Despite being an excellent student, Alex’s maternal grandmother, Annette Weiner, was discouraged from going to college; better to find a vocation, settle down, have children, be content, her parents insisted. She followed their directive, becoming an X-ray technician, marrying Alex’s grandfather, having two children and working in the family-owned drugstore.
But when her children went to school, Anna did too. She took painting classes where, as Alex’s mother, Linda Hoffman, recalls, she made bold abstract canvases in the style of Hans Hofmann (no relation). After earning a B.A. in Cultural Anthropology, she continued her studies as a Ph.D. student at Bryn Mawr College. She made tremendous contributions to the field of cultural anthropology, most notably for challenging Bronislav Malinovski’s widely accepted perspective on Trobriand culture which downplayed the significant societal roles played by women. In the 1980s she served as Chairman of the Department of Anthropology and the Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at New York University.
Conflicted between my desires to have children and dive headlong into meaningful work, the story of Alex’s grandmother raising a family first then going on to be a pioneer in her field gave me hope. When I shared this story with my own mother, who has also experienced a bit of a career renaissance since her children have flown the nest, she shared with me this thought from Madeleine Albright:
I do think women can have it all, but not all at the same time. Our life comes in segments, and we have to understand that we can have it all if we're not trying to do it all at once.
So what does this have to do with East Fork Pottery, you might ask? Well, not a lot, I admit. But lately I’ve been thinking non-stop about just how many right ways there are to raise children in this world, despite the Parenting Industrial Complex warning you to “DO IT THIS WAY OR ELSE.”
Chef Katie Button of Cúrate Tapas Bar, for instance, has her own way of doing things: while running two restaurants, writing a cookbook, and guest hosting cooking shows, she’s also kissing boo-boos and changing diapers for her one year old daughter, Gisela. While dropping off boatloads of new dinnerware at Cúrate earlier this summer, I got to thinking it’d be nice to chat with her about making the transition to handmade dinnerware. When I showed the transcribed interview to Alex he said, “This is really great, sweetie, but did you ask her about the pottery?” No. I hadn’t. I’d completely forgotten. So I invited her over to our house again, and then again, with the intention of asking her about how she liked to pottery and maybe take a nice portrait of her holding a plate or something but we just kept being too busy talking about babies. And I've kept putting off sharing this interview until I could make it more relevant. But I'm giving up.
So if you’re interested to hear what Chef Button has to say about something other than Jambon Iberico, read on…
C: I read in an interview you gave when you were pregnant that you felt pretty confident about balancing having a baby and running your restaurants. Has it been as you expected it to be?
K: I really didn’t realize how challenging it was going to be. Until I had Gisela I didn’t realize how much time I had to get things done. It’s definitely been difficult to maintain the same level of productivity. There’s just so many little things you have to do to take care of a child that I didn’t account for, like making nutritious meals for all of us...
C: It’s so hard! Especially when they start needing three or more meals a day - it was so easy when Vita was just breastfeeding. But now you can’t just scarf down whatever you can get your hands on on the line, or, in my case, just eat donuts or croissants for breakfast and lunch.
K: Totally. Before, dinner was such an afterthought for me and Felix - I’d just come home and scramble some eggs. But I think it’s really nice that Gisela pulls me from work and makes me take care of myself more. Now my days off are really days off. Maybe when she’s napping I’ll pull out the computer and catch up on some e-mails or whatever but before Felix and I would get pulled into meetings or just end up at the restaurant when we weren’t scheduled to be there. And now that doesn’t happen nearly as much. So even if before I was getting a lot “more” done, having a baby has kinda way forced me to be more organized and balanced.
C: I’ve found that to be so true for me, too. And I’ve gotten much better at saying “no” to things and carving out the bullshit.
K: Yes, absolutely. I’ve become so much better of a delegator and much better about letting go of control - not just in my business but in my whole life. I mean, every day Gisela becomes more and more her own person so there’s not a whole lot of choice but to accept it! And at work, giving my staff the opportunity to step up and take on more responsibility I really think is good for all of us. I’ve gotten so much better at describing to others exactly how I want things. And then if they don’t do it right I think “There must have been something I didn’t explain quite right.” So my communication skills are really improving, too!
C: Win-win! How do you and Felix balance parenting roles?
K: Felix is a wonderful dad and has a great connection with Gisela and helps out so much. He’s wonderful. But I’m still mom. When I’m around and she’s tired or grumpy or if there’s anything at all out of the ordinary happening she needs me. Yesterday I came home from work and I told Felix “You’re on dinner duty because I really need to spend a couple of hours editing my cookbook” and for whatever reason she would not stop whining for me. And then I start thinking “I’ve spent all day at work, shouldn’t I spend a few hours with my daughter before I go to bed?” So that’s what I ended up doing.
C: Yep, so true. Vita thinks Alex is infinitely funnier than I am - Alex could make a silly sound and she gets sent into fits of hysterics. Then I’ll make the same sound and she looks at me with a mixture of disdain and boredom. But then the second she feels sad or tired, it’s mom or bust. So what’s the biggest challenge been so far?
K: Giving myself time to be creative. There’s some stuff that just has to get done - bills have to be paid, the businesses have to stay open, all that sort of stuff has to happen. But for both me on a personal fulfillment level and for the good of my restaurants I’d really like to figure out how to put aside time just for creative exploration. It’s hard because it doesn’t seem as immediately high priority, but I want it to be. Maybe I need to set aside a few weeks a couple of times a year where I’m not in the restaurant and I can focus on creating new dishes when things are in season and let the administrative meeting type stuff be set aside or taken care of.
C: It sounds like you’re feeling pretty good about your decision to mother a child and multiple businesses at the same time?
K: Yeah, I do. I mean, I’d like to be a successful mother! But I get a lot out of working, I find it really rewarding. If you get positive feelings and energy from being able to work then I think it’s worth it. And your children are going to be okay in whatever environment they grow up in so long as you love them and spend as much time with them as you’re able on your days off.
C: I really believe that babies and kids need happy moms, so whatever makes you a happy mom is serving both you and them.
K: I completely agree. A couple of years ago I went to a conference in New York called Cherry Bombe Jubilee for women in the industry. Gabrielle Hamilton and Suzanne Goin gave a talk about having children and being chefs and owners of restaurants and how you juggle that. And both of them agreed that trying to do both at the same time makes you just feel guilty all the time. Whether you’re at the restaurant or with your kids you’re going to feel guilty about something. So just letting yourself believe and accept that everything is going to be okay and that sometimes you’re going to be more focused at home and other times you’re going to be focused more at work, and how that’s ok.
C: Do you end up feeling guilty a lot?
K: ...I’m working on that. I’m really trying not to. But it’s inevitable. Like yesterday when I was trying to work on my cookbook. When I noticed myself feeling guilty I decided to put the cookbook aside - I think it was a good decision.
C: Alex and John and I listened to a Q & A with Councilwoman Gwen Wisler, who is a former CEO of Coleman. The facilitator asked her if there was one piece of advice she’d give to all business owners. And she said “Take more breaks, not necessarily for your own sake, but for the people who love you.” She said that if it were up to her she would work 24/7, but that you’ve gotta take the health and happiness of everyone in your home into consideration.
K: Yes. Felix is really good at helping me with this. He really values free time and family time and taking care of ourselves. The last thing I want is to feel like I’m missing out on Gisela’s life and up-bringing, but I really don’t feel that way. I was all worried I wasn’t going to be there when Gisela took her first steps, but I saw them! And we take vacations. Keeping my days off designated as my days off - she’s made that happen for me. I was terrible at taking real days off before. And she’s helped me go to sleep earlier! In the restaurant world it’s so easy to go to bed late and get up late. Well, that doesn’t work for her.
And now I exercise, too. Ha! I actually think now that Gisela is here I fit way more into my life than I did before. Your priorities change. Now to figure out how to put the laundry away when she’s just pulling out every piece of laundry I’ve just folded.
C: Yes! It’s amazing that such small bodies can make such big messes. What did you do for your first Mother’s Day?
K: I decided I wanted to make a coconut cake at home. I’ve always wanted to make a coconut cake with fresh coconut so I decided that I just needed to do that. I was not thinking rationally. So something that might have taken me a couple of hours took me like 6 hours between her needing me and feeding us lunch. I had this coconut and a screw drvier and a hammer and Gisela is there on the floor watching me, laughing, and I keep thinking she must think I’m totally crazy. But, hey! She got to drink fresh coconut water from a coconut!
C: And how did it turn out?
K: Oh it was delicious.
C: You were like “It’s so worth it! I’m only ever making coconut cake with fresh coconut!” When we have kiln sales we’ll expect about 150 people to pass through and I always make enough food to feed 400. And one week before I’ll tell Alex, “I’m going to make 12 types of cookies and 5 quick breads and 5 dips and basil-watermelon lemonade and lavender lemonade and maybe some cupcakes!” Now, he makes me show him a list of what I plan to make and he’ll take a big marker and just start crossing things off the list. I probably could just put out some chips and some Trader Joe’s cookies and everyone would be just fine and they’d still come next time, but I’ve convinced myself that I absolutely have to go over the top or people will be disappointed. I think the world comprises two types of people: people who, no matter how busy they are, think “I HAVE to make this cake with fresh coconut or ELSE” and people who think, “Hey, life’s pretty busy right now, maybe I’ll make a cake from a box.” I wish I could learn from the second group.
K: Totally. Oh, yeah, and the cake had a buttercream frosting made with Italian meringue – the frosting alone took forever. But really, it was awesome. The best coconut cake I’ve ever made. But I don’t think I’ll ever make it again while I’m trying to watch a toddler…
C: …on Mother’s Day on your day off. My one requirement for Mother’s Day was that I cooked no meals. We were going to make tacos and I even floated around the idea of making tortillas at home. But then we decided to pick up some take out carnitas from Taqueria Munoz and I think it was one of the wisest choices I’ve made in my adult life.
Okay, last question. Self-care. Do you do it?
K: Hmmm, that’s the question, isn’t it? Something’s gotta give. But I have been doing Pilates. I manage to go like three times a week. I really love it - it lets me disconnect. And then I get home and get to shower, which is often something that gets neglected. When Gisela takes a nap and I’m home with her by myself the options I’m weighing are: “Do I shower and maybe even shave my legs or do I open my computer and seize the opportunity to send some e-mails?” You’ve gotta make a choice! But after Pilates I’m better at choosing to shower.
- Interviewed by Connie Coady, May 2016
If you’d like to try your hand at coconut cake with freshly grated coconut, follow this recipe or this, if using canned coconut milk sounds like a better option. Just make sure to borrow a toddler if you don’t have one on hand. We wouldn’t want you missing out on the very best part.