By Cynda Zurfluh
Consider running five restaurants and raising three young kids born within a span of fourteen months. Sound like a handful? For elite restaurateur Geoff Tracy, it’s all in a day’s work. Geoff is the founder/CEO of the successful Chef Geoff’s restaurants and an active father to five year old twins Grace and Henry and four year old daughter Riley.
Geoff is up for the challenge. However, he freely admits dinner at home with the three kids can often be a bigger undertaking than dinner for 200 at one of his restaurants. At the Tracy home, a successful dinner means you get napkins in the laps and maybe ten minutes of paying attention. Realistic goal setting 101 for any parent.
“Chef Geoff” didn’t happen overnight. At fifteen, Geoff asked his parents to send him to boarding school – much to his mother’s chagrin. They relented, and the resulting academic push enabled him to earn a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown. He then went on to graduate first in his class from the Culinary Institute of America – the premier culinary school in the country.
From those impressive beginnings, Chef Geoff began opening restaurants – at a pace of about one every two years for the past twelve years. Geoff built his first three restaurants, in his words, “micro-managing everything.” He realized if he wanted to achieve his personal mission statement goal of ten locations, he was likely to die trying if he didn’t get some help.
To ease the pain of asking for help (not something go-getter Geoff was used to doing) Chef Geoff was fortunate to be able to hire his brother Chris Tracy to run the day-to-day operations. They set up an impressive system of standards and incentives so they could enable their staff to work toward common goals without Geoff always being there. Once Geoff added kids to his life equation, he recognized it was equally important to have a system in place to support the kids.
Geoff gives credit to his wife Norah O’Donnell for the fantastic job she does as time and staff manager for the family. When the twins were born, they hired a baby nurse – an angel named Juanita who kept them sane during those early months. Geoff soon realized the nurse was the only reason they ever got any sleep. “With two babies, they tag team – one’s always awake. I would have sold my car to be able to afford Juanita.”
The Tracy family system includes layers of support. Essential when you’re raising three young kids, and both parents have engaging careers. Geoff and Norah have established a team of caregivers for the kids that includes grandparents in the DC area. It makes for a modern family arrangement that meets everyone’s needs.
This year, they’ve been blessed with a new challenge – balancing life between DC and New York. Norah was recently offered a job as co-host for the CBS This Morning show based in New York. For Geoff, it was an instant “yes” when Norah got the offer. He says he’s “just amazed at where she’s going.” So the kids and Norah moved to New York for the school year. Geoff is becoming expert at the long weekend commute. Come summer they’ll be back in DC, and Norah will take her turn commuting.
The Tracy kids have transitioned remarkably well into their bi-city routine. It helps that they’re young, but their parents deserve credit for establishing as much consistency as possible. “They’ve been in a Montessori program since they were eighteen months, and they’re surrounded by spectacular people who are fun, responsible, and energetic in their lives.”
Montessori classrooms are so similar that their first day in New York felt like being home, and the team Geoff and Norah have to care for the kids has been the same since the twins were babies. Their nanny takes shifts with an au pair between New York and DC, and a former server from Chef Geoff’s babysits the kids when they’re home in DC.
Geoff had never imagined not living in DC so this New York experience has been “exciting and unsettling.” But that’s not new, or even unwelcome, territory for Geoff – who has been known to call “comfort the enemy.” He claims his newest worry is that his kids may become Yankees fans. As someone who grew up a Red Sox fan and cheers for the Nationals these days, Geoff can’t imagine his kids going over to the “other side.”
Given Geoff’s successful professional life, it’s easy to assume his high achievement business approach would bleed over into how he raises his kids. Not so. He doesn’t consider his kids a project. “These kids, at such a young age, are living their own lives.”
As a parent, he feels his job is to provide opportunities for his kids to become their own independent, individual selves. Their three kids are close in age, but they have vastly different interests and personalities. “The best we can do is to make sure our kids know they are loved – even with the time outs.”
He credits his kids with giving him a deeper perspective and a greater maturity in his overall approach. “Before I had kids, stress was a major element in my life.” Now fewer things seem like big deals. Problems at work are calmly managed – with no throwing of his ubiquitous Chef Geoff’s baseball cap.
Same goes for the kid messes in the kitchen. They’re just part of the process. As expected, the Tracy kids like to cook with daddy – pancakes being their family specialty. Geoff jokes that both their pregnancies were “powered by pancakes.”
Eggshells in the batter is just a part of Geoff’s new daddy reality. With three kids so close in age, he tells his wife “We have no learning curve on this thing. It’s just three kids powering through their childhood.” And two parents scrambling to keep up.
Geoff acknowledges his and Norah’s parents set a great example. They provided loving homes to them, and he hopes to do the same for his kids. For him, perfection isn’t part of the picture. Parenthood is about loving the kids and not beating himself up if the kids show up at the Guggenheim in old sweats and mismatched socks.
Back in DC, Geoff is amazed at what he can get done in a week while his family is in NYC. Geoff hasn’t lost his edge, “I always have the feeling that I need to get things done,” then adds with a chuckle, “maybe it’s the coffee?” He is still pushing forward in his business but is realistic when it comes to opening additional restaurants.
Chef Geoff loves the creative process of designing/building a new restaurant and seeing his ideas come to life in a dining room full of happy customers. By all accounts, Geoff Tracy will accomplish his goal of ten restaurants. He’ll just do it on a schedule that works for his family and only if he has fun doing it.
Cynda Zurfluh is a mother of three. Her previous life was a corporate blur of meetings and marketing. Her current life, while still a blur, is all about family, writing, and small business consulting. Contact her at [email protected]
For Your Information:
Chef Geoff’s website
Amazon.com Baby Love page
The Tracy Family Pancake recipe!