Like many new parents, Josh Charles sensed that a major switch had been flipped the moment his baby was born 11 months ago. He knew right away that the days ahead would look different for him, professionally speaking, than the previous decade he’d spent cooking in fine-dining kitchens.
“The typical restaurant hours were just something that I could not do anymore,” the chef said this week on St. Louis on the Air. “I had been used to working Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. at minimum, and I just knew that being locked into that restaurant wasn’t going to be cohesive for the hours that I needed to be there for my family.”
That recognition soon prompted him to quit the traditional fine-dining scene in favor of branching out on his own as a freelance chef. Now he spends more of his evenings with his family while serving as a private chef for families across the St. Louis region throughout the week. He also takes on a variety of weekend gigs on the side.
Charles joined fellow local chef Alex Feick – who started Prioritized Pastries about a year ago – and Sauce Magazine managing editor Catherine Klene for a conversation about finding the right balance as creative professionals and as parents. They spoke with host Don Marsh during the latest Sound Bites segment.
Feick made a career shift of her own after learning she was pregnant with her daughter. She decided to move away from working 50-plus hours a week in a fine-dining kitchen and get back into the “home-style baking” and fundamentals that her grandmother taught her years ago.
Soon she was developing her specialty baking business and making the most of pop-ups, farmers’ markets and the emerging market for specialty baking, particularly vegan, gluten-free and custom baking. She uses Pie Oh My’s kitchen in Maplewood for her prep work and says that choosing not to launch a brick-and-mortar, at least for now, has been freeing.
“At the root of all of this, it’s been about prioritizing my family and my kid,” Feick told Marsh. “And I’ve been a part of opening restaurants – I’ve seen other people do it – and that’s just the exact opposite of what I was going for.”
Klene said that from what she’s witnessed as a journalist and as a diner, the challenges surrounding work-life balance in the restaurant industry are real, and there’s not one single fix that can make it easier. But she also sees things beginning to shift for the better.
“There’s been this sort of brash, tough-guy attitude of, ‘If you can’t hack it in the kitchen and if you can’t hack the long hours, then get out,’” Klene added. “I think that I see some of that changing, especially as the owners and the chefs themselves start to have young families.”
She’s also impressed by the ingenuity of people like Charles and Feick who are finding ways to make it work and stay invested in an industry they love.
“I think it’s fun to see that chefs can do things not just in a traditional restaurant setting,” Klene said. “You can try new things and new business models, and I really think that, especially with social media, I really think that’s the way a lot of chefs are going to go regardless of if they have families. It just may be the best option for them as an entrepreneur.”
Being one’s own boss adds new challenges to the mix, the two chefs agreed, along with welcome flexibility. Feick has found her new situation both harder and easier, in various ways, than she expected.
“You’re really always on the clock, 24/7,” she said. “And I started this idea as a way to get myself kind of away from that and spend more time with the family. And now I’ll be returning emails or making order lists or something while my daughter’s playing at my feet.”
At the same time, she added, “it’s fantastic being able to say no to somebody for a change” when she needs or wants to.
“I mean, unfortunately you always have to watch out for the bottom line, but at the end of the day the bottom line really revolves around my daughter,” Feick said. “And I get to spend all my time with her. So yeah, I’m still creatively fulfilled and I still get to play with all my fun ingredients and make delicious treats, and I get to wake her up in the morning and put her to bed at night. I mean, it’s hard work – I’m tired all the time – but I can’t imagine a better life for myself.”
Charles has been seeing increased demand for the services he offers and hopes to launch his own commercial kitchen soon as a base of operations for his wide variety of culinary activities in the region.
“I don’t think I can go work for someone else right now,” he said. “I’m at the point where I have my mission – 10 years in fine dining, your mission is to complete the owner’s mission. So once you make that switch over to your own entrepreneurial, self-driven [enterprise] – it sounds selfish, but it’s for me now. But that ultimately helps the end consumer, and there’s a market for it.”
Both chefs said they spend significant time and energy marketing their ventures – particularly via social media.
“Marketing is a very real thing – I’ve found the need for social media to be ever more present in my life,” said Feick, adding that online networks like Facebook are now “part of work” for her.
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.