Liza Hinman is the chef and co-owner of The Spinster Sisters, a restaurant in Santa Rosa, CA. The award-winning eatery opened in 2012 when Liza’s first child, Oscar, was just one year old. When Liza and her husband Joe added twin daughters to their family last December, Joe (also a chef), scaled back his time at work to become the primary parent.
We were excited to speak with Chef Hinman about her experience as a working mom who’s kicking ass in a male-dominated, notoriously tough industry. We were also curious to hear her thoughts on the “kid food” phenomenon, and maybe how to avoid the tyranny of the chicken tender.
Parents: Liza Hinman and Joe Stewart
Kids: Oscar, 4 1/2; Miranda and Bridget, ten months
Parent Co: I recently heard author Anne-Marie Slaughter on NPR raising the question, “Why do we assume the mother will leave the workforce to care for her child? Why can’t the father be the primary caregiver?” It’s cool to hear that you’re a living, breathing example of that happening.
What was the conversation like between you and your husband when you decided on these roles?
LIZA HINMAN: It was a little bit of a surprise for me, I think. I was in denial of how I was going to juggle a job and three kids and still have kind of the same experience. I was really lucky with Oscar in that I was able to be the primary caregiver. I was doing private consulting and catering, but I was basically out of “having a job” for over a year after he was born.
This time around I was under very different circumstances. I now have a restaurant and a lot more complicated work life. Beyond those first couple of months, it was obvious that I was going to be needed at the restaurant a lot more than was possible if I was going to be home with the kids a lot.
My husband came home from work one day and was like, “I had a talk.” He works with his family – they own a bakery – so we’re in a lucky circumstance that way. He basically said, “I’ve talked to my mom and my sister and told them this is what I really want to do, so hopefully they can work it out. I can work part time and then be home with the kids so that you can do what you need to do at work. We don’t have to farm the kids out.”
I was nervous about it at first, both financially and just letting go of all of those details. But it’s been a real blessing, I’d say.
Were you putting pressure on yourself to do it all? Were you having that feeling like, “I should be able to do this?”
Yeah, a little bit. I should be able to do this, and I want to do this. I wanted to. But once I got back to work I realized how much I needed that side of my life to be still in existence. If I had just totally let it go, I would really have felt unbalanced in a way. And it’s hard – every single day I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished enough as a mother or accomplished enough as a business owner, but I just have to tell myself that tomorrow can be a different story.
You’ve experienced success in a traditionally male-dominated field. What are the attitudes towards your situation – that of a working mother – in your workplace and in the restaurant industry as a whole?
It’s been interesting returning to work. In our workplace, we have a tiny little office that I share with two other people. It’s the only private space other than the bathroom, so that’s where I have to pump. I can’t even tell you the number of times I’ve been walked in on by a male cook or someone who’s just beyond horrified that they knocked and just threw the door open and didn’t even think about what was going on on the other side.
At the same time, I’m just totally casual about it; I don’t hide. I put my breast milk in the walk-in refrigerator on the cheese shelf, and that’s where it sits until I go home. They’ve all, I think, accepted my casual attitude towards that kind of stuff.
And I bring the babies to work a lot, if I just have to go in for a couple of hours and do some office work. I bring them with me and park them in the stroller, and the servers flirt with them while I’m doing stuff. So my coworkers are very aware of my situation and accepting of it, which has been good. I’ve just forced that to be part of the atmosphere, I guess.
As the chef and partner in the restaurant, I would hope you would be in a position to set that tone. People, just get on board!
Yeah, exactly. This is just the way it is. I actually work with a lot of people who have kids, too, in my kitchen. Although they’re mostly men, they mostly have kids, so they’re sympathetic or can identify somewhat with the situation.
I think, as far as the broader industry sense, I more and more sympathize with why women don’t last very long in this field because if you aren’t in a position like I’m in, where I can dictate (the culture), it’s really not a friendly atmosphere for a mother. The hours are crazy, and the jobs are physical. There’s not a lot of flexibility; I work weekends. And we struggle with that at home, too. My husband gets frustrated because I can’t go to yet another birthday party or family event because I have to do this or that. Those frustrations definitely exist, but so far we’ve managed to make it work.
Have you worked out any kind of regular schedule for yourself?
Yes. I have, and then it will evaporate on a moment’s notice. I came out of maternity leave because my sous chef forwarded me an email on a Sunday night from the next person down saying, “I’ve tendered my resignation as of today. I won’t be returning, blah, blah, blah.” I, of course, read the email before I’d even gotten up in the morning and rolled over and looked at my husband and said, “I guess I’m going back to work tomorrow.”
Then we’ve worked out a schedule where, when my husband’s working I’m at home, and when I’m working he’s at home, more or less, with some help from his family, which is huge.
Have you done anything to set aside time for you and your husband to spend together?
Yeah. We get it less often right now, but we try to arrange for Oscar to go to his grandmother’s for an evening or spend the night. The girls, we can get someone to … We actually live on the same property as Joe’s dad, so he’ll come over after they’ve gone to bed. We can just run out and get a drink or have a quick dinner. It’s a lot further between than we’d like right now.
It’s wonderful that one of you is almost always with your kids, but, of course, it means that you two become the whole ‘ships passing in the night’ thing.
Yeah, definitely. I try to make Sundays the sacred day where it’s family day. We’re both at home. We’re with our kids, and we do something either at the house or do some sort of adventure. It doesn’t happen every single week, but most weeks it does. At least we have that.
In thinking about what you’re doing for work, I realized that you’re in a position where when you’re at work, you’re creating and providing nourishment and comfort for other people, and you have to be away from your family to do that. Do you ever think about that?
It’s one of those things you can’t think about too much, or it’d make you really depressed.
I definitely recognize the irony of it. I more feel the pressure of my family or my husband or whomever looking at me thinking, “You’re choosing to nourish other people over your family at times, but you’re choosing that role. This week you’re more focused on them than you are on us.” It definitely is there in the back of my head, certainly. I try to just not let it get to me as much as I can.
But then I come home, and I’ve missed, like, “Bridget sat up today!” or those sorts of moments. Then I think to myself about all these other, maybe more traditional parents, all these husbands who might travel all the time. I have female friends, certainly, too, who are moms who are on the road for work or do all these other things and miss their kids for stretches of time. For me, I just remind myself that I do get to spend a fair amount of time with them for a working parent.
I’m curious about how your relationship to food effects your kids’ relationship to food. Obviously the girls probably aren’t eating much of anything just yet, but what about Oscar?
He’s a challenging eater. We’ve bemoaned the fact that we find ourselves making “kid food,” which we thought we never would. At the same time, you get to that point in your internal debate of, “This kid just needs calories,” versus, “He should be eating interesting, organic, perfect, home cooked meals all the time.” Sometimes it’s just not going to be that way.
Right now I’m enjoying being able to determine the baby food that I’m making for my girls, whereas Oscar, it’s like, his school lunch is either PB&J or salami and cheese and pickles.
Do you offer a kids’ menu at The Spinster Sisters?
We don’t, but we have a lot of food that kids will eat. I feel like kids don’t have to eat breaded chicken fingers and mac and cheese only. We serve breakfast and lunch so a lot of the breakfast stuff – there’s a waffle and scrambled eggs and things that – kids will eat. In the evenings, we do get a fair amount of families. They’ll order the veggies but without the spice. They’ll order the pasta with something on the side and just adapt what we do to kids’ taste. It seems to work. We’ve had a few people over the years ask for it, but it’s not that often.
What do you think about the kids’ menu phenomenon?
I feel like it’s a product of the generation that I grew up in where that’s what we ate all the time. There are these basic, dumbed-down staples. Yes, somewhere along the way it became an expectation – that’s just what you do. But I think more and more there are restaurants that are happy to create dishes for kids based on a parent saying, “Can we get pasta with just butter and cheese with some steamed peas on the side?” If we have it on the menu, sure, no problem. We’re not going to buy pre-made, breaded, in-the-freezer chicken fingers and throw them in the fryer for kids.
And you have the sense among your peers that chefs don’t mind being asked to modify things for kids’ tastes?
I don’t think so. For me, I don’t mind because the adults are just as picky as the kids. There are so many specific demands of adult diets these days that kids are simple in comparison.
What has been your one or two biggest challenges in trying to strike a balance between work and family?
I think the challenge is just the time, just the limitations of the day. The day flies by so fast. I get to work, and I have a list of 20 things and I get four of them done. Then I have to leave because I have to be home to pick up my kids from preschool. Then when I’m at home, it’s the schedule of dinner and bath and bed and all those things and, boom, the day is gone. Either I pass out or do I sit on my couch with my laptop and try and get a few more things done before I go to bed, and never feeling totally satisfied with everything. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges.
Then also, in my food world, almost as much as I love to cook, I love to be able to do research and read cookbooks and newspaper articles and really explore, to just enrich my depth of knowledge. Those sorts of things, unfortunately, fall to the bottom of the plate when you’re just trying to run a business, to make sure everyone shows up on time, and the food’s produced and the day gets done at work. Similarly at home, I don’t get to curl up with a good novel and have that life enrichment time that used to be part of my life that I took for granted.
At the risk of sounding trite, do you think it’s worth it? Is the struggle to balance a demanding job and the needs of your family worthwhile?
Yeah. There are definitely days when I just … I think it’s a real challenge and a real strain to be a business owner. A lot of days I think, “God, I just want to work for someone else. Just walk into a job, do my 8 hours, take a paycheck home and be done with it and not carry it with me everywhere I go.” But that’s not who I am. The reason I got into this is because I work like it’s my own business even when it isn’t, so it may as well be mine. It’s a tough position to be in and there are definitely days that I question it all, like when I have to hand off my kids and leave, and I really don’t want to.
Then there are days when I come home, and I had a great day at work, or I got to spend the whole morning with the girls, and we just hung out and rolled around on the carpet and I’m like, “Okay. That’s pretty good.”