As Shiva Patel prepared for the birth of her son in 2014, she was also preparing to open the Oporto Fooding House & Wine in Midtown with her husband Rick Di Virgilio. At the time they also owned The Queen Vic, and both were also focused on his paralyzed father’s illness.
“It was super important as a woman to keep healthy,” Patel says. “There were a lot of things going on, but you just do, you have to prioritize.”
At the time Patel and Di Virgilio paid out-of-pocket for health insurance, and they made it work despite the potential stressors. Today, they offer group insurance within their company—into which they’re enrolled—but that's just one restaurant group in the city. Many restaurants and bars in Houston don’t offer health insurance to employees; further, while it’s improving, the industry's attitude toward physical—along with emotional and mental—health care, remains flawed.
“I’m not suggesting we have an answer, but I think we should just have a conversation so that we understand what individuals in this industry are facing,” says Lori Choi, founder of I’ll Have What She’s Having, an organization that focuses on improving health care conditions and raising awareness about issues facing women in the culinary workplace.
Since its founding in 2017, I’ll Have What She’s Having has steadily grown in volume and resonance, hosting events and workshops geared toward raising more of those conversations. On Sunday, it’ll host one of its biggest events yet, the Lucky Cat Brunch, which celebrates women, and mothers, in the Houston culinary scene. A team of chefs, including Patel, will create a dim sum-style meal with craft cocktails for guests, and the event will also feature live music and a silent auction.
Proceeds will benefit IHWSH and Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast.
Women across the culinary world are dependent on a variety of providers like Planned Parenthood. Plenty of professionals have taken to GoFundMe to raise money during or after emergencies, including star Houston chef Monica Pope, after being diagnosed with breast cancer.
Leadership remains staggeringly male across the industry, which means women’s health issues may not be taken as seriously. One would think that having more women at the top could mean a world of difference for an employee attempting to achieve a better work-life balance.
Take Jane Wild, for instance. Now the executive chef at The Dunlavy, Wild spent years working at Whole Foods Market as a regional chef. She felt that, during those years, she barely spent time with her young son—in fact, once he turned 3 months old, she went away on business for three months.
“I wore many different hats in order to balance being a mom and being a workaholic at the same time,” says Wild, who will be behind the scenes helping her sous chef, Alexandra Pena, part of the cook team at Sunday’s Lucky Cat Brunch. “If you’re a restaurateur, you’re a workaholic, that’s just your title.”
When her son turned 10, Wild decided to overhaul her life and start a small business, Jane and John Dough Bakery in Tomball, which allowed her to spend more time with him. In her newest phase at The Dunlavy, Wild is back in the kitchen, and back in workaholic mode, but in a more flexible situation that provides the balance she wants.
“He’s really good at, when it’s time to be together, we are honed in,” Wild said. “One of our things is cooking together. He immediately knows to grab the immersion blender or whatever tool we need.”
That doesn’t mean she’s figured it all out. Wild says she constantly feels guilty that she’s not with her son, or if one of her co-workers is at work despite having a sick child at home. But at The Dunlavy, she said there’s compassion in the kitchen, and certainly, that sick kid means that co-worker can head home.
“I can honestly say I’ve seen change,” says Wild. “But it’s like watching bread rise or water boil how long it’s taking. It’s women like myself who are standing up and saying ‘I’m gonna open a business that’s going to allow for my child to be with them.’ Or ‘I’m gonna have a staff that’s cross-trained so I don’t have to stay ‘til the 16th hour, because someone else can step in.’”
Patel, preparing once again to open a new restaurant—the new version of The Queen Vic—is already planning with change in mind, setting up training and mentoring sessions, and potentially operating on a non-traditional schedule that’s more responsive to workers’ physical, emotional, and mental needs.
That means a buy-in from Houstonians, the nation’s leaders in dining out who speak with their wallets. Of course, days like Mother’s Day won’t be changing—thousands will be enjoying gourmet brunches next Sunday at restaurants across the city. But the women leading the kitchens of our city, and I’ll Have What She’s Having, just hope we can talk a little bit more about how it all works.
“It’s the one career where, for every holiday and for every celebration, you’re trying to create an atmosphere and environment for others. You’re serving others during that time,” says Patel. “You do that so many times and you’re not a part of the celebration, it does take a lot out of you.”
So a celebration of women the week before Mother’s Day? That’s a good place to start.