How to achieve work-life balance, by the first couple of Parisian restaurants

Giulia Sgarbi - 23/07/2020

Bertrand Grébaut and Tatiana Levha met at culinary school in Paris in their early twenties. Between them, they now command an empire of six restaurants in the French capital, ranging from casual bistros – Levha’s Le Servan and Double Dragon – to fine dining award winners – Grébaut’s Septime, No.15 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2019 – and more besides. Here, they tell us how they are marrying their passion for cooking with a young family, dealing with the global pandemic, why teamwork is essential and how they promote gender equality in their own businesses

What is it like to own and manage a restaurant with your family?

Tatiana Levha: Katia [Levha’s sister] and I had never worked together before opening Le Servan, but we love it and being a family business imprints a certain line of conduct in the way we run things. It’s hard sometimes, but overall, it makes things simpler to be able to organise family and work at once. Bertrand has also been a huge support to me as he understands what I go through at work. It’s a bit hectic, but we try to be each other’s best support.

Bertrand Grébaut: Although Tatiana and I are not business partners, being life partners and doing the same job helped us when the [Covid-19] crisis came. We were able to discuss possible solutions for our businesses, the delivery offer to propose, the bureaucracy issues we might encounter in the process, and so on. Each crisis we face together makes us stronger.

TL: It’s also always been important for us to each have our personal accomplishments. It’s proven challenging, but essential for our couple’s dynamic. We’ve been together 12 years and still have the feeling that we don’t see each other enough. What’s great is being understood at home and being able to exchange opinions about work problems. 

What is the vision for your restaurants?

BG: We don’t want to replicate what we experienced during our restaurant education, so we have fewer working hours, with fewer breaks within shifts. We also try to have a nice atmosphere in our team and build relationships by organising staff parties, conferences and masterclasses. We try to pass down our values. During the lockdown, we kept in touch with the team on WhatsApp, discussing the social and economic situation and asking members to prepare and present reports to the team. We tried to create a sense of belonging within the team to make everybody – ourselves included – feel grounded in these uncertain times. We still have more work to do, but we are also always fighting against sexism and for gender equality. 

TL: Katia and I have worked a lot on what we want for our restaurants. At a time when staffing kitchens and front of house is harder than ever, we tried to create an environment where work-life balance has a place. We changed the schedule so that our staff would work fewer hours, which is not only better for them, but also enables us to be more demanding when they are at work. We try to work around each person’s strengths and weaknesses. The quality of the work is better when working conditions are better, which is something very new to the restaurant business, where there are still too many restaurants that don’t place enough importance on the staff’s wellbeing.
Septime's dishes, with grilled green asparagus, wild herb condiment, pickled wild garlic and black pork bacon on the right (image: Mickaël A. Bandassak)

Has the pandemic changed your opinions on the ethos of your businesses?

BG: The pandemic reinforced convictions we already had – it confirmed our ideas on ecological, human, sociological and economic matters. This kind of crisis makes you want to go deeper to the essential. The responsibility of having two kids and 50 employees forced me to stay optimistic. There where three or four bad weeks when morale was low, but we responded by taking part in a series of solidarity projects, which gave us a sense of purpose. That sense of responsibility kept us going.

How has having children impacted your working life?

TL: We had felt the urgency to change even before our first child, but it really hit us when she was born. We both simply refused not to see her grow up. We organised our work differently, stayed at home two evenings a week plus weekends, and made time in the afternoons between services for quality family time. It also made us more conscious about the need to build a new restaurant model, something that we could live and work with and proudly pass on to our children, instead of just hoping that they would choose another career. This doesn’t only include sustainability, but also taking better care of the people we work with and making time for issues that matter to us.

BG: What really had an impact on my work life was to have kids with another chef. It was clear for both of us that the sacrifice had to be shared equally in order to have a family life. The necessity of organising my work differently led me to cultivate a different model of chef: someone who is more modern and who encourages teamwork. I wanted to show my team an example of a chef entrepreneur, but one who is capable of dedicating time to his family too. 
Restaurant Le Servan in Paris

For a period, both Septime and Le Servan stayed closed for the weekends. What did this choice mean for you and your family?

BG: At the beginning, the weekend closure was a way to encourage family life, but today the most important way for us to achieve this is to delegate and diversify tasks and jobs. The paradox is that in order to have a family life, we developed numerous new projects and learned how to delegate to our teams.

TL: Le Servan now stays open the whole week. It may feel like a total shift, but it’s better for our family life. Katia and I made this decision in 2019 just before I left on my second maternity leave and it helped us accept that sometimes, we had to be away from the restaurant. The main reason for the change was to make the whole staff’s work-life balance better and it proved quite efficient. It forced us to build something solid so that the restaurant could work just as well without us.

Which other measures do you take in order to maintain a good work-life balance?

TL: We concentrated our efforts on our two flagship restaurants to leave more time for our children, friends and leisure. We integrated a yoga session into our work week and offer all our staff the chance to join the class every Tuesday morning. We try not to do more than two double shifts per week – the same goes for our team. We hired someone in the office to help us with paperwork, which allowed us to focus on what we enjoy most about our work. Even then, it’s still very intense and we’re always trying to find a rhythm that suits us better in the long term, especially now that we have two children.
Le Servan's dish: clams with pepper and thai basil

What advice would you give to someone who is unsure if they can have a family and a career as a chef?

TL: It’s not easy – we’re aware that we’re lucky to be able to do what we do. In France, childcare is not easy to access for people who don’t work conventional hours. But I am optimistic and want to think it’s getting better and easier for everyone who is passionate about their job to do it while having a family. It’s important to organise tasks according to what is important to you, regardless of what others may say or think, and to think outside the box to find solutions.

BG: Restaurant owners are not necessarily helped by the existing infrastructures, but it’s important to be ambitious in your projects and lay both the groundwork and the standards of quality of life for your team and for yourself. We tried to build an economic model designed on the possibility of creating, thinking and breathing. This doesn’t mean that you can avoid intense periods of work – having time for family doesn’t happen in a day, but we tried to create our businesses keeping this in mind. 

Do you feel that your styles of cooking share common elements or values?

TL: They definitely share values. We are both very concerned about working in the most sustainable way possible. This includes environment-friendly systems, seasonality, work-life balance, inclusivity and equality, quality and of course deliciousness and fun! More concretely, even though our cuisines are very different, we both strive for simplicity and love the same things. People who know us both see similarities, which I am quite proud of.   

BG: We are the living proof that that cooking is not a gendered field. If we followed the stereotypes of what is masculine and what is feminine, Tatiana’s cooking would be considered more masculine than mine. 
Restaurant Septime in Paris

How do you lead your kitchens?

BG: For us, teamwork is key. It’s important to put forward a new model as opposed to the omnipresent masculine or patriarchal figure of the traditional restaurant chef. Nowadays, it’s essential to work around the individualities you have within your team – it helps keep people motivated and create an interesting work environment. The collective effort is what makes the show go on, so it’s essential to stress its importance.

What changes would you like to see in the restaurant industry?

TL: The creation of a safe working space, a new, more sustainable, equal environment. Finding ways to feed more people, better. All this can only be tackled by thinking outside the box, looking at other industries and how they are evolving.

BG: We need to put everything that is human back at the centre of our concerns and considerations. We need to help people understand that good-quality food is nothing but good-quality agriculture, and that good-quality agriculture is the answer, in large part, to many of the economic, environmental, social and ethical problems we have today. We need to apply these values in our everyday life. 

How can you manifest these changes?

BG: These values should be passed on in education. Today, in cooking school in France, we are taught how to make perfect sauces, but we are not taught how to work sustainably, how to manage a team or how to talk to people in the workplace. If we did that, and added equal salary regardless of gender, promoted women to positions of responsibility and minimised sexist behaviours, we could solve many of the problems. 

50/50 is the new 50’ is a content series created by 50 Best and supported by S.Pellegrino with the shared aim of promoting equality, inclusivity and balance in the hospitality sector and beyond.

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