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Beyond the Plate with Emma Cardarelli
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This is the seventh instalment in the monthly series Beyond the Plate, looking at the motivations and passions of local chefs. This month: Emma Cardarelli.

Nora Gray's Emma Cardarelli is no outsider

November 7, 2018

The 1983 coming-of-age film The Outsiders feels like an ideal backdrop to use in describing the career trajectory of Emma Cardarelli, of the restaurants Nora Gray and Elena.

Cardarelli hails from the house of Fred Morin and David McMillan. These two masterful chefs adopted a mentoring tactic similar to venerable director Francis Ford Coppola, and set their sights back in the early ’90s on hiring young, then-unknown, now-revered chefs to hustle and learn in their kitchens.

For The Outsiders, Coppola cast unknowns who went on to have huge careers, including Tom Cruise and Patrick Swayze. But while the film was bursting with testosterone and angst, young Diane Lane instantly lit up the screen with her steely, confident stance when she appeared. I saw a similar uncompromising energy upon meeting Cardarelli.

When she tells of how she joined the ranks of Joe Beef’s chefs, and experienced the notoriety that came with it, it becomes clear that she has not only risen through the kitchen scene amid a boys’ club, but has blazed her own path.

Born and raised in Montreal West in the 1980s, Cardarelli confesses that, like other chefs featured in this column, “I kind of fell into this.”

“I didn’t grow up thinking this was something that I’m going to do,” she says. “However, I did grow up cooking and enjoying it.”

After attending Sacred Heart and Lower Canada College, Cardarelli ventured to Halifax, where she studied psychology at Dalhousie University.

During her studies, her boyfriend asked if she would like to work summer months with him at Lake O’Hara Lodge, a hiking and skiing retreat nestled in the Rockies near the B.C./Alberta border. “When we were applying for the job, he was like, ‘You know, you need to tell them what you’ll be doing!’ “

Even though she had a penchant for cooking, Cardarelli wound up on her path by process of elimination.

“There were two jobs available: housekeeping or working in the kitchen. My immediate reaction was, ‘I don’t want to clean toilets and change people’s sheets, so sign me up for the kitchen.’

“In university, I was always the one cooking for my roommates and organizing dinner parties. For example, on Thanksgiving, I was the one going to the market, picking up vegetables, finding a turkey. For me, it was just a natural thing to do.”

Cardarelli’s time in the lodge kitchen ended up being a formative experience. “I started doing this job out west — the most beautiful place, where the Group of Seven used to paint — and I kind of just fell in love (with cooking). It was something that I took to quite naturally and found quite easy. … I was passionate from the get-go.”

While at Lake O’Hara Lodge, Cardarelli met a Québécoise who had completed her studies at Montreal’s ITHQ culinary institute. Feeling strongly that a culinary degree would be a logical move for Cardarelli, the woman encouraged her to return to Montreal.

“This woman said to me: ‘The techniques you’re going to learn in cooking school are the same no matter what cooking school you go to. They are going to show you how to use a knife, what the basic sauces are. It’s what you do with it that is really going to make the difference.’

“I really took that to heart.”

With an undergraduate degree in physiology and a new-found direction, at the age of 23 Cardarelli attended the ITHQ, where French was the language of instruction.

“As an anglo and true Montrealer where I did not really speak any French up until that point, it was nerve-racking applying, but I thankfully passed the language test.” Still, she admits, “I was afraid, as someone who is not really very exposed to the francophone world, how I would be perceived.”

As it turned out, her worries were unfounded.

“The people were very open and welcoming. It was an amazing experience,” Cardarelli says. “I really enjoyed it, and was doing quite well. I was in the top of the class.”

What happened next kicked things into high gear.

At 24, and getting ready to graduate, “my teacher really liked me — so much that he recommended that I do a stage at Restaurant Globe. Chef David McMillan had been his student, and he thought the way I do things was very similar to him.” She fondly remembers her teacher saying, “You need to go and meet him.”

A meeting was arranged, but a funny thing happened: “The day I arrived … to meet Dave was his last day at Globe.”

McMillan was about to take the helm in the kitchen of Rosalie, which was the latest outgrowth of the group that owned what felt like all of St-Laurent Blvd., with restaurants that included Buonanotte and Globe.

Cardarelli remembers McMillan saying: “Don’t talk to me — I am not gonna be here anymore. Go find Fred. He’s in the kitchen. Introduce yourself.”

Her first encounter with Morin sounds much like other recollections from those who started out under the famed chef’s tutelage: unexpected and whimsical.

“He was irreverent and off-the-cuff, as always, and the first thing that he asked of me was not anything to do with any of my experience — it was what kind of music do I listen to and do I like reggae!”

Cardarelli’s stage at Globe was accepted, and she had the good fortune to shadow Morin once a week for about a month. “I was hooked on Fred,” she says, “because his mind is so interesting.”

Following her stint with Morin, Cardarelli had a desire for more, and called him every day asking if there was a chef position available. The answer was consistently no, until one day he surprised her: “Yes, there is!”

There was an opportunity at Globe, and Cardarelli grabbed it. She honed her skills there for two years under Morin’s meticulous eye, and stayed on for another year after he cut ties with Globe to kick-start what became the Joe Beef empire.

“The last year that he wasn’t there was very difficult for me,” Cardarelli remembers. “I was not in favour of the management. … I didn’t like the way they were treating people, and so I would mirror their treatment back to them, which they did not like.”

© Photos by Ezra Soiferman

After giving her notice, Cardarelli took some much-needed time off. She headed to London, with a British passport afforded to her thanks to her English parents.

She spent about nine months working in London. She had a job in a one-star Michelin restaurant, and remembers the gruelling hours. “I was working 5 1/2 days a week, 16-hour days, getting in at quarter to 7 in the morning and leaving at midnight.”

Our Montreal summer was beckoning, and Cardarelli returned for a needed rest.

“I came home for a visit in June and went to see Fred. He was like, ‘Come see this new thing we are doing right next door (to Joe Beef). We’re building a new restaurant!’ “

Cardarelli wanted to leave London, but says she didn’t want to work for anyone but Morin. The bond and loyalty are fierce, as with so many top chefs who learned from him.

Luckily, he offered her a coveted job cheffing at his new restaurant, Liverpool House.

Morin had already hired his main all-star team, Cardarelli discloses, and they had been working on all the preparations needed for the launch. But in true Morin style, he swiftly set the wheels in motion for her return to his kitchen.

“Fred kind of just gave me free rein and was like, ‘Yeah, OK, this is Emma and whatever she says is cool,’ and they were all very skeptical of me at that point.”

In the fall of 2007, Liverpool House’s doors swung open. François Côté was chef de cuisine, leading a promising young cast that included Maksim Morin (later of Le Chien Fumant) and Marc-Olivier Frappier (now chef and co-owner of the Joe Beef-affiliated Mon Lapin). A young Ryan Gray presided over the bar and stellar wine selection.

Within three months, Côté switched over to Joe Beef, and Cardarelli took the spotlight at Liverpool House with her debut as head chef. For four years, she worked steadily and with much praise from her mentors. All the while, she was building her own empire in her mind.

“Dave (McMillan) sat me down one day and was like, ‘I can see you are gunning to open your own place, and whenever you are ready, and whatever you need, I will be there to support you in any way that I can. Be it financially, or just with advice, I am behind you 100 per cent,’ which was incredible. I had that force and power behind me!

“It really made me feel like I could do anything.”

And with that reinforcement, Cardarelli partnered in 2012 with sommelier extraordinaire Gray and co-owner Lisa McConnell, leaving Liverpool House to become chef and co-owner of Nora Gray, on St-Jacques St. in Little Burgundy. That was followed this year by Elena, a heavenly pizza spot on Notre-Dame St. in St-Henri.

“I had never done Italian food before — always French food — but I had a few recipes I kept in my back pocket that I never used at Liverpool House that I was saving for my own restaurant.”

For our Beyond the Plate adventure, we took a jaunt over to Jean-Talon Market, where Cardarelli is a regular visitor. We selected lush cherry bomb peppers from Lino Birri, of Birri et frères, and headed back to Nora Gray to prepare red pepper salsa, a crowd favourite served nightly alongside the restaurant’s homemade focaccia.

Cardarelli’s love for food is surpassed only by her desire to implement in her own restaurants a strong set of values, learned during her rise through Montreal’s culinary ranks.

Like Diane Lane outshining her young male counterparts in The Outsiders, this tireless chef — recognized by peers for her talent and steadfastness — has definitively taken centre stage.

This essay originally appeared in the Montreal Gazette on November 7, 2018© 2020 - All rights reserved Beyond the Plate by Heidi Small.

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