Married to a chef: A journey
I am starting a series interviewing chef wives as part of my on-going series of #marriedtoachef to learn from and share how all these other amazing women from all over the world in similar situations are doing. From conquering their fears, pushing their boundaries and making it work at the merciless schedule of their chef husbands.
To kick it off, here’s my introductory post before introducing all the awesome ladies #marriedtoachef who kindly agreed to the interview. I’m skipping the intro part as regular visitors might already know the story. If not, you can read more here about me.
Many chef wives work alongside their husbands running the front of house and most of them run their PR and social presence as well. I do some of the latter (but is hard when I don’t have access to kitchen to get mise en place / in the pass photos. Right now, I wouldn’t veer into the waters of working together… but ask me again in 10 years maybe.
I’ve always loved spending time alone – I spent much of my late teens and early 20s backpacking solo and one of my favourite activities is going to plays, movies and concerts alone. My first love was a medical student and he too worked alot, long hours studying, 48h on call at the hospital, so I suppose I have always had a busy partner which works itself out!
For me, having time to be by yourself is luxury, which explains how our marriage works out. I am so grateful for alone time as an introvert. As I am alone almost all the time and when chef gets home early – it upsets my plan of working, blogging, online classes, late night skype calls with friends etc!
1. How and when did you meet your chef husband?
We both worked and lived in Beijing, Myself for 4+ years, he arrived in 2006 and I arrived in 2007. We didn’t meet till 2009 at a Jaboulet Hermitage wine dinner at Raffles Hotel with a two Michelin starred guest chef Nicolas Le Bec. I was on a media table covering the event.
He introduced himself as Alain Ducasse in jest and my first thought was – WHO is this fellow? And the audacity. I got what he was trying to do since the media table I sat at was unfazed, like it was the most natural thing and he was chef maestro Ducasse. Smiles all around. Enchanté.
Beijing’s food writing scene has come a long way since nine years ago I’m sure. But I suppose it’s still ivy league fresh grads who grew up on fast food diets running the expat rags over-using “to die for”, “succulent” and “delicious” which makes my skin crawl, but it is what it is.
My then full time job was a copywriter at BBDO doing BWM, MINI ad campaigns and I was moonlighting for fun as a freelance writer to dig deep into the food scene in Beijing.
We didn’t get together till 2010 and shortly after he returned to France, then moved on to Marrakech for a consulting job. So we dated Beijing- France-Marrakech.. and I cannot even begin to tell you how tough it is across timezones with a chef’s schedule…! And the phase two was Beijing (me) – Macao.
Then Hong Kong (me) where I transferred to the corporate office – Macao before quitting the life and career as I knew it to move to Macau… in September, it will be four years in Macau. And we are married for two years, which incidentally our anniversary is this week!
2. Did marrying chef change your career goals/ direction in life?
Well, let’s say it turned it all upside down and I took the last couple of years to finally make peace with myself and accept my own decision.
I am an alpha-female. The go-getting, conquer challenges, solve problems, climb corporate ladder type. And suddenly I was relegated to the ranks of housewivery as a trailing spouse where day to day decisions are what’s on sale and is this detergent eco-friendly? Are these cruelty-free happy hen eggs?
And not to mention the condescension of being the Asian trailing spouse dealing with all the passport hunting stereotypes – which now in hindsight is hilarious – what’s up with these people man? So rude!
In the last four years, leaving Macau (after the painstaking work of making this relationship work long and short distance) was not an option because of the husband’s career. So, that meant turning down amazing job offers I would have jumped at, brilliant career advancements opportunities because of the work I do.
I’ve only ever moved for work and never had I been more displaced – my de facto dependent visa (pre-marriage papers) took forever to approve, I was on the brink of deportation.
I said no and no and no and then the job offers eventually stopped coming. In my desperation to be useful and busy and find my sense of self in this world of insecurities – giving up a life I have always known and built myself.
I set up JLOH Communications and run a consultancy business. I naturally over-did myself and work longer hours than chef. Which kind of defeated the whole purpose of moving to Macau to be with him. So a couple of months ago, I quit my full time global retainer and am now on project work.
I had no friends of my own, I had no community – because I clocked long hours with my global retainer client I had for nearly four years working out of my home office or jumping on a plane at short notice. My social circle consisted of “friends” I had inherited from my husband – mainly his friends’ spouses – the types of people I would never be friends with in my lifetime.
Man, that was tough. but that is not to say it’s all bad, because one of my best friends and mentor I met is also a chef’s wife and I can’t wait to feature AromasnSabores who has kindly agreed to do the interview as well. Heidi inspired my personal growth, learning food styling and photography.
3. Best thing about being married to a chef?
Well, the food of course. The chef fraternity around the world. Dining in the kitchens behind the scene. Visiting the best wineries all over France, drinking straight from the barrels of DRC. Going truffle hunting and eating so much truffles I get a tummyache and cramps. Or waiting for the fishermen to come in with their fresh haul in Brittany – the same suppliers that export those fresh catch out to Michelin starred restaurants in Hong Kong and Macau.
These are gourmet stories of every food writer/journalist dreams of and that’s just my regular kind of holiday. Always seeking, discovering and eating.
And time alone!!! Solitary me time, there’s so much to see, do, learn in life, I really don’t understand it when people say they are bored!
4. Pet Peeve about being married to a head chef of a two Michelin starred restaurant (with his name on the restaurant no less)?
Apart from dealing with the usual misconceptions of “you are so lucky to eat michelin starred gourmet meals everyday” which couldn’t be further from the truth.
I suppose this would be being at the mercy of his schedule and it’s hard to plan for anything – that unexpected day off, going back to work on his off day is not uncommon. VIP guests that arrive at the restaurant past 1030pm and takes a full dégustation menu – that means chef doesn’t get home before 1am.
With this the unpredictable schedule, needless to say, it’s hard to keep your skype date with your best friend you had planned for weeks, much less have a soaring career, given that you’d have to reschedule appointments at the drop of the hat.
I used to hold on tight to appointments with much stress and anger because I’m a committed professional, but eventually the opportunity cost of losing precious time with chef husband takes more weight.
I suppose I am accepting how I need to prioritise time in ways I have never learnt.
Someone’s got to give and it’s taken me four years to finally make peace.
The other is more a feminist issue because there will never be equal standing in a chef marriage. It will always be about the chef and the supportive trailing spouse will always be invisible.
In all my management roles, I always made it a point to recognise the efforts of the team, never taking full credit for any project or success, so this was, initially pretty hard for me to stomach after giving up a career and life as I knew it to join the ranks of invisible trailing spouses.
Where is the equality? (I acknowledge that’s my alpha female speaking) It is however common knowledge that marriage is never fair, and fairness is a moving target, so I am learning how to be the silent publicly invisible supportive wife.
I suppose it’s the same when your child achieves the highest accolades, you’ll be that silent pillar at the back cheering him/her on and not wanting a piece of that pie for acknowledgement.
The upside of being out of the limelight is to be able to be my own person, whether it’s writing or consulting, just doing all the things that spark joy, without worrying about the rumour mongering gossips. :)
5. Work, life and chef schedule balance – how do you manage it all?
That took me a long time to figure out dating long distance then short distance and trying to hang on to my own identity, which I realised regardless of shape and form (this is even before motherhood decisions of whether to be a SAHM or working mum), work doesn’t define me as a person.
It’s SO HARD, believe me, I’m Singaporean, it’s part of our social conditioning from birth.
Well, it does and it doesn’t. When I set up my own consulting business I was working more than chef, travelling often at last minute notice, I actually saw him as little as when we were living in different countries.
I went to bed before he came home at midnight and when he was heading out the door to work I was already chairing morning calls – so we could go for 3-4 days without speaking to each other.
Now that I am on project work (HOOOOORAY), I am more fluid and on chef’s spontaneous schedule! While the work and income isn’t stable and regular like I’ve always known it to be nor glamourous with tons of travel with global clients, it’s been so far so good with this new routine and I have so much more time for chef, myself and sanity.
I don’t really know what took me so long to draw the line of work, life and marriage.
Well, there is a time and place for everything and each situation, person and place is a lesson we need to learn, I suppose.
6. Advice on dating/married to a chef: The misconceptions and glory
The husband is an executive chef but also chef de cuisine at the eponymous two Michelin starred restaurant, that means he takes care of room service and all the food in the hotel, but is also behind the stoves every dinner and lunch service at his Michelin starred restaurant The Tasting Room by Galliot.
Many executive chefs spend their time in the office doing paperwork and managing people – but my husband is essentially doing two jobs because his passion lies in cooking and the adrenaline rush of the kitchen service.
I think the media sensationalises this #marriedtoachef glory. When your chef wins awards, gets his Michelin stars or launches his own TV show etc, the glory and fame all comes at a price. If you’re after the glory and fame by marrying a celebrity/Michelin starred chef, then it probably isn’t going to work.
I did a short research and could not find many celebrity chefs without infidelity and/or broken marriages. Those strong marriages that remained intact, interestingly, their wives holds the fort front of house in the restaurant or are partners in business in some way.
I learnt that my sense of self is very separate from being a chef wife. I stand in the back row and quietly cheerlead, never add to the stress. In my social circle, I heard chef wives call their husbands as many times as 20 times a day. And often times they call during service hours. That’s adding alot of unnecessary stress.
At the end of the day, I think you need to be really comfortable with yourself, on your own and be that pillar of support always and on demand. It’s a partnership and we don’t want to fall into the blame game of me against you.
I think chef wives like many wives supporting their husbands in equally demanding high profile careers deal with it the same way. In the meantime, I am just immensely grateful that we live in Asia and can afford hired help, because, well, let’s just say housekeeping isn’t a forte of mine.
Leave you with some fab advice from Tony Robbins on giving freely with love, and not keeping score.