Aicia Colacci: The extraordinary and passionate chef

Aicia Colacci chef impasto montreal

“I’m 38 years old and I’m a 4-foot-11 woman. Never in my career have I felt bad about either of these things. I’ve always wanted a lot and worked hard for it. I have always wanted to be treated as an equal, so I have always been self-sufficient. Actions show what each person really wants.” Aicia Colacci may be only 4-feet-11 inches tall, but this determined and passionate woman was in charge of the kitchen of one of Montreal’s finest restaurants and charms with her charisma and talent.

Like many people, Aicia had no real idea of what she wanted to do in life. She started her career in an advertising agency. “I was a coordinator and a buyer, but mostly I was unhappy. I was doing my job, but nothing more; I always felt like something was missing. I wished I had a job that would satisfy me and in which I could fulfill myself. I wasn’t passionate about it and was always looking for something else to do.”

“My grandmother was a cook and food has always been very important in my family. I was always interested in cooking. Cooking has always been a part of my life.” Aicia dove into cooking (as a career) at age 25, when she decided to attend the Pius Culinary Institute and Business Centre cooking school in Ahuntsic. “I jumped in and it was dramatic! Love at first sight.”

In order to attend school, Aicia had to work. So she got a full-time job as a receptionist and went to school part-time at night. “I’ve always been interested in cooking, but I never thought about making it a career because of all the negative connotations. They tell you it’s going to be hard, you’re not going to have a life, and you’re going to work crazy hours. That’s all true, but in the end I was kind of doing it in advertising, but I was never passionate about it. At least in the kitchen I loved what I was doing! Everything just made sense. I knew right away that I wanted to work in this and that I wanted to be the best I could be. All the long hours didn’t matter anymore.”

Aicia worked at Primadonna in 2006 and stayed for two years. At the time, St. Laurent Boulevard was very cool and the owners shared all the establishments in that section of the Main: Globe, Buona Notte, Primadonna, and more. “I really liked Primadonna because the chef I worked with, François Lorrain, was wonderful. He showed me freedom and efficiency and gave me the opportunity to stimulate my creativity. I was able to make my own mistakes. He wasn’t micromanaging me, he was guiding me and helping me develop. He was a great first chef and taught me to have confidence in myself.”

Aicia then left for Valencia, Spain, to work at a small restaurant of about 30 seats called Cantina. “It was a great experience and it was interesting to study in another country. It helped me realize what I wanted.”

Upon her return, Aicia went to work at the Bice restaurant where she was offered a position as chef de partie garde-manger. There, she worked under executive chef Rosario Gurreri and chef de cuisine Jennifer Nickel, who would become two of her most important mentors and friends. “Jennifer taught me so much about the techniques surrounding food and about leadership and management. She taught me the importance of knowing the ingredient behind the recipe. Where does that ingredient come from? How is it cooked? How do you make it better? Where? What? How do you do it? Why? I still use all of that today in my day-to-day.”

Bice was much larger than the restaurants she had worked at before. It was a very busy place with a lot of employees. Her role was to train people and make them better; she also helped with the catering and was in charge of the pasta for two years. “It was amazing. I loved the adrenaline and the rush. I loved the sense of personal accomplishment and the pride of having goals and being able to achieve them, always becoming better than the day before. I got better, better, and better. And then I decided that my goal was to become a leader. And there was no going back.”

In 2013, Aicia left Bice to open the restaurant Jalouse in Rosemère. Jalouse was Aicia’s first experience as a sous chef and she had a lot of responsibility. The restaurant had over 200 seats, more than 10 people in the dining room, and 10 people in the kitchen. “I was in charge of the pasta (garde-manger first), I had a lot more responsibility and I had to take ensure the smooth running of the kitchen. It was a new challenge: I had to make sure that everything was clean, that everything worked — service, food cost, dishes, etc. It was a very good exercise and I learned a lot. One of the things I learned was that I didn’t like working in a restaurant with 200 seats!” The restaurant quickly closed its doors. Aicia took stock of everything that went right and wrong: “I learned a lot! It was a critical moment for me. I decided I wanted to make pasta and I wanted to be in a restaurant that would align well with my identity.”

She searched online for jobs and came across the one for “pasta entremetier” at Nora Gray. “One thing I knew was that I wanted to work for a restaurant where I could make a difference!” She applied and got the job. She started and learned a lot — “Emma taught me so much! She is strict. She’s an outstanding chef.” Aicia learned a lot about everything surrounding fresh pasta and was constantly challenged. The kitchen was very small and the three cooks on the line worked tirelessly. “I loved my experience at Nora Gray. One of the things I learned there is that when everyone does their part in a place that’s always rolling, difficulty turns into fun.” As much as Aicia loved Nora Gray, she quickly felt restricted. “I think part of it was because I was older… I wanted to move up the ladder and the restaurant didn’t have an opening for me at that point, so it was a logical choice.”

Somewhat coincidentally, Aicia went to dinner at Impasto one weeknight. “As soon as I walked in there, I fell in love.” A few weeks later, chef Yann Turcotte left Impasto to open Tousignant with Michele and Stefano. The chef position at Impasto became available and Michele offered it to Aicia. She accepted and started as chef de cuisine and pasta manager at Impasto. “They needed a chef AND a pasta person. It was extremely demanding.”

“Quebecois products with an Italian heritage: that’s our style! Impasto is again a great place to learn. In the beginning, every day my learning curve was through the roof. It was sick! Michele is an exceptional mentor. He is a walking food encyclopedia. Michele and Stefano are absolutely amazing bosses. Pasta and Italian food is his passion, and it’s also mine.”

Aicia has always put her 150% into Impasto, and every year the restaurant gets better. “The restaurant is very busy. There are a lot of expectations, but it’s not hard when the staff is wonderful. I only hire people who are talented, but also kind, not hostile or volatile. Do they want to learn? If so, they must have integrity, good manners, and treat the people around them and the products they work with well. I strongly believe that it is important to invest in the cooks, to always teach them more and learn from them, help them to become creative, push them to improve, pay them well. It makes the whole company grow.” 

“I would like to continue working at Impasto. And teach as much as I can. To help people around me learn as much as possible about what I believe in. For me, being a chef is about being a cook. It is to learn and continue to learn and apply it to the restaurant. I cook and I love to eat. I hope that people who come to Impasto feel it… cooking for me is about soul, layers and foundation. My favourite part of the job is that I’m always cooking. There are a lot of things that are hard about the job, but I think teaching is the hardest; making sure there’s not too much turnover, making sure there’s good management. It’s very challenging and I love it.”

Photography by Alison Slattery

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