For pastry chef and new mother, the pandemic has been a bittersweet experience

Renae Connolly and her sous chef, Cristina Vallardi, add finishing touches to a cake at Benedetto's. Photo Courtesy of Renae Connolly

By Mita Kataria
BU News Service

Renae Connolly sat in front of her computer screen, looking at airfares and flights, on the verge of booking tickets. But the idea of traveling with her newborn son, Elliot, to visit her family in California went from being a glimmer of hope and wishful thinking to an impossibility. She knew she couldn’t go. It was March, and Connolly and her husband, like so many other couples who became parents in the pandemic, came to terms with parenting in isolation. 

“I think that’s the hardest part, just being separated from your support system and family,” Connolly recalls. “Now he’s nine months old, almost, and still hasn’t met my brother or sister, or any of his cousins.”

In black jeans, a t-shirt and a grey bandana matching her favorite worn-out canvas apron, she’s eager to get back to the task at hand — inventory — at Bendetto, an Italian restaurant housed in the Charles Hotel in Harvard Square, Cambridge. The 35-year-old Executive Pastry Chef has no lack of work at the restaurant, but Elliot is always on her mind. Right now it’s his sleep cycle that occupies space in her mind between her work.

Such is the life of a new mother, Connolly says, to find a balance between work and the baby.

Connolly has been a baker all her life. She started working at a bakery in high school in Fresno, California and enrolled in the California Culinary School. Due to financial restrictions, she decided to go for the bakery and pastry program instead of its savory program. For Connolly, desserts became a way to share stories with people — the beauty and culture that she grew up with and saw in her travels.

Plating multi-component desserts with varied textures and tastes blending together could provide a taste of joy. While savory food is necessary for physical sustenance, Connolly says, desserts are essential for emotional sustenance. 

This multi-element dessert is Connolly’s bridge to her trip in France. After returning from it, she came up with a French dessert at Cafe Art and Science. It included miniature recreations of multiple French desserts like Cassis Macarons. Photo Courtesy of Renae Connolly

Cristina Vallardi, Connolly’s sous chef, says even though she had experience working as a pastry chef before starting at Benedetto in 2018, she wanted to work with Connolly. She admires Connolly’s experience, expertise and enthusiasm to push the boundaries and come up with creative and complex desserts. 

“It’s always interesting to see what the next dessert is going to be on the menu,” Vallardi says.

Connolly has worked in Fresno, New York and Boston. Apart from making desserts, Connolly gained important front-of-the-house experience bartending. Furthering her managerial skills, she later became a founding member of three restaurants, the latest being Benedetto with Chef Mike Pagliarini.

Connolly, who is not a morning person, found her fit in the fast-paced food on the counter. With changing seasonal menus and the long night working hours, she liked being able to work evenings in the restaurant industry as opposed to baking bread at four in the morning, as she was doing at the beginning of her career.

“Now my world has switched around again where I’m up so early with the baby in morning,” Connolly laughs. “So everything has come full circle in a way.”

Connolly’s son was born in the first week of February this year. After working through 38 weeks of pregnancy, Connolly was ready to take a leave from Benedetto. She prepared her staff for her absence, equipping them with all the tools and tricks they’d need to prepare the desserts. Little did they know that three weeks into her maternity leave, the restaurant would shut down due to stay-at-home orders. What Connolly thought would be a 90-day leave stretched into five months. 

Being a new mother, spending those months with her son was a blessing. 

“It’s not something you can expect in this industry and this country, to get the time off,” she says. “So the fact that I was able to have it, I’m very thankful for that.”

Vallardi, who Connolly left in charge during her maternity leave, echoes the same sentiment. She says that Connolly’s flexibility and her sense of work-life balance made a huge difference in her experience working at Benedetto, something she hasn’t seen often in the industry.

“It’s sometimes assumed that you’re going to work, work, work, work, work,” Vallardi says, “until you can’t take it anymore.”

While on maternity leave, Connolly was determined to get back to work at the end of the three months, having never taken time away before. However, she realized that she would need more time before she could be away from Elliot. Connolly says that the pandemic saved her from admitting that she wasn’t ready to get back to work. 

But the flip side was the isolation. 

“You hear the phrase — it takes a village to raise a baby — and it does,” Connolly exclaims. “We didn’t have that.” 

She did have the support of her husband, Stephen Connolly, and her mother-in-law, who lives with them. But, unable to go out or have visitors, Connolly found herself learning to become a parent in a rather trapped and overwhelming environment. Along with the nervousness of being a new mother came the anxiety of the pandemic. Going out, even if it was for groceries, became a decision she gave a lot of thought to, asking, “Is this safe for my baby?” every time she stepped outside.

Her husband, a waiter and Sake sommelier at Momi Nonmi in Cambridge, has been furloughed since March. He says that the pandemic limited how much time they could spend away from their son to unwind and relax. Their hands-on approach with Elliot means they’ve only had a few dinners away from him in the last eight months.

Forest Floor, a dessert Connolly made to recreate the unique plants she saw growing while she meandered through a Bamboo forest in Kyoto, Japan. She wanted to share her experience witnessing a different forest environment without stepping on another culture. Photo Courtesy of Renae Connolly

“If it wasn’t for the pandemic, we would probably have a babysitter more often,” he says. “We would have definitely taken some vacations.”

Renae Connolly’s anxiety only worsened as she returned to working part time once Benedetto reopened in July. The idea of interacting with other people and possibly risking exposure to her own baby was frightening.

Staying home and taking care of their son by himself marked a big change for Stephen Connolly as well. 

“It was outside of my comfort zone to be the caretaker and responsible for this wonderful baby,” he says.

They’d decided previously that Renae Connolly would return to work first. Stephen Connolly had been looking forward to going back to work part time later, but that didn’t happen. It took him time to find a routine with Elliot and himself, like he’d done with his work.

“I find that having that routine has given me a little bit of more strength that I need to be a good partner for Renae,” he says.

In awe of his wife, Stephen Connolly has immense respect for the way she was able to manage work with the physical exhaustion that lack of sleep, breastfeeding and pumping brought along with them.

“She is an amazing person, I’ve known that for a long time,” he says. “But you’re reminded of it daily.”

In mid-July restaurants had not reopened to their full capacity, and so Connolly was only required to go in to work four days a week. Strict safety and social distancing protocols and practices were implemented, including a no-outsider rule in the kitchen. 

Outside the restaurant Connolly wore a mask and practiced social distancing. But this did little to quell her fears of getting Elliot sick or having to quarantine away from him. It reminded her of the frontline workers who were making  those same sacrifices. The strict yet unsatisfactory practices still compelled Connolly to wash up every time she went home after work and picked up Elliot. 

She didn’t know six months later things would be the same. 

“Eventually, we adapt, we find our rhythm and figure out the right way,” Connolly says. As she slowly settled back into her new work routine, Connolly finally reached a point where felt she was doing enough to protect Elliot, but there were other things that still concerned her. 

The restaurant and hospitality industry has been one of the hardest hit industries during the pandemic. 

After Governor Baker imposed new safety guidelines on Nov. 2, Benedetto altered its weekend hours to accommodate the 9:30 p.m. shutdown. With the spike in cases, Connolly didn’t expect it to be busy, but the surprisingly warm weather brought a good number of people to dine outdoors. The inconsistent weather and the uncertainty with the number of cases has made it hard for Benedetto to anticipate any changes in the near future. 

“Restaurants are struggling right now, it’s no secret,” Connolly says. Like many other restaurants, Benedetto, which had to furlough some of its staff, has been pushing their patio dining, while also having socially distanced seating indoors. They’ve also begun to promote their takeout services. 

Connolly has realized everything, right now, is about finding the perfect balance between what’s enough to keep everything going and that which is enough to keep everyone safe. 

“At this point, we’re all willing to do what we need to do to keep the restaurant alive,” Connolly says. “So, let’s keep our restaurant alive and let’s keep our families alive; it’s just a dance back and forth.”

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