"I really wanted to be a psychologist."
Emma Cardarelli, co-owner and chef at Nora Gray, had no intention of ever becoming a chef or even working in a restaurant.
"In university, I majored in psychology and English," Cardarelli recounts. "I did one statistics class for psych and I was like, 'Fuck this.' But the psychology definitely comes into play when you're managing lots of people. And people are crazy—particularly kitchen people."
In due course, Cardarelli would give in to the culinary impulse that stemmed from a childhood spent by the stove, learning Italian classics from her father Patrizio and hosting elaborate dinner parties for her high school friends.
After finally enrolling to cooking school in her early twenties, Cardarelli stepped into a world that put her psychology degree to good use. "I was this pretty sheltered white, Anglo-Saxon, middle class-kid from Montreal West," she says. "I had no idea what I was in store for. Zero."
This period in the early 2000s marked the height of Montreal's ostentatious supper club era, at the center of which was a restaurant called Globe, where the likes of Martin Picard, David McMillan, Fred Morin, and Chuck Hughes would cut their teeth.
McMillan and Morin would go on to gain international recognition at Joe Beef, but not before running the kitchen at Globe together and interviewing a nervous Cardarelli. "When I finally met Fred for a job interview, he asked me some fucking weird question about reggae, and what kind of reggae I listen to. I was like, 'Oh my God, I don't know what to answer. I'm just going to smile.'"
But there was a method to Morin's madness. "We all have our different interview techniques," he says. "Everybody in the kitchen listens to either aggressive hip-hop, Sublime, or, like, obscure jazz that nobody knows. For me, listening to reggae is conducive to having a good prep day. I have nothing against Eminem or anything, but if you walk into the kitchen and somebody's cranking, like, Jacob Miller or Gregory Isaac or Aswad, that person has an advantage."
Evidently, Cardarelli gave a satisfactory answer to Morin's question. "Fred was my mentor from that day on, and he really showed me how to cook. I really learned so much from him in those two years that we worked together at Globe."
For his part, Morin isn't totally comfortable with the "mentor" mantle. "I wouldn't say I took her under my wing. That whole idea of 'making somebody' is a wrong view that chefs often have. People are made up of their environment, their genetics, culture, parents, school. The so-called 'mentor' later in life really isn't responsible for much. When people work in your restaurant, you just want to make sure that they leave to work in a solid restaurant with solid people. That's the extent of the mentorship, I think."
Still, Cardarelli insists that working with Morin provided an entirely different perspective—not only on food, but on how to navigate a kitchen. "Fred was really good at teaching me that you shouldn't do anything in a kitchen without purpose. You don't just go to the fridge empty-handed. You go to the fridge and you take something to the dish bin. Every single move has to be calculated and choreographed. He was so creative and his mind works in such a crazy way that I don't know anyone who wouldn't be attracted to that."
At Globe, Cardarelli would also encounter the rampant sexism that has defined kitchens for so long. "I always felt like—and this never came from Fred—but some cooks would say things like, 'Oh God, do I have to help you with that? Are you sure you can carry the french fries all the way up the stairs in two 16-liter buckets?' I'd be like, 'Yeah, fuck you.' So I did a lot of stuff just to prove that I could do it."
Morin has his own socio-anthropological theory as to why men are typically on their worst behaviour when they work in kitchens. "You have to remember that the kitchen was always a place where you immediately could or could not do the job. It doesn't matter if you came out of jail or if you have a university degree. If you pulled your weight through service, that's all that matters. And for a long time, that atmosphere was mostly male.
Though Cardarelli admits that things have improved considerably in the kitchen since her formative years, she still takes issue with the term "female chef."
"I think that it shouldn't matter. I should just be considered a chef and not a 'female chef,'" she says. "It only matters to me in terms of when they boy up, you know? There's this totally infuriating poster that drives me super-insane, and it's a picture of all the big guys in Montreal, all the big guns. And it says 'Boys' Club' on it, and that's when I'm like, 'I'm going to lose my fucking mind.' Because who cares? Who cares about gender? It's 2016 for Christ's sake!"
Still, all those years in the trenches have made Cardarelli an ideal mentor for young women climbing the ranks in Montreal kitchens. "I do appreciate that women want to work under a woman and know what the difference is. I get a lot more female candidates coming to work for me, and if I have a girl that works in the kitchen here and she does a lot of heavy lifting of things, I just tell them to ask for help. There's no shame; some guys are just physically stronger. I know I'm physically stronger than some guys."
After two years of working with Morin at Globe, Cardarelli ended up packing her bags for London, where she would work in a Michelin-starred kitchen and refine her technical abilities. One of the main techniques she would retain from her London days was a knead-free pasta-making technique utilizing a food processor and sous vide machine—a far cry from your nonna's egg well and rolling pin. Instead of kneading the dough, it's sealed air-tight in a plastic bag for 24 hours, at which point a hashish-like brick is cut into blocks, which are then fed through a manual Imperia pasta machine.
Ultimately, Cardarelli returned to her native Montreal to team back up with Morin as chef de cuisine at Joe Beef's sister restaurant Liverpool House. Though her time in a Michelin kitchen allowed her to polish her sous vide skills, Cardarelli still had a lot to learn. "My management style was terrible," she laughs. "I was angry and overworked all the time, so I just yelled at everybody all the time. I was constantly frustrated. I was like, 'I don't give a shit what anyone thinks!'"
It was at Liverpool House that Cardarelli would meet future business partners Ryan Gray and Lisa McConnell, all three of whom would graduate from the Joe Beef school of culinary arts and go on to launch their own restaurant, Nora Gray.
"Emma is really good at calling me out on my shit," Gray says. "Early on, we used to have these crazy fights, like yelling matches, but we would always solve whatever it was and end up hugging it out. There are very few people who you can scream at, at the top of your lungs for sustained period of time, and they scream back at you and point out your faults and weaknesses, but be able to laugh about it minutes later with the same person. We don't behave like that any more—at all—but the communication is still very open."
Cardarelli says she has mellowed considerably in recent years, thanks in part to Gray. "A lot of chefs suffer from anxiety, and I was definitely suffering from minor anxiety where you get so overwhelmed that you don't even know how to get the words out. That would happen to me, like, all day long every day. I mean, learning how to manage people, it's hard. It's a process. But Ryan really helped me get better at it."
While she acknowledges the influence of strong male personalities like her father and Morin on her cooking, Cardarelli also points to Quebec's unsung culinary heroes. "I mean, there are female chefs like Elena Faita, Ana Sortun at Graziella, Nancy Hinton. But it's like nobody paid attention to them because they don't seek it. They do a good job quietly; they're not looking for the fame. They don't have crazy out-there personalities that are entertaining to interview or film."
"Like, I went to an audition to be on a cooking show, but I think I was too boring. I think most women that go into the kitchen are into the actual work and the creativity of it, and like the physicality of actually doing the stuff. Whereas it seems like there are a lot of guys, particularly recently, going into it for Food Network fame."
One thing is for sure: Cardarelli is not in it for the fame. "Some people make food to get published, some people make food to be broadcasted, to be discussed, to have a signature dish that can be recreated anywhere in the world," Morin concludes. "Emma makes food for people to eat—it tastes good in your mouth. Emma is totally aware of who she is. She's not a holographic picture of another chef. She is Emma."