Double rise: Chef Katie Hayes takes a step back into the kitchen
Chef-owner of the Bonavista Social Club says it was tough to cancel the 2020 season — but there are positives
Chef Katie Hayes is just shy of 35, but she's not a new face on Newfoundland and Labrador's culinary scene.
She's competed (and triumphed) in culinary competitions around the world, served brunch to Bono, worked with some of the province's best chefs and breastfed her way through her first year as a chef-owner.
Locals and baycationers alike were dismayed at the news that Bonavista Social Club, the wood-fired pizza restaurant in Upper Amherst Cove that's become a summer pilgrimage for many, wouldn't be opening this season for the first time since 2012.
While Hayes knows it was the right call in the time of COVID-19, it hasn't been easy. She chatted over Zoom (how else are we doing it these days?) about her career, being a mom in a male-dominated industry and what's next for the Bonavista Social Club.
Laying the groundwork
Hayes has been working in the service industry for most of her life. She started out at Fishers' Loft in Port Rexton at 14, cleaning rooms, serving breakfast and washing dishes.
She left the Bonavista Peninsula after high school to start the textiles program at the Anna Templeton Centre in St. John's.
"While I was doing that I was serving and realized that I love the industry but I didn't want to serve for the rest of my life," laughs Hayes. "I always loved to cook so that's when I went off to Holland College in P.E.I."
During school, she did on-the-job training with Brian Abbott, chef-owner at Restaurant 21, and worked with other prominent city chefs like Carolyn Power and Todd Perrin.
Once Hayes finished school she got her hands in the dough at Atlantica, making pasta for hours a day under chef Jeremy Charles.
"I just wanted to cook that type of food and I wanted to be back in Newfoundland so that's why I ended up at Atlantica, and he took me on just from a phone interview so I was pretty lucky."
Throughout the years, Hayes has travelled the world for cooking competitions in Germany and Dubai. She also spent a few years cooking in Ireland, where she met her husband, Shane Hayes.
"It was called Nosh. It was high end but specialized in breakfast — I'll never cook breakfast again. We cooked a lot of seafood. Actually, Bono lived down the road, so would come for brunch. It was in the higher-end part of the city, it was pretty crazy."
Double trouble: Giving birth to a baby and a restaurant
Hayes has garnered decades worth of experience in the kitchen, but it was becoming a mother that shifted her culinary career.
While working at Raymonds (her second gig with chef Jeremy Charles) she got pregnant and during maternity leave laid the groundwork for Bonavista Social Club.
"We were living in a second-floor apartment on Barnes Road. It was great but we realized I'd worked over 15 years in the industry to know that I couldn't put myself through this for someone else for the rest of my life," says Hayes.
The restaurant industry's late nights and long hours — at the time Shane was working as a bartender to maintain his permanent residency — were weighing on them more than ever.
Hayes had always wanted to be close to home and to own a restaurant highlighting ingredients grown in her own garden. When her father, Mike Patterson of Patterson Woodworking, offered an empty building in Upper Amherst Cove, they jumped at the chance.
"We knew in some way we were going to be entrepreneurs, and if it ended up just being a pub where older men can come drink, eat stew and watch whales, that would have been OK too."
Opening the Bonavista Social Club didn't come without risk, whether they realized it at the time or not.
"We were young and foolish enough that we didn't think too hard or do quite enough market research. If we had we might not be where we are now. Our accountant was like, 'Yeah you're crazy. Unless you start selling bread at Sobey's it's not going to happen,'" recalls Hayes.
A loaf has yet to enter a chain grocery store.
The success of the restaurant's first season (which coincided with the birth of their first daughter) was unexpected and with only the two of them working both front-of-house and back in the kitchen, they were swamped.
"I didn't see Claragh for the first six months of her life. I just ran up the hill to breastfeed and came back down."
The M word
When Hayes was at the Canadian Culinary Institute at Holland College, she recalls, about 25 per cent of her class identified as female, a figure that doesn't sound so bad, especially considering she graduated 15 years ago.
"But women aren't the ones who are still in the industry 10 years later. Most of my friends who are still in the industry are men. I only have a couple of friends who I went to school with who are women and still cooking," says Hayes, who now has three children; Claragh is eight, Dorothy is five and Thomas is three.
Because the restaurant industry has been traditionally male-dominated, being a woman chef is difficult, but adding children into the equation is a whole other ball game. There's little compassion for pregnant line cooks; maternity leave is a novel concept only a few restaurants entertain, and support for child care is non-existent.
But Hayes doesn't view motherhood as a hurdle in her culinary career — it's more of a workaround. Her aim has always been to make the food she wanted, how she wanted and where she wanted, and becoming the chef-owner of Bonavista Social Club allowed her to do that and have three children at the same time.
"When my second was born, I went right back to work 2½ months after she was born. Shane has a marketing degree, there's not much he's going to do in Upper Amherst Cove, so I would teach the baking course [at the college in Bonavista] and it was crazy. I probably scarred her for life," Hayes laughs.
But even though she's the boss, mothering and cheffing at the same time has proven to be incredibly challenging.
"It was so hard. I don't know how long I would have been in the industry and have children if I didn't run my own place. The flexibility isn't there. The understanding isn't there," says Hayes.
"For the other two pregnancies, I could work from home, so to speak, and come and go a bit more. My staff then were mostly male and were like, 'I got that, don't be at that.' They were over the top," says Hayes.
"They knew what I was like, that I was stubborn and didn't need them to help me. But I was lucky to have great support by then. But I think I wouldn't have made it in downtown St. John's restaurants, there's no way."
Looking back on her career in restaurants, Hayes says she felt that while she was treated equally in the kitchen, being a woman in the industry didn't exactly go unnoticed.
"I think maybe knowing what I know now and living what I've lived now, I might have been a little angrier, but I was fresh and new and wanted to absorb it all," says Hayes.
"I was so young and naive that I would just do anything I could to fit in. Until I got pregnant and it was harder to be one of the guys."
Recovering from a punch in the gut
While some might think Hayes jumped the gun when she and Shane announced they would not be opening Bonavista Social Club for the 2020 season, she tries not to take it personally. The initial focus was on giving the staff plenty of notice.
"When we started thinking about all the unknown and having to talk to our staff and give them an idea — actually a lot of them have found work which is amazing — we gave them enough time to assist them with that," she explained.
The startup costs to begin the season are exorbitant, she says, and with hiring the kitchen staff, servers, along with the gardener and a babysitter, it doesn't come cheap. Hayes appreciates the local support they have always gotten from the Bonavista Peninsula but it's not enough for a healthy bottom line.
"Locals are such a huge support, they're amazing, but without out-of-province tourists and summer homes, it's very hard," says Hayes.
The Bonavista Social Club isn't exactly on the main thoroughfare. The restaurant overlooks the ocean and it's common to see whales while you're munching on their famous wood-fired pizzas on the patio. But it's not set up for dining during a pandemic; the kitchen is open to the dining room and you have to walk by it to get to the washrooms.
"Our food doesn't really take out great; it's not something we are set up for that we want to promote. You're not just coming up for a $30 to-go pizza. You're coming up to sit, relax and be part of the growing," says Hayes.
"It's heartbreaking because it's where we want to be, it's all we know, the kids are part of it."
But a no-go on the season has been full of positives too.
"I'm able to be in the gardens and we're able to be with our children, which we've never had in the summer," says Hayes.
"My oldest loves to bake. I'm not usually home to bake, and right now I'm cooking more than I've ever cooked. I cook more now than I do when the restaurant is open because I'm less managing humans and fixing everyone's problems and more actually getting my hands in the dough."
Hayes was excited about the weddings that were supposed to go ahead at the Bonavista Social Club this summer, most of which have been postponed until next year. She says it gives her something to look forward to.
In the meantime, she's working on the recipe for success both in and out of the kitchen.
Katie, Shane and their kids can slow down for the first time in eight years to look at their business, their life and the food they make.
Who knows, maybe there will be taco or two on the menu next summer?