Emma Cardarelli and her new restaurant Elena

“I could live eating nothing but pasta.” Emma Cardarelli is the talented chef and owner of the beloved Montreal restaurant Nora Gray in Little Burgundy. Soon, she’ll be opening her brand-new restaurant, Elena, in Saint Henri!

Curiosity For Cooking

“My father had a passion for cooking and it was him who gave me the taste to learn more.” Emma Cardarelli discovered an interest in everything that surrounds the culinary arts at a very young age, but she had no idea that she would pursue a career in the industry.

Emma completed a double major in English and Psychology at university. “I was an OK student.” She was not passionate about her studies, however, and upon graduation, she left to complete a field placement at Lake O’Hara Lodge. “There, I had the choice of being a housekeeper or working in the kitchen. I figured if I could avoid cleaning toilets, that would be cool, and since I was pretty good in the kitchen, I took the job as a cook.” During her internship, she became friends with the sous chef who told her about her experience at ITHQ and strongly advised her to try culinary school.

ITHQ & Globe

“I come from a part of Montreal that is very English-speaking, where people speak French terribly. It was always important for me to learn French in Montreal, but I knew I would have to be immersed in the language. So ITHQ was a great option for me. I applied and was accepted — two for one: my French education and culinary training.”

At ITHQ, Emma quickly became passionate about school! “I really liked the school, the teachers, and the experience in general.” Professor Jean-Paul Grappe had the most influence on Emma: “He’s a legend.” He has taught many renowned chefs and restaurant industry professionals, including David McMillan. It was thanks to him, among others, that Emma interned at the now defunct Globe restaurant with David McMillan and Frédéric Morin. “My first day, I was looking for Fred, super embarrassed. When I found him, the first thing he asked me was to make a reggae CD… I didn’t understand if that was part of the job. I quickly realized how modest he is, and I liked him right away.”

Very quickly, Emma and Fred developed a unique bond. “Fred became my mentor for so many reasons. His creativity, his imagination, just wow! He taught me so much.” Emma finished her internship at Globe, as well as her year at the ITHQ, and called him back. Unfortunately, Globe didn’t need more staff then. “I called him every two weeks… he finally took me back. We were like glue, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

London

Emma quickly moved from garde-manger to saucier, but Fred left Globe to open Joe Beef. Just before he left, he hired a young Englishman who Emma began dating, who had a visa that was ending and needed to return to London. Once Fred Morin left Globe, “it wasn’t the same at all.” Emma had nothing to hold her back, so she left with the Brit and went to live in the south of England. It was not what she had hoped for, and she wanted more. After three months, she left and went to work at the Michelin restaurant Greenhouse: “I worked 15-16 hours a day, it was crazy! I started out as a demi chef de partie (that was an ego check for me), then I became a demi chef de partie for the fish — that was the hardest job for me. Everything had to be extra fresh. You had to brown everything by hand, perfectly, all the time: fuckin’ celery roots.” However, Emma was longing to move back to Canada.

Liverpool House & Internships

When Emma returned to Montreal, Fred Morin and David McMillan were renovating the Liverpool House. “In the beginning, Liverpool was an Italian restaurant! I was there to help everyone. In the kitchen, there was François Côté, Maksim Morin and Jacinthe Turcotte. François went to Joe Beef, and it was me, Jackie, and Maksim at Liverpool. Ryan (Gray) was in charge of the bar. We were a really nice gang, and great friends.” Lisa McConnell became a regular customer at the Liverpool House, then began working as a host. The three of them formed a trio that complemented each other well and began talking about opening something together. In January 2011 they announced their departure; “Ryan and Lisa did all the renovations. I think I slept for a whole month; I was dead.”

Emma Cardarelli, a perfectionist at heart, left to do internships in New York at Del Posto, Minetta Taverne, Torrisi, and Roberta’s — an Italian restaurant that became extremely popular. “Riad Nasr has been a great influence on me. His style, his direction, his aesthetic: it was an eye-opening experience. I wanted to go to as many Italian restaurants as I could to learn, and that’s what I did.” She then moved to Calabria, Italy, to perfect her techniques and learn more recipes. When she returned, she was ready.

Nora Gray

Nora Gray opened in September 2011. Lisa designed the space for Nora Gray extensively with architect Phillip Hazan – “it’s based on a bar called The American Bar in Vienna, but more modern, more relaxed. It was perfect, it was exactly what we wanted. No restaurant looked like this at the time. It was minimalist, different. After the success of Joe Beef and Liverpool House, everyone was trying to copy them, but there’s only one first in everything.” Lisa also handled administration and customer service. Ryan was in charge of the establishment’s superb wine list (which is now one of the finest in town) as well as bar service.

And Emma developed Nora Gray’s menu, offering a unique twist to the restaurant. “Cooking is really my passion. Creating a new dish, evolving the kitchen until it is exactly what I want it to be, is amazing. I love to improve my techniques, to discover, I love the creation, I love my team. All the people who work in the kitchen with us are passionate, dedicated and motivated. They are young, just experienced enough, and they want to learn. They like to try things and figure out where the dish is going. It’s great.”

Elena: Coffee, Pizza, Wine

After six years in business, Nora Gray is definitely a staple restaurant in Montreal and one of our favourites. This month, Emma will open her new restaurant Elena.

Why open a new restaurant now? “I’m definitely ready for this project. I feel like Nora Gray is exactly where it needs to be. Nora Gray is doing very well right now… it’s like my child has grown up. It made sense, and it was the right space, and the right timing.”

What will the concept be? “The concept is ‘Coffee, pizza, and wine’. We really want to work with local people and local products. We’ll do Italian recipes with a twist. The space was designed by Kyle Goforth and is really original. Ryan is in charge of the wine list, and I will be in the kitchen with the talented Janice Tiefenbach.” Note that Elena will also have a café in the back: Club Social PS.

What aspect of the project are you most excited about? “The pizza oven! (laughs) It’s spectacular! It’s a work of art, and artisan Jean David-Moreau, of Esprit de lieu, built the oven. He really has an eye for detail in all of his work, he’s also the one who made the kiln for Foxy. I’m very happy to be working with an oven like this and still learning new aspects of cooking. Also, as always, the people. I’m very excited to build a new team, and I’m happy and inspired by growing the Nora family — we’ll have 15 new people! I love learning from them again and again.”

Emma Cardarelli is one of Montreal’s most talented, hardworking, and ambitious chefs. Her sensibility is evident in her cooking and her desire to always challenge herself and learn makes for a pleasant surprise every time you visit Nora Gray. We can’t wait for Elena!


Photography by The Drake

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