Why were there no women on the Best of MTL’s Best Chef list?

We spoke to Emma Cardarelli and Kira German of Nora Gray/Elena about why prominent women in the restaurant scene aren’t on the minds of readers when they fill out our annual poll.

Last month I made a statement regarding the Best of MTL readers poll results, about what I thought the voters got right and what the voters got wrong. My statement was hardly the most observant, or the most relevant. My criticism focused entirely on who ranked amongst the best chefs, completely omitting those who did not rank. Emma Cardarelli, the chef-owner of Nora Gray and Elena, on the other hand, astutely pointed out on Instagram that in this list of the city’s 10 best chefs, not a single woman was named.

In full disclosure, Emma is my boss — I work tending bar four nights a week at Nora Gray. I spend most of my week at one of the finest restaurants in the city, one that people love, and one that’s owned and operated by women. It’s striking. How can it be that there are restaurants as well-known and loved as Nora Gray and Elena (where the chef-de-cuisine is a woman as well) and their chefs don’t even come to mind when it comes time to vote? I decided to sit down with Emma and her chef-de-cuisine Kira German to reflect on their dissatisfaction with Best of MTL results and to discuss the recognition, or lack thereof, for women working in kitchens.

Clayton Sandhu: Your post about the lack of female chefs on our Best of MTL poll stirred up a bit of controversy these past few weeks. Did you want to comment on that?

Emma Cardarelli: I was struck by the fact that [the list] was all male, and I was disappointed by that. I wasn’t trying to throw Cult MTL under the bus, it was more just a statement of affairs.

CS: I read your response as less of an attack on the publication, but more of a dissatisfaction with the way the public voted, specifically regarding the lack of women represented in the top 10.

EC: The Best of MTL poll has been going on for like 25 years — I used to read the Mirror — I know how it goes, it’s just that these people who voted couldn’t conjure up one name of a female chef. There was no cultural diversity either. People need to be more aware, they need to be better educated on what the chef scene is like in this city.

CS: Why do you think that the general public has such a hard time conjuring up the names of female chefs?

EC: Well the whole culture is so bro-ey, you know? The more bro-ey you are, the more you promote that sort of persona, the more recognized you are. I’m so far away from that culture — I’ve worked in my own restaurants now for over seven years, I don’t see that aspect anymore, but of course, it still exists. For me, there’s been a huge change already. Something like this makes me sad because with all the changes I think have been made and all of the women who I think have started to become recognized — this still is happening.

Kira German: There’s definitely less exposure for women than there is for men. I’d say that Emma is probably the woman you see the most in the public eye in Montreal, and obviously she’s very talented, but there are also tons of other very talented women in the same position so it’s kind of strange that there is less public attention for them.

EC: Yes, there’s a lot of publicity surrounding myself — and I appreciate it all — but I’m not jumping up and down for attention. I feel like the guys are more attention-grabbing — not necessarily seeking, but they grab the attention. They’re just more in the spotlight.

CS: Kira, I don’t want to put you on the spot, but the day I came to work at Nora Gray, the front of house staff came into the kitchen to meet everyone and as people were introducing themselves, Arnaud (the garde-manger) introduced himself as the only francophone in the kitchen, and you introduced yourself as the chef-de-cuisine and the only female in the kitchen. It came off as funny in the moment, but I think the sentiment is something that a lot of women working in kitchens have felt. Can you speak on that a bit?

KG: For the beginning of my career, for sure, I pretty much exclusively worked with guys, and it was just normal, I was used to it. When I started working [at Nora Gray] it was pretty much half-half and that was great. I think it really depends on who you’re working with. Even though I’m the only woman working the line right now, we don’t have really bro-ey guys in the kitchen here, so it kind of doesn’t feel that way. I’m not saying it feels like they’re girls, you know? I guess I just don’t really notice as much, whereas there are some environments where you do realize like, “I’m here in my corner and I’m just going to mind my own business”. I think working with men or women just really depends on the team.

EC: It definitely depends on the team, it depends on the atmosphere, like Kira said. We’re going through a time where she’s the only female, but there was a time when I was only getting female candidates, I wasn’t getting any male candidates. I still had one or two guys in the kitchen but it was more female-heavy at one point.

CS: Do you think you see more female cooks now than you have historically?

EC: My class at ITHQ was two-thirds female. I mean ITHQ is not a great gauge because obviously not the whole class actually goes into the industry, they go into other food-related jobs, but it was a record for them at that point that there were more women. I definitely see more women now than before, for sure, but I mean women have always been running restaurants. It has a lot to do with exposure.

CS: One thing I’ve been thinking a lot about in that same vein is that when Paul Bocuse died his legacy and the impact he had internationally on the world of cooking was so incredibly visible. Everyone’s Instagram was a photo of him and how his cooking changed their lives and the way they saw food, but in a very interesting way, Paul Bocuse is only Paul Bocuse because of a chef named Eugénie Brazier, better known as la Mère Brazier. She’s one of the grand masters of early French gastronomy, she’s credited for inventing cuisine Lyonnaise and Paul Bocuse was one of her pupils. I would say the majority of cooks know Paul Bocuse but how many of those people know of Eugénie Brazier?

EC: I mean, I’ve never heard of her.

CS: She’s amazing, she essentially taught the generation of cooks who would go on to run some of the finest restaurants in the world.

EC: Jacques Pépin talks in his book about how he was so passionate about cooking that he went to the hotels in Lyon and around Burgundy — they were all run by women. Escoffier is lauded as the father of French food but there were tons of women who were running little gites and hotels and the big restaurants in Lyon and around Burgundy. It’s the same thing, it’s about exposure.

CS: You both work in Italian restaurants, and I know it’s a bit reductive to say this, but the Nonna is the gold standard for Italian cooking. I was recently rereading Thomas McNaughton’s book Flour + Water, and he has this section of the book where he talks about making a pilgrimage to Bologna to go and learn the pasta-making tradition with Italian grandmothers.

EC: When people talk about Italian cuisine, they talk about their grandmother. Anyone who has a conversation, or the majority of chefs when they credit someone with teaching them how to cook, it’s their mother or their grandmother. But it’s the homemaker thing, it’s a lesser job, not as well respected because it comes from within the home as opposed to a professional sphere, so to speak. But like we were discussing, those hotels and restaurants in the 1940s and ’50s were run by women — they were the cooks.

CS: Why do you think, when it comes to traditional gender roles, that it’s so easy for people to accept that women are responsible for the household cooking but in a professional context, like a restaurant, it’s a lot harder to digest?

EC: It’s the social narrative. It’s how we’ve been socialized. The profession is only taken seriously when it’s dominated by a man. So to be able to have this profession taken seriously, there’s got to be a man at the helm. That’s the history of our world, that’s how it’s run. We don’t have a proper narrative of any history, let alone culinary history, because people have been trying to keep females down, and to keep minorities down.

CS: Who are some of the women in the city that aren’t being talked about that we should be talking about?

EC: Stephanie Labelle who owns Rhubarbe, she’s very good. Stephanie Cardinal who ran Vin Papillon, she’s amazing. Janice [Tiefenbach] is doing a great job at Elena, she’s starting to get some exposure, which is great. Kira deserves way more recognition than she gets because I’m not [at Nora Gray] anymore, I’m about to have a baby and I’m not going to be here for a while, and all of last year when we were opening Elena I wasn’t here, it was all Kira.

CS: I’ve worked in kitchens for the past eight years and I consider myself privileged to say that barring one brief restaurant stint I’ve never worked on a line with no women on it. Some of my most cherished kitchen experiences come from working under female chefs-de-cuisine. But in all those restaurants, there was always a subtext that these were unique places, atypical of the greater restaurant industry.

EC: I feel fortunate that we have such a large community of women [in this industry] and I only know a small minority. I feel like there are so many more women, particularly on the French side, that I don’t know at all. Janice, because of her diverse background of where she’s worked, has connections to all different kinds of chefs and people, men and women, that I don’t even know about, and she’s like “You don’t know this person?!” I’m kind of sheltered over here.

KG: I actually have one question for you about these kinds of interviews: I’m curious if you would do this same type of interview with a male chef? It’s not a cut at you, it’s just that whenever women in the industry are being talked about, it’s by other women. There are men that are feminists as well and that agree that there are very talented women that deserve more recognition, and I’m curious about how an interview would go with exactly the same question but posed to male chefs.

EC: It would also be cool to ask all those guys on the best chef list who their favourite female chefs are. It’s like “Oh, you think these guys are the best, well this is who these guys think are the best.”

CS: I hadn’t thought about it, could be a great follow-up to this interview!

EC: We need the men that are our supporters to speak up.

KG: And [men] who are influential.

EC: I tagged all those guys [on Instagram] and I can see how they wouldn’t want to get involved, but that’s brutal. They should be the voices that are standing up because as much as we have our own cred, they should be lending us credence. That’s the only way we’re going to get exposure, is if those guys who are popular amongst the readers of Cult MTL talk about us. ■