Girls under the hood
Montreal's women chefs are holding their own in the best brigades
Entremetier Raegan Steinberg watches chef Emma Cardarelli dish up pasta at Liverpool House. “I’m doing what I want to do,” Cardarelli says.
Photograph by: Bryanna Bradley, The Gazette
The days are long, the tasks are gruelling, the dangers are real, and the pressure can break even the most hardened personalities.
Camaraderie can turn to harassment by a touch, or even a look. It's hot, it's crowded, and it's populated by people who look more like pirates than businessmen.
We're talking about the restaurant kitchen, and for years it has been the place where men rule.
But behind that swinging door, an increasing number of women are taking their place in some of the best brigades of Montreal restaurants. And instead of being relegated to the pastry or garde-manger positions as women were in the past, they're holding their own in the most macho department in the kitchen, "the line," that mythic area behind the stove that separates the mama's boys from the big boys, and where the pace is furious and the heat is stifling.
Montreal has a handful of well-known women chefs, including Anne Desjardins of L'Eau a la Bouche, Graziella Batista of Graziella, Denise Cornellier of Denise Cornellier Traiteur, Helena Loureiro of Portus Calle, and Racha Bassoul, formerly of Anise and Bazaar. These excellent chefs are or have been owners of their establishments, which means the top job was theirs for the taking or the making.
But now we're seeing women like Emily Homsy of Au Pied de Cochon, Emma Cardarelli of Liverpool House, and Melanie Blouin of Le Club Chasse et Peche taking on the position of chef de cuisine alongside executive chefs Martin Picard, Fred Morin and Claude Pelletier. Cheryl Johnson is the present sous-chef at Toque!, and Marie-Fleur St-Pierre, Nancy Hinton and Audrey Dufresne run the kitchens at Tapeo, A la table des Jardins Sauvages and Les Trois Petits Bouchons, respectively. And that's just for starters.
Traditionally, the home kitchen is the woman's domain. Though the male presence in home kitchens has no doubt increased, the professional kitchen is a place where men call the shots, and the atmosphere can rival that of a pro sports team's locker room. It's not just macho talk. There's plenty of heavy lifting, hours on your feet, heat, yelling and posturing. Nancy Hinton, a highly-regarded woman chef who first came to prominence as the souschef of L'Eau a la Bouche in the '90s, knows that scene all too well.
"At cooking school, our teacher said we had to be tough if we wanted to make it in the kitchen," says Hinton, "that it took a special sort of breed. I grew up around guys, I was a tomboy. I always prided myself on being tough.
''Of course, you hear tons of inappropriate jokes and are touched in inappropriate ways. But I'd just brush that off and do my work. After spending time in the kitchen, working with my hands and being in touch with my senses, there was no looking back. Cooking was this multi-faceted combination of science, creativity and discipline that suited me perfectly. Those were just a few jerks, and I eventually became pals with them. I earned their respect from working hard."
The word tough comes up often when women chefs talk about their jobs, and not just physically.
"It's mentally tough," says Emma Cardarelli, chef de cuisine at Liverpool House. "You try not to care what they're saying and just focus on the fact that you're doing what you want to do and doing it without asking for help."
Cardarelli, 32, has been cooking professionally for a decade, yet it was never a career plan. After earning her BA in psychology and English, she thought psychology would be her focus. But after following a boyfriend to work in the kitchen of a backcountry lodge, cooking became her passion.
"Food is a visceral experience for me," she says. "Learning new techniques and as much as possible became my driving purpose."
However, Cardarelli soon discovered there would be obstacles. Back in Montreal, she worked at Bice, where after her first night, she was leaning over to wash out the fridge and heard a male colleague say, "Oh, I could get used to this." Still, she carried on, training at the Institut de Tourisme et d'Hotellerie du Quebec for a year and a half, completing internships in both France and England, and eventually holding her own in Montreal restaurants like Globe and Chez L'Epicier.
"When I started working, I called all the guys sexist," she says, "but that eventually got tiring and they would laugh at me, which is the same situation today. If you take it seriously, you're a party pooper. I can accept that attitude from some chefs, but not others. And it helps to partake in the partying. If you can keep up with the guys, you're cool and part of the gang, which I guess translates to any profession where men dominate. But you can do it on your own terms. You don't have to down every shot of Jameson, just every other one."
Tapeo's Marie-Fleur St-Pierre is a woman chef who feels less of that pressure from her male colleagues.
"People still say cooking is men's work, but that's not the case anymore. There are a lot of girls in the kitchen. No doubt, it's harder for us. I'm more emotional than the men. I work from my heart. I can't make decisions without thinking of the consequences. But I've never been disrespected in the kitchen because I'm a woman. Honestly, I get more flak for working in a tapas restaurant without ever having been to Spain."
St-Pierre says one of the main reasons she never felt excluded was that she worked with Marino Tavares, the executive chef at Cafe Ferreira, a man she calls the nicest chef in Montreal. At present, Tavares has one woman in his team of 18 cooks, and says he usually has one or two at a time, mostly in the cold kitchen.
"For a woman to be surrounded by men in the kitchen, she had better be strong," says Tavares, "and for men to listen to that woman, she had better be good."
Tavares doesn't sugar-coat the requirements for women to earn respect behind the stoves, but he does appreciate a woman's touch in the kitchen.
"They have a better sense of style, more passion. Their approach is more delicate, precise, measured. And a woman calms down the macho conversation."
Cardarelli agrees: "As in life, women are better at the details. You can tell by the way the plates look whether a woman made them. If I'm working with a guy and we're both butchering a rabbit, he'll be faster, but mine will be better. When dealing with a stressful situation I'm not going to rely on scare tactics like yelling, I'm going to try to reason with people. And girls use more fresh vegetables and salad as garnish whereas guys are always putting bacon and cheese on everything."
Yet even women can be hard on their fellow females in the kitchen.
"We're three women in the kitchen at Liverpool House," Cardarelli says. "Sometimes I have to reign the girls in, bring the gossip side down. And girls tend to bicker. You should never just have girls in the kitchen."
"Girls are great," says Hinton, "but they're more complicated, more sensitive. They need to talk everything out. But when they're good, they bring feminine qualities that are in short (supply) in the kitchen: meticulousness, attention to detail, cleanliness, order, wanting to please."
They're generally more esthetically eyed and resourceful, she says. "Women have better communications skills and it has been scientifically proven that we have great palates. And the guys are better behaved when a girl's around. But you can't have too many girls because then there's too much chatting, too much PMS, no one getting anything done, and no one to do the heavy lifting."
A downside Hinton sees in herself as the leader of a brigade is her sensitivity in certain situations.
"Whereas I think about things for days," she says, "guys are pretty black and white. I spent a lot of time working with a girl who was having problems in the kitchen. A guy would have fired her right away. A couple of girls like that over the years took all the juice out of me."
Helena Loureiro, 43, who is slated to open her second restaurant, Helena, in early November, is one of Montreal's few female chef-owners who not only cooks with men, but hires them and fires them as well.
"It's much easier in a kitchen for a man," Loureiro says. "Women have to do three times more to be appreciated. To be respected, you must adopt a male personality. You can't let anyone walk all over you. You have to believe in yourself to have credibility and respect. No man ever made me cry in the kitchen, but I made one cry because I fired him."
Sometimes simply the work itself can drive her to weep.
"I've cried when I was too tired, too hot, or when I stressed too much over doing things perfectly. But that happens less now that I'm older. I put a lot of pressure on myself all the time and I still can't control that. I put my soul into my work."
So if women are the emotional ones in the kitchen, are the men simply better workers?
"Guys are less complicated," Hinton says. "Most of them show up on time, they stay late, and when the going gets tough, they suck it up. They question things less, and do whatever it takes. There's none of that, 'yes but ...' They have discipline and order. Women aren't necessarily good at that."
Men also have another huge advantage: they're not the ones having babies.
"Right now I'm single," says Cardarelli, "and I definitely want to have children. The difference in the schedule, though, is that you're there for your kids in the morning. It could work, but not if I'm gunning to be a three-Michel-in-star chef."
Loureiro has two sons who are 19 and 20, but she had them in her early 20s.
"I worked in restaurants up to the time I was seven months pregnant and was back behind the stoves when my babies were three months old," she says.
"My husband worked at night and I worked during the day and part time in restaurants at night as well. I could never stand people saying I should be tired. I only opened my restaurant when my kids were 12 and 13, and I missed them a lot. I didn't spend a lot of time with them, so I made sure it was quality time."
With the long hours in a professional kitchen, the challenge is often to find time for a personal life.
Says St-Pierre: "You leave school and you immediately start to work, and you invest a lot in your work. Eventually, a compromise must be made. At the beginning, I thought I was invincible. I was juggling things constantly. Managing a kitchen meant I was doing the ordering, respecting my food cost.
"All that's difficult. Cooking was the easiest part of my job. I started working when I was 19, and now I realize I've been at it for 11 years straight. So for now, I don't aspire to do more. Maybe I'd like to go (work) in New York, or work for another woman like Alice Waters. What I'd really like is to have someone else tell me what to do."
Hinton, who works with her boyfriend, Francois Brouillard, is unfazed by the downside of the profession.
"I'm good at keeping my work separate from my personal life," she says.
"I would never not want to be in the kitchen. I find it so rewarding, and it's where I love to be. I don't have kids. If you go up through the ranks and take on a chef position, the pro cooking life doesn't fit into that whole scenario. If I had kids, I'd be divided."
For women, it's clear a career in professional cooking remains a challenge.
"If I had a daughter I'd never want her to be a chef," Tavares says.
"Most of the top men chefs are divorced, separated or married to their jobs. I know chefs who haven't taken a day off in 15 years. Ninety per cent of their life is work. You don't see your kids grow up. It's not only tough physically, but on the morale."
Still, chefs like Cardarelli and Loureiro are optimistic.
"I never want to get out of the kitchen," Cardarelli says. "I'm doing what I want to do."
Loureiro concurs: "I encourage women to get into cooking. It's a beautiful profession. I have a passion for cooking. I never feel like I'm at work when I'm in the kitchen."
Chefs like Hinton wouldn't have it any other way.
"My female friends look at me with pity," she says, "the burns on my arms, the long hours spent on my feet, no weekends off, mangled hands. It's not that women can't be chefs, it's that they don't want to do this kind of job. But I think it's the best in the world. I pity them at their desks."