Emma Cardarelli Couldn’t Change Kitchen Culture as a Line Cook, So She Opened a Restaurant of Her Own

Emma Cardarelli Couldn’t Change Kitchen Culture as a Line Cook, So She Opened a Restaurant of Her Own

When Montreal chef Emma Cardarelli first conceived of Elena—the acclaimed 65-seater serving natural wine, handmade pasta, and wood-fired pizza in Montreal’s Saint-Henri neighborhood—she was ready for change. After 20 years working in restaurants, she was tired of its abusive culture where yelling, drinking, drugs, late nights, and pushing physical and emotional boundaries was the workplace norm—behaviors she’d even adopted herself. With the help of partners and staff, Cardarelli set out to find a better way to run a restaurant. What resulted is a kitchen and crew committed to maintaining a healthy environment with caps on hours, insurance benefits, and earlier nights—and a well-executed menu that we captured in these winter feast recipes last year. With a tangible undercurrent of good energy, Elena stands as a model for positive restaurant culture, a place for employees to learn and grow while recovering from the industry’s toxicity. And as the restaurant has had to constantly shift to survive the pandemic, now focused on takeout only, continuing to prioritize employees’ health—physical, mental, and emotional—has never been more important. Here, Cardarelli explains how Elena came to be and where it’s going. —Joanna Fox

On my first day ever in a professional kitchen I was sexually harassed. I was bending over, cleaning a lower shelf in a fridge, when a guy came up behind me and said, “I could get used to this.” That kind of sexism was prevalent when I was just starting out in the early 2000s. The male staff was constantly making inappropriate comments about the very few women working in kitchens. Little did I know there would be a lot more where that came from.

My next job was at one of Montreal’s top restaurants at the time. It was the kind of place where I could work my way up, learn a lot from the chefs, and forward my career. I thought I was lucky. But I saw everything during my years there. The waitresses were encouraged to sit down with clients and got paid extra to hang out with important people. They had to pay for barely-there uniforms and work all night in high heels. I saw serious drug abuse, rampant alcoholism, anger-management problems, sex in the restaurant. Somebody even had sex on my workstation—the used condom was casually tossed in my garbage.

As a young, idealistic feminist, I was constantly arguing with my male coworkers and bosses about the environment and how the women were treated like objects. I would try to explain why certain behavior or words were problematic, but no one wanted to hear it. Maybe I wasn’t the only one it bothered, but I was definitely the only one who was vocal about it. I was disliked and unpopular. The management called me a cancer in the kitchen. So eventually I shut my mouth. For years. Because I was afraid of being labeled an angry woman—which I was—and I wanted to work.

Just once I hung out after work. I had one drink from a table of guys who’d bought bottle service. Within 20 minutes I went from sober to incoherent. A friend immediately took me home. The next day, when I told the manager what had happened, he blamed me. He didn’t believe I could have been drugged and said I probably couldn’t handle my alcohol. Shortly after, I quit. Then, as a power move and to show the staff who was in charge, they fired me.

Not every job was the same. Some were a lot better than others, but there were themes: sexism, harassment, unprofessionalism, homophobia, substance abuse. I can count on one hand the women chefs I worked under: One. And she was a sous-chef. Kitchen culture used to be very much a boys club. It takes its toll on everyone, but for a lot of women, like me, it was grating. Either you hardened, like a callus, so you didn’t feel it anymore, or were totally bitter and beaten down.


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