When Covid-19 left my catering business in ruins, becoming a father gave me new life

Collage portrait of Charles Dabah in his kitchen. July 2021.

Portrait: courtesy of Charles Dabah | Collage: Talia Moore for The Counter/iStock

Collage portrait of Charles Dabah in his kitchen. July 2021.

Portrait: courtesy of Charles Dabah | Collage: Talia Moore for The Counter/iStock

I wasn’t ready to let family get in the way of my business, but when the pandemic hit, fatherhood helped me reexamine my definition of success.

When we scrambled to secure childcare in the beginning of February 2020 we were, by most accounts, woefully late. My partner’s due date was Leap Day; our soon-to-be-born child should have been creeping toward the top of waitlists for months. Then our son came early, and appointments to interview childcare providers fell to the wayside. It turns out it wouldn’t matter. After several weeks of steady visitors, Illinois issued its stay-at-home order on March 21 as the pandemic began to spread its tentacles through every facet of our lives.

My catering and personal chef business, The Levantine Kitchen, had turned two years old just a couple of days earlier. Before my son was born, I had some preconceived notions about how my business would change once he arrived. It would be a give and take, I told myself. I’d be back for the busy summer season, but I would have to be more selective about jobs I took on. Then the warmer weather came and hopes of it curtailing the virus fell flat. When my partner’s maternity leave ended last May, I became the primary caretaker of our 3-month-old son. With catering all but dead, I settled into my new role as a full-time father. 

Photo of Charles Dabah holding his son. July 2021.

Photo courtesy of Charles Dabah

Charles Dabah holding his son.

When I first started my business in 2018, I was two years out from a master’s degree and five years into a promising, quiet career in urban planning. I was cruising on a linear path of stability. But the rigidness of policy work and the corporate work environment left my creative mind restless. I found myself retreating into the kitchen at the end of the work day. An interest in my grandmother’s Syrian recipes, one that had faded away years earlier, came surging back. My professional start began in whispers, as I quietly floated the idea of catering small events to close family friends. My first gig was a drop-off job for a bowling alley birthday party. There was something thrilling when I told friends about my career jump, and I was grateful for that. 

By the end of the 2018 holiday season, the nerves I felt before each event started to recede. I became more comfortable and efficient at scaling up my operation to accommodate larger parties. A 75-person holiday event—my last job of the year and my largest to date—went off without a hitch. 2019 became the growth year I was hoping for. I still had to sell potential customers on the story of my year-old business, but it became easier as word-of-mouth bookings increased.

I felt proud of my business and had a base of customers who cared about me, who validated the work I was doing. When the pandemic threw the catering industry into crisis, shouldn’t I throw everything at the wall to save it? But I didn’t. I thought about investing more time and resources in developing a robust drop-off catering operation, but was chilled by its impersonal nature. I reckoned long and hard with what inaction ultimately would feel like: failure. 

Being a full-time dad teaching cooking classes on the side was not something I had planned on, but it was time to accept that my world had changed.

In the early months of fatherhood, I’d be down on the floor for tummy time with my son and flashes of my business teetering on the brink of irrelevance would come flooding in. In those precious and dull and delicate moments I had with him, I held my life up to the mirror. My role as a father and caretaker was profound and sacred. And yet, the reflection looking back at me was one of failure. 

When an opportunity arrived a few weeks later, I was caught off-guard. An email came in from a friend and past customer about putting together a virtual cooking class fundraiser. I wasn’t sure if it would work—I could cook a five-course meal for 30, but teaching others to cook was not in my wheelhouse. I began compiling a mental list of every reason not to do it: I didn’t have the tech gear, my kitchen was not set up for it, and I was too controlling in my own kitchen to teach others how to be patient in their own.

Charles Dabah in Kitchen. July 2021.

Photo courtesy of Charles Dabah

After a full day of fatherhood, Dabah retreats to the kitchen for his virtual cooking classes.

My ego, I soon realized, had not caught up with the facts. I was an unemployed caterer and full-time father of a 4-month-old, living in the middle of an unpredictable, unrelenting global pandemic. Being a full-time dad teaching cooking classes on the side was not something I had planned on, but it was time to accept that my world had changed. Working in 3-hour spurts, rather than the 12-hour sessions that catering often demands, would complement my role as a father perfectly. 

There have been many occasions over the past year that I thought full-time fatherhood and the decline of my business would push me toward a masculinity crisis. I was wrong. Raising a child as a man is not a setback, a demotion, or a failure. The intersection of the pandemic and child-rearing pushed me to begin unlearning an entrenched, hackneyed way of thinking about social and economic worth—and build one anew. 

Pandemic or not, I would have fallen in love with fatherhood. But it took Covid to become a full-time father, to put ambition and traditional measures of success aside. Since June 2020 I’ve brought hundreds of friends, families, and strangers together from across the country through dozens of virtual cooking classes. When I have classes scheduled, I care for my son all day. As night approaches I retreat into the kitchen, not unlike when I first started my business, with the intention of sharing great food with others. This time around, when I wake up the next morning I’m grateful to know I have the best job in the world. 

Charles Dabah is chef and owner of The Levantine Kitchen and a freelance writer in Chicago.