of a rush, but I’ve learnt to efficient and not to drag out tasks.

“What is the biggest challenge of being a mother and someone who welds the knife?”

The most challenging aspect of being a mother and someone who works in the culinary field is time management and not being to coexist in both places. I’ve always felt torn between my work responsibilities and family obligations; experiencing guilt whenever I’m not at home with my child or when I have to leave my job behind. In the past, women traditionally held down the role of the homemaker, but in recent years, our roles have evolved. To navigate this challenge, I have turned to proactive planning and strict scheduling. I now make a point to plan ahead and allocate my time in the wisest manner. If I have to pick up my child from school, I ensure that I honour those commitments and allocate the necessary time for it, even if that means apologising and stepping away from a meeting or task.

As Kory is growing older, it’s difficult to anticipate her future needs – how to choose the right school for her, what skills and knowledge she should be acquiring. The demands that I stay informed and continuously informed about current educational trends and developments in the world. I enjoy investing time in doing my homework and preparing the both of us for the choices that lie ahead.

“What is your best advice to chef moms of little kids?”

Speak with people with first-hand experience so that you know what you are getting yourself into, and make sure to think that you will like it. Next, set boundaries and allocate dedicated time for both your career and child. Have fixed schedules and inform your team about it. It’s important to always have back-up plans, i.e: trusty relatives and friends that can help take care of your child for a few hours should there be last minute emergencies. Having a network to fall back on reduces stress drastically.

“What is your favourite go-to mom recipe that’s easy for a busy mum?”

I have a planing system in place to make things easier. I like to plan my meals two weeks in advance and get my helper to assist me in purchasing the freshest ingredients available to make the dishes. One of favourite things to do is making stocks: beef stock, Chinese supreme stock, chicken stock, etc. Stocks are incredibly versatile and can be used to make a variety of dishes such as soup noodles, sukiyaki beef or chicken hot pot. Having these on hand allows me to whip up a quick meal in no time. Although Kory’s all time favourite dish is Lasagna.

Summer Le

Summer Le, 36, is the founder and executive chef  of Saigon’s Nén Light, a Michelin guide recommended restaurant that focuses on portraying Vietnamese cuisine in a contemporary, yet respectful way. She and her husband Leon have two children whilst straddling two restaurants in two cities: Arya, 9 and Mia, 4.

Here’s a little play-by-play. Nén Danang was born when Arya was a little over 1 years old. I was 28 at that time. During the pandemic in 2020, Mia was born when Nén Danang was closed and we were in the midst of planning to move to Ho Chi Minh City to open Nén Light. Mia turned 2 years old the day Nén Light opened. I must thank my husband Leon for all which couldn’t have manifested if he wasn’t there to co-found and operate the business alongside me.

Miraculously, each new addition to the family coincided with a critical juncture for my restaurants. With Arya, I juggled building the entire restaurant and daily kitchen duties, pausing every night to rush home to put her in bed before returning back to work to finish service. It was incredibly challenging and fatiguing. I recall losing my voice and not being to get out of bed the day after the grand opening of Nén Danang in 2017. When it came to Mia, although I had a stronger team in place, managing a restaurant in a different city with my children staying in Danang meant frequent travel between Danang and HCMC. Sometimes, my mum had to wrap my clothes around Mia’s pillow so that she could sleep peacefully at night.

“What was the biggest challenge of being a mother and someone who is running two restaurants at the same time?”

Any young mother understands that there will be boundless challenges that come with motherhood. For me, the toughest aspect was being separated from my children due to the frequent travels I had to embark on; for periods as long as 2 weeks at a time. To cope, I meticulously planned everything at home and utilise online tools to monitor their progress. Fortunately, the increased proficiency in online interactions post-Covid has been a blessing. Arya can now manage her online classes independently and I can maintain close communications with her teachers. With Mia, I maintain close communications with her grandparents and nanny to ensure a consistent upbringing style for the both of them.

“What is your favourite part of motherhood?”

As someone who yearns for freedom, my children are absolutely my anchors. They keep me grounded and have deepened my connection with my parents and family. And on a personal note, their praise for my cooking mean more to me than any accolades I will ever receive.

“How has motherhood changed your approach to leadership in the restaurant?”

Prior to having kids, I was a perfectionist and control freak who preferred to solve problems on my own. Now with kids, I’ve learned the value of coordinating diverse talents towards achieving a shared objective. Furthermore, I’ve honed the ability to anticipate issues and establish preventive measures rather than waiting for problems to arise and then panicking.

“What are your secrets to overcome being overwhelmed?”

Despite my hectic schedule, I prioritise carving out me-time that’s completely unrelated to work. Whether it’s an hour at the spa or indulging in a hobby,  theses moments are essential to my mental health.

“What is your best advice to chef moms of little kids?”

Build a strong support system. Also, don’t feel guilty about not spending every moment with your kids. They learn independence and see us as role models who pursue our dreams fearlessly.

Pichaya ‘Pam’ Soontornyanakij

Chef Pam, 34,  co-owns restaurant Potong, a Thai Chinese fine-dining restaurant Chinatown, Bangkok. She was recently awarded the Best Female Chef in Asia title by 50 Best Restaurants. She and husband Boonpiti ‘Tor’ Soontornyanakij have one child together: Pesha, 3.

Since I got married to my husband, we wanted to have kids but never really planned on one, it just happened – and boy are we glad it did! Back then, I remember having to cook with a big belly. I was working, cooking until the last week of delivering the baby. To be honest, the pregnancy was the hardest part for me, blame it on the hormones but I constantly felt burnt out and lacking in motivation. However, things pretty much swung back around after I gave birth. Pesha was born on the same day as me, 15 August 2020, and the moment we saw her, she gave me and my husband a new found purpose, a motivation to push even further.

In fact she gave me the inspiration to establish the philosophy behind POTONG (5 senses and 5 elements). When we were reading an educational book together, we came across a stanza that says – in order for your kids to commit things to memory, all 5 senses must be engaged at the same time. Sight, Sound, Smell, Taste and Touch. For example, if I want my child to learn what an apple is, they need too see the colour, understand what it is called, smell it, touch it and taste the apple. If all happens simultaneously, it registers in the human brain. Et voila! The concept of POTONG was born.

“How has motherhood change your approach to leadership in the restaurant?”

Being a mother has heightened my ability to nurture, not only my child but also my team members. It has given me a sense of empathy, patience and increasing my ability to multitask. I now prioritise creating a supportive and collaborative work environment for my team.

“What does everyday life look for like now when you’re working in the kitchen as a young mother?”

I have to wake up very early as my kid gets up at 6am in the morning. After a days’ work, I usually come back home together with my husband after our restaurant closes – about midnight to 1am. Initially it was a struggle but we are now adapting to these changes and its getting just a little bit more comfortable. I think it’s hard for everyone but for me, it’s like a sport, once you get a hang of it, you become good and consistent.

“What are your secrets to overcome being overwhelmed?”

Breath! And be optimistic. I think by always looking at things in a positive light has helped me to get through many things in life. I try to leave work when I’m with my kid so that I can focus purely on her.

Garima Arora

Chef Garima, 37, is the Chef-Owner  of 2 Michelin-starred Restaurant Gaa in Bangkok. A strong advocate of Indian cocking techniques in the modern kitchen, she was chosen to be a judge on the wildly popular “MasterChef India” last year. That same year, her restaurant Gaa also received its second star from the Michelin committee. She has one son, Aham, who turns 1 year old this month.

It takes a village to raise a kid, and because a restaurant basically is a village built into it, I’ve been extremely fortunate to have that reliable support system to fall back on.

I take my son to the restaurant every day, letting him interact with everyone there. My team enjoys playing with him and he’s adored and loved by everyone. There are tons of stimuli in a restaurant, loads of social interactions and exposure to different cultures, which is great for his development. I find him hanging around while our Front of House team are polishing glasses, chugging on fruits while the pastry chef is working and picking up different languages around people. It’s been amazing to watch.

“How do you juggle being a mother and a restauranteur?”

I’m thankful to have my own business which allows me to manage my time according to my needs and those of my baby. Having a reliable team both at home and work has been invaluable. They have handled challenging situations, late nights, and demanding guests in my absence. Creating a supportive ecosystem around yourself is crucial. Once that is established at home and in the workplace, finding balance becomes much easier.

“What is your best advice to chef moms of little kids?”

Focus on figuring out what works for you. There’s no right or wrong.

Personally, I take care of myself through nutrition and working out. This way of living keeps me energised and present both for my life in the kitchen and at home.

“What is your favourite go-to mom recipe that’s easy for a busy mum?”

I’m very big on nutrition. I make sure Aham gets all his macronutrients through whole foods. So far he has been really easy. He loves fruits and vegetables and basically eats everything. A true Chef’s kid!

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