Alexandra Feswick is the chef de cuisine at The Drake Hotel and this weekend she’s at Taste of Toronto right after she was hard at work for the launch of The Drake Commissary, a new foodie haven and marketplace in The Junction. When we hopped on the phone for her interview, we expected to talk more about food and instead, the convo went to her unique coming out as a working mom and chef. Her babe Reed is now a toddler and she says mashing up parenthood with her career keeps her at ease no matter how busy her schedule gets. Privvy to a one-year maternity leave, she decided to go back to work after 6 months—with no regrets.
“It was a challenge for me to make room for having a baby in my life. I always felt it would be nice to have a family, but I didn’t plan to get pregnant. I always expected that we would have the ‘let’s try and have a baby’ conversation and then Reed arrived before that happened.
There’s a lot of talk about why there aren’t more female chefs and I’m not afraid to admit that it has a lot to do with the family factor. I’m in a business where you are asked to care more about filling other people’s dinners than your own and having a baby can interrupt that flow. But I want to offer hope that women can have babies and continue on in the food industry. I’m pretty hell bent on making motherhood work in a way that won’t sacrifice my job. I was 31-years old when Reed was born, so being slightly older and advanced in my career has given me freedoms like choosing shifts that suit my family’s schedule.
I went back to work after six months of being on mat leave, which really helped me recover faster from being a new mom. I identify a lot with my profession and it felt good to be back in the kitchen and to have that time away from Reed which made me value the time we spend together even more. I was happy to feel like myself again as opposed to being at home alone with a baby all day. I’ve always worked in a restaurant that has dozens of people in it all the time. To transition from lots of human contact to having none was challenging for me. I didn’t even know what end was up, and as all moms know, it’s hard to find a moment to yourself with a newborn.
I also lacked mentorship. The culinary community in Toronto is great; we can call on each other for advice and we go out to eat together regularly. But I don’t know many chefs who are working moms or could relate to what I was going through. I tried Facebook groups which didn’t help me much either. Comparing Reed’s development with so many new moms felt exhausting and competitive. Once I left the groups, I felt like I could breathe again and trust his first step or first word would happen in his own time. It’s like I discovered my maternal instinct instead of taking advice from strangers. I eventually found a bar that had a mommy happy hour, which was more my speed and where I met women who I could relate with.
I’m consciously deciding not to complain about not having enough time or money. I’d rather be positive and make it work with what’s in front of me.
At first I only worked three to four times a week. I pumped during my shift and brought the milk home. It may sound like a hassle but it made it easier and Reed got to spend more time with us. I didn’t have to hire any child care until he was 18 months old because my husband’s schedule is pretty flexible and he was able to be with Reed when I couldn’t. Now we have a nanny three times a week and we’re able to structure our lives a bit better and find more balance.
I know that my sense of balance is so different from what most people experience though. I generally work the evening service from 7pm to 11pm; I have Monday and Tuesday’s off to spend with Reed and in exchange for that luxury, I don’t get to have a family dinner every day. Instead, we usually always have brunch together on Sunday or Saturday mornings. I’m consciously deciding not to complain about not having enough time or money. I’d rather be positive and make it work with what’s in front of me. And even though I’m a chef and my partner Chad is a carpenter, that means our kitchen isn’t renovated yet. In the big picture, that’s not a big deal to me.
I feel like it’s more important for Reed to see that we identify as his parents but also witnesses us at work in professions that we love, which is something I hope he finds for himself one day too.”
The kicks that keep her bod and her spirit happily on the move. She just knocked down 10k in less than six minutes at the Around the Bay race in Hamilton, Ontario, her hometown.
She’s held onto handwritten recipes and books from her Ukrainian grandmother that she still references for work today. Also on standby, Culinary Artistry. “It’s one of the first books I got during culinary school. You can look up any ingredient and find out what to pair it with.”
“I don’t use this book for recipe ideas. It’s more interesting to look at the expectations of women that it sets. It tells us how we should entertain, cook and eat. It’s so far removed from my reality so I think that’s why I keep it around.” What she also keeps on standby is a knife that was a gift from a former colleague. “I’ve never seen anything like it before and I use it all the time even though it doesn’t have a traditional handle.”
“Being one of the only women in the kitchens I’ve worked in, I seek out books that discuss topics I don’t have a chance to talk about at work. Naomi Wolf’s Vagina can be extreme but it helped me give birth naturally because it helped me connect with my body and trust in what it’s capable of.” Women Who Run With Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés is another empowering read that has influenced her path, while anything by Stephen King is her escape route when she can find the time.
Pans from Le Creuset and Staub are mostly gifts and dominate her pantry. She even has a Le Creuset frying pan that’s perfectly seasoned; it’s never touched soap or water and used exclusively for making eggs.
“I accidentally spilled makeup remover all over Reed’s back and it turned his skin really red. That’s when I decided to make my own formula with gentle ingredients.” In a jar she soaks cotton pads in a tablespoon of coconut oil and a teaspoon of Dr. Bronner’s Castille Soap. “Reed can use them too and I don’t need to freak out about him reacting.” She’s also loyal to a good body scrub. She’ll spoil herself with a visit to the therapeutic waters and scrubs at Body Blitz Spa and at home she’ll add a few drops of energizing peppermint oil onto a body brush during her shower. Also on her hit list: Goodies like Hooray Hand Créme and Best Skin Ever Seabuckthorn from plant-based Living Libations.