At home, in the kitchen, and on the road, taking back power and defying old-fashioned expectations.
By Katie Button as told to Devorah Lev-Tov
Katie Button changed course from studying science to working in restaurants, first for José Andrés and then for Ferran Adrià at El Bulli in Spain. After meeting her husband Félix Meana, a native of Catalonia, the two moved to Asheville, North Carolina, and created Katie Button Restaurants in 2011. They opened Spanish tapas restaurant Cúrate in 2011, with Button running the kitchen, and then Button & Co. Bagels in 2018. Their cocktail bar Nightbell was open from 2014 to early 2019. Button was a semifinalist for the James Beard Rising Star Chef award in 2012 and 2013, a nominee in 2014, semifinalist for Best Chefs in America in 2015, and a nominee for Best Chef Southeast 2018 and 2019. Button and Meana welcomed their daughter Gisela in 2015 and their son Lalo in 2018. See her interview on how her business is coping with the coronavirus pandemic.
When I first got into the industry, most of the people I was working with were men, and everybody was young, including me. I only worked in a few places, but I really don’t remember meeting any women with families, to be honest … which is strange. I didn’t even think about it. I was in my 20s, and you’re kind of selfish in your 20s, and self-centered on what you’re doing. I definitely did not think about the state of the industry, the benefits that were being offered, what life would be like if I had children.
I have always known that I wanted to have kids. But I also knew that I loved working in restaurants and being a chef. When I got into that environment, it just suited me so well. I’m a night owl, I hate the mornings. I love the high energy and speed and multitasking and being on your feet and the constant change. It’s very exciting and challenging and rewarding, all at the same time.
Cúrate had been open three and a half years when we decided to have kids, and we had also just opened our second restaurant that year, Nightbell. When we had our second kid, Lalo, he came five weeks early. Who knows what contributes to that, but the day that my water broke, I had spent a whole lot of physical energy putting his room together, and I’d been traveling for work, and did a dinner at the James Beard house two weeks prior, and just—it was not smart. In both cases I worked right up until the births of my children and was on my feet. When my son was born early, we ended up spending almost two weeks in the NICU, and it was really hard and stressful, and I do wonder if the amount of work that I was doing contributed to the early delivery that I had. And I don’t feel great about that.
Being pregnant wasn’t so difficult. It was more that I didn’t take any time off after giving birth. For a few weeks I wasn’t working nights, and I was doing more manager meetings and emails and staying on top of things that way. I also was about to start to write a cookbook with Gisela, and I had this idea that I would be able to be at home and work on this cookbook while the baby sleeps. And after that first week I was like, “Oh my God, we need a nanny.”
Literally the only way that I’ve been able to do what I’ve been able to do is because of the job that I have and the fact that I could afford private childcare. The only way people juggle it is with their partners, so what happens if you’re a single mother? You’re just screwed.
You would have to find a daytime job in the industry, and that can be really hard, and a lot of employers aren’t understanding, either. I think that comes from that mentality in the restaurant industry that you do whatever needs to be done, and you go above and beyond and sacrifice yourself to get it done, and then you’re doing well. That’s considered excelling in your career.
It was really important to me to breastfeed both of our children, and I was determined. In hindsight, I probably should have given myself a little bit more of a break. I think that the publicity about the importance of breastfeeding is important, and I understand why that exists, but it does come with a whole layer of guilt for working mothers. Or anyone who has trouble, because it’s not a given that it is easy.
In the first year after Gisela was born, I actually had to go back and work at Nightbell because it needed my help. I had to work nights again and cover the loss of an employee and one of our chefs. I remember having to set a timer to go downstairs in the middle of service and go in the employee bathroom to pump. And I didn’t want to put a sign or announce to everybody what I was doing. The employees are banging on the door like, “Who’s in there? It’s taking forever.” It’s 20 minutes.
I had to have this really uncomfortable meeting with all of my staff because I got tired of the door banging. I said, “Look, I’m going to put a post-it on the door when I’m in there, and you just have to understand what’s going on.” I had to tell everybody, and I was so embarrassed, because I don’t want to talk about my breasts with my employees. And then I had to find a place to put the milk. What does the health department think about me stashing this in the bottom shelf of our walk-in?
I also did not give up on travelling. I did not stop doing events. I waited six months before I did my first traveling event after Gisela was born, but that experience was maybe some of the worst food I have ever produced in my life. I went by myself because we didn’t have the staff to send a sous chef or a helper with me. I was only cooking one dish for it, but I just was not all there, and it was incredibly challenging to execute. And then I felt like I just failed. I don’t know if the guests felt the same way or the other people that were cooking with me, but I think both the events I did within that six-month period of having a child, I did probably my worst food.
But I was afraid of stopping the train—food festivals, or dinners in other people’s restaurants, meeting the journalists who are attending those dinners, telling my story, having that turn into more opportunities down the line. I had to stay relevant. And I still feel that way.
The year Gisela was born, I did the Aspen Wine and Food Festival because it was the same year I got nominated for the Food and Wine Best New Chef list in 2015. I had to travel up to New York for a photo shoot when Gisela was eight weeks old, so I brought her. We were waiting for a while, and right as we’re about to go into the shoot, Gisela starts crying hysterically. I was like, “I’m sorry, you’re going to have to give me 10 minutes because I have to breastfeed my child.” And they had to wait.
The other chefs who were with me told me that they were inspired by the fact that they saw me with my daughter and that I was taking care of her. I was still a size larger than my normal, but they shoved me inside a super form-fitting dress for that photo shoot. I was really not feeling it, but it was okay.
But there was one thing that bothered me a little bit. The night before, they went out to one of the Momofuku spots, and I asked if I could bring Gisela. But they had a no-child policy, and I literally couldn’t leave her because she was feeding every hour, she was so little. So I couldn’t go, and I felt like I was missing out on the networking, the cliquing, the getting to know people.
When I had my children, I was in a much more fortunate place than most because I already owned my own restaurant. I could create my own way, my own schedule, my own being, to make it all work. That’s when it really dawned on me that if it’s challenging for me and where I am, then it would be almost impossible to do it as a non-owner woman working in restaurants.
Now that we have other people in our company who are pregnant and having kids—we have quite a few—I’m constantly telling them to take it easy, and that it’s okay to listen to how they feel. I ask them what their scheduling needs are and then adjust accordingly.
I think one of the most important things an employer can do is be understanding about that, and be flexible, and not be upset with the employee when they change their mind on what their needs are. You don’t really know what you’re getting into until you are in it.
We put a lactation room in each of our buildings. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s not a bathroom, and it’s private. I was like, “I can suffer through that, but I don’t want one of my employees to have to deal with that.”
One more thing we have come up with is a pretty unique affordable healthcare plan. You have to have health insurance in order to have children. We’re doing it through a combination of a high deductible plan that’s affordable, and then we pay the full amount for direct primary care, where you get all the services you need for a set monthly fee.
Pay is important. You have to pay a living wage. That’s the first thing, but then beyond that, offering benefits are equally important because you’re helping people to have and receive things that they may not save money for. Every year we’ve added one major benefit. Like a 401k plan that we match, because I think planning towards retirement is equally important.
We also offer paid time off and sick days. We proudly offer our hourly employees paid time off. One thing that we just implemented new this year was short-term disability for our managers. In addition to our health insurance program, we offer a wellness incentive where if our employees see their primary care doctor, and they go to the dentist once in a year, we give them $300 cash.
I would love to figure out a way to solve the childcare issue though because I think that’s one of the most challenging roadblocks and the reason why people can’t have kids and work in the restaurant industry.
Having a family has drastically changed how I do things and how I work. I do not work nights anymore in the restaurants. I want to take Saturdays and Sundays off. My daughter is now in preschool. If I want to see her, she’s in school from 9-3, and I have to see her in the evenings. I do not want to miss out on her life. And Lalo now is starting daycare during the daytime, so it’s the same. I want to be there. I want to cook them dinner. My mom cooked me dinner. That’s why I love food.
For a while that made me feel guilty, not being in the restaurants. I was nervous about what people would say, and also about customers coming in and not seeing me. And even my staff wanting me to be more involved. One thing we hear on exit interviews from our employees is “I wish that I had more interaction with Katie” from almost everybody. And me not working nights is a really big reason why they don’t see me. I’m trying to figure out a way to connect with our staff so that we don’t lose that. Maybe we offer a quarterly training class where I’m there with the employees. Maybe with new hires we set up a lunch where Felix and I get to sit down and have a conversation and eat the food and talk to them about the history of the food and why the dishes are the way that they are. I want to get that connection back because that is something that has been lost.
But I’ve only got one life. I’m not living this life for other people and their expectations of me. I’ve really had to get comfortable with that. I actually started seeing a therapist this year. That’s what’s helping me get comfortable. It’s been important for me to just be able to let go of the stress of what other people’s expectations of how I do my job—what being a chef means, and that it’s okay if my role switches to more of a leadership and ownership and management role. I mean, that is what growth is—allowing other people to fill in where you once stood, so that you can then create space to do more things and live your life the way you want to live it.