All photos by Farah Khan.

Rabbit, Rifles, and Risotto with Montreal’s ‘Mother Chef’

In the heart of Montreal's Little Italy is a landmark hardware store where Creuset pots, hunting rifles, and homemade ravioli exist in total harmony.

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Nov 20 2015, 3:24pm

All photos by Farah Khan.

"I want these to go over here, okay?"

When I arrive at Quincaillerie Dante, owner Elena Faita is in the thick of it.

A new shipment of pasta machines has just arrived and she is lifting huge Imperia boxes as she demonstrates to employee Alessandro where they should go.

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C'e tutto Per tutti—this is the slogan of Quincaillerie Dante.

"It means, 'There's everything for everybody,'" Faita says, and she's not exaggerating. At Quincaillerie Dante, the walls are lined with Creuset pots, imported olive oil, and hunting rifles. "When we started, there was hardware, kitchenware, and a hunting section—it was really everything."

Opened by Elena's parents in 1954, Quincaillerie Dante got its start by selling run-of-the-mill hardware like saws, drills, and hammers. But it didn't take long for the store to become a neighbourhood fixture because of its ability to adapt to local demand.

"The hunting equipment came from immigrants," Faita says. "At that time, it was all Italians in this neighbourhood and they knew that here, in Quebec, the hunting was very good. A lot of Italians wanted to go hunting for rabbits and small game. So one day, my brother, who was an Opera singer, heard about this and started selling rifles at the store."

But for all of the machismo of power drills and rifles, it was the women in the family who possessed the business acumen to push the Quincaillerie towards culinary greatness.

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"My mom was the brain of the family—she was the business-minded one, not my father. Today, women are more respected, but even back then it was the mothers who pushed their families, and my mother's idea was to open a store and have all of her children working there."

With the emergence of Home Depot-style megacenters, neighbourhood shops like Quincaillerie Dante became less and less profitable. For Faita, the writing was on the wall, and the time came for the quincaillerie to evolve once more. "In the 80s, we began to get rid of hardware because the big chain stores came in. We knew that we couldn't compete with them, so we went into the kitchen instead."

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That shrewd move put Elena Faita on the path towards becoming a culinary icon in her home province, where she would eventually be bestowed the National Order of Quebec for her contribution to our culinary culture. "I went to Quebec City and met with the Premier, I was all nervous. I got medal for transmitting all of this information about Italian cuisine to Quebecers."

But it took another strong-willed Faita woman to make that happen. "It was my daughter Cristina who told me that I had to get my talent out there. She said, 'You have a talent, and you don't even realize.' Cristina had confidence in me, confidence that I didn't have at the time, because in my generation, women were pushed aside all the time."

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Eventually, among the pots and pans and hunting rifles, Elena began showing locals how to make pasta from scratch at Quincaillerie Dante every Saturday at two o'clock. "Finally, my daughter says to me, 'Ma, I want to talk to you tonight.' And I says, 'What does she want now?' But she had a vision, like I did a generation earlier. And she says, 'We're opening up a cooking school!' I thought she was crazy,"

Elena's daughter was most certainly not crazy and not long after, Elena opened Mezza Luna cooking school a few doors down from Quincaillerie Dante. There, she would cement her status as the matron of Little Italy's food scene and mentor legions of home cooks, as well as some of Montreal's most celebrated chefs.

"The first year we opened, I met Martin Picard. He was a just a good chef who was lost a bit, but he worked beside me here for four years, as an assistant, and also giving French cooking classes. He kept saying, 'I want to open a restaurant!' So one night I said, 'Ok, I'll back you up.' I met a lot of good chefs because of Martin."

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With Elena's financial backing, Picard opened Au Pied du Cochon, a restaurant instrumental in spawning a renaissance of Quebec cuisine. "I invested in him, on the personit wasn't so much about the money. He didn't have any money at the time, and look where he is today! But he's still the same Martin that I knew 24 years ago."

That kind of humility is a virtue that is very important to Elena. "People need to stay human. Even my son, he doesn't think he's a big shit, excuse my expression, and he wasn't brought up to be that way." She is referring to her son Stefano, a successful restaurateur in his own right, with two restaurants, Impasto and Gema, under his belt, on the very same Little Italy corner as the quincaillerie.

"I do a lot of TV and I have the restaurants and whatever," Stefano says. "But when I walk back into the quincaillerie, I suddenly become someone's servant and I want to make people happy. It keeps me grounded. You're never above anybody else there and my mother was always the first to say that. We work hard, man, and my mother is tough as nails.

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"I learned a lot of things from my mother. Organization, hard work, cleanliness, passion, and how to have a loud voice! I really feel honoured to have learned from a lot of powerful women. It's incredible. To top it all off, I have a very strong girlfriend, and we have two very strong daughters. My dog Sam is my only male companion. (laughs) At Impasto, our chef de cuisine is a woman and all of that testosterone in the kitchen is just balanced out when there's a woman in the picture."

His mother's influence on the neighbourhood is a source of pride but also responsibility for Stefano. "It's a big weight on my shoulders. Every day, I tell myself I've got big shoes to fill and those are my mother's."

Another prominent local chef who stays grounded because of Elena's no-bullshit approach is Le Bremner chef Danny Smiles. "She's always there to humble you," Smiles says. "She brings you down to reality. I call her the 'Mother Chef.' She's the mother figure for a lot of chefs in the city. She has the respect of old-school chefs, new-school chefs, just because she's extremely honest and generous."

"If you want to make tomatoes, or if you have a question about how to make tomato sauce, she'll stop everything at the store and teach you how she's doing stuff. Usually, she wants you to do it her way, and you know what? Her way is the best way. She's super humble and just always there to help you. She's a role model for male and female chefs. We all look up to her."

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And Elena's generosity extends far beyond Montreal's professional kitchens. "Here in Quebec I launched the Microplane," Faita says, referring to the indispensable woodworking tool turned cheese and nutmeg grater. "We did a fundraising thing for breast cancer because that year a few of my students had breast cancer. In one month, I sold 2,000 Microplanes with pink handles, and we raised $10,000!" C'e tutto Per tutti.

Yet, with everything that she has accomplished, Elena Faita remains fueled by food, family, and coffee.

"Right now, 'retirement' is a very heavy word for me. I'm not ready for it, and all of my kids know it. As long as I'm healthy, I'll keep going. My husband is very sick right now but I still say to myself, You have to go out there. We see people dying every day... We have to thank the Lord that we have our cup of coffee when we wake up in the morning. If we can do that—and work hard—we'll be fine."