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

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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 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 unliked 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 labelled 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 boy’s 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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The New ‘High Stakes Baking’ Book From a San Francisco Essential Is Made for Pastry Diehards

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20th Century Cafe, that retro-fabulous corner bakery in Hayes Valley, is publishing its first and definitive cookbook today. The cafe is known for its old-world European pastries, inspired by the grand cafe tradition in Vienna, Budapest, and Prague. Baking at the 20th Century Cafe is not for the faint of heart. It’s an advanced baking book, from a professional pastry chef, assiduously detailing methods for assembling ten-layer tortes and stretching strudel. But for cake diehards, it’s a rare treat, digging into the details of sachertorte, dobos torta, and of course, honey cake, while presenting them all on gold-rimmed china and a silver stand.

Pastry chef, owner, and now author Michelle Polzine cuts a tall figure around town, already known and loved for her sharp spectacles and tart smirk. And if you thought she was a kick in the pants behind the bar at her charming cafe, that style also comes through on the page, with plenty of references to 1930s couture and Hollywood glamour, if perhaps an overabundance of exclamation points. She’s also joined by Jessica Battilana, an award-winning columnist for the SF Chronicle and veteran recipe tester, who will have quietly ensured that those cakes work for home cooks.

Honey cake
Honey cake
Aya Brackett
Sachertorte
Sachertorte
Aya Brackett

Chapters roll through fruit, custards, cakes, cookies, and strudel, a few savory additions, and jams and sauces. But fans will head straight for the cakes. The recipe for the iconic Russian honey cake includes instructions on how to burn honey, whip in dulce de leche, bake off ten layers, and elegantly stack them tall. Vienna’s sachertorte is chocolate cake royalty, while Hungarian dobos torta is crowned in caramel. There’s an entire chapter dedicated to strudel, for those up for the challenge of stretching dough thin enough to cover an entire tabletop, before tucking and rolling apples. As well as recipes for all of the cafe favorites, including the chewy sourdough bagels and ruffled potato pierogis.

These are not quick and easy recipes — many are multi-day projects. Polzine enthusiastically calls it “high-stakes baking,” and warns cooks to arm themselves with a kitchen scale and an instant-read thermometer, and be prepared to read through recipes a couple of times. But for the more ambitious home baker, they’re a serious treat: career-tested recipes from a delightful pastry chef, who specializes in a very particular old cake tradition.

Michelle Polzine
Michelle Polzine
Aya Brackett

Photographs are from Aya Brackett, the Oakland photographer (who incidentally happens to be part of the Rintaro restaurant family). The images capture big spreads of cakes and cookies, on gold-trimmed china and silver stands, as well as cakes and tarts mid-process, revealing the graphic designs of layers, lattices, and centrifugal strawberries spiraling on a tart. And of course, Polzine’s style serves up big personality, with her signature vintage dresses and cat-eye spectacles, as she pulls layer after layer out of an impossibly cute old stove, and stretches pages and pages of paper-thin pastry across the table.

Cover of the 20th Century Cafe Cookbook Artisan Books

Baking at the 20th Century Cafe comes out today, October 20, and is available from Omnivore Books, Green Apple Books, the Booksmith, and everywhere else grand cookbooks are sold.

All photos excerpted from Baking at the 20th Century Cafe by Michelle Polzine (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2020. Photographs by Aya Brackett.

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All the Thanksgiving Recipes We’re Making This Year

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“Thanksgiving is an adopted tradition in our house, so there are no rules when it comes to the meal,” says Hetty McKinnon, cookbook author and publisher of Peddler Journal. “We moved to the U.S. from Australia in 2015, and for a year or two we tried the classic turkey-and-veg-sides combination. But as we found our feet as an immigrant family, we realized that these dishes held no historical context, or nostalgia, for us. To suit our mainly vegetarian household, we decided that the sides would become our mains. A huge spinach lasagna, vegan hazelnut-potato gratin, leek bread pudding, and always, always some form of tater tots (it’s the only time of the year my kids are allowed to eat them). While I usually bake them on top of mac and cheese, hot dish style, this year I decided to turn the tots into something different: an egg bake, which is directly inspired by, and strikingly reminiscent of, tortilla española. A Spanish tortilla is traditionally made with oil-poached potatoes, but using their processed counterparts is not new—many years ago a chef friend shared that she used leftover french fries, and chef Ferran Adrià famously makes his with potato chips. It turns out that tater tots, with their crispy exteriors and creamy middles, are perfect stand-ins. The finished product is full of texture and somehow still brimming with a tot aroma that’s undeniably familiar, even if you’ve never tasted one.” 

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‘Great British Bake Off’ Doesn’t Feel the Same Anymore

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There are things you expect to experience when tuning into a new season of The Great British Bake Off (or as it’s known stateside on Netflix, the Great British Baking Show): Judge Prue Leith will wear statement glasses and necklaces, host Noel Fielding will wear statement everything, bakers and viewers alike will overestimate the power of a Paul Hollywood handshake, and there will be lingering shots of babbling brooks and greenery. More than anything, though, you expect that signature Bake Off calm, one found only while watching a group of Brits treating each other nicely as they struggle to make kouign-amann or intricate gingerbread houses inspired by their childhoods.

But why would 2020, year of pestilence, punishment, and the presidential election, allow us this one simple pleasure? Why, in a time of such uncertainty, would Bake Off be safe? Maybe because the show went to such lengths to present some semblance of normalcy, its crew and cast living on premises and submitting to regular COVID-19 tests so that they could interact freely in the big white tent. But despite the efforts and welcomed (sort of) addition of Matt Lucas, something about Season 11 feels, well, underbaked and underproofed.

In his recaps on Eater London, my colleague James Hansen has been chronicling the chaos caused by rainbow bagels and ambulance-shaped Battenbergs, but he has more discerning tastes than I do. I’m quite easily pleased by Bake Off clichés: I laugh at the hosts’ riffs, swoon at bucolic B roll, and delight in the contestants’ bios and weird hobbies. Interview the elderly widower about how lonely he was before coming to the show and meeting his fellow bakers and I’ll cry without fail. I’m not technically versed enough to get annoyed at the bakers’ mistakes and there are few things I find funnier than things that are supposed to look like something else but decidedly do not, like, say, a cake bust of David Bowie that looks like a melting snowman. Point being, I’m an easy mark! And yet, I’m unsettled.

It could be that the challenges have been leaning less and less on classic baking and more on viral Instagram foods (like the rainbow bagels), though this is hardly the first time that the show has gotten stunt-y. Then there’s the fact that none of the bakers could figure out brownies in the same episode — Season 11, Chocolate Week — that Leith insulted New York chocolate babka. This wouldn’t be a big deal in other shows, but considering that Bake Off’s biggest scandal was two bakers apologizing to one another and both claiming fault over a ruined baked Alaska, Leith’s verbal assault on a New York City delicacy might as well have reignited the Battle of Bunker Hill.

There’s also a nagging bother for me personally as Bake Off’s judges and hosts — a group that, unlike the bakers, has been steadily and frustratingly white throughout the series’s run— have slowly gone from three women (hosts Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc and judge Mary Berry) and one man (Hollywood) to three men (Fielding, Lucas, and Hollywood) and one woman (Leith). Whereas Perkins and Giedroyc seemed to rankle Hollywood on occasion, the current hosts are mostly reverent towards him, almost like he was the literal king of all bread. And of course, there was that brief and lovely period of the show where Fielding co-hosted with Sandi Toksvig, but that was all too short (pausing for a Fielding-esque joke about Toksvig’s diminutive height here). This isn’t a critique on Lucas. He is doing fine as a new co-host — though if there was even the slightest chance of Toksvig returning, I wouldn’t hesitate to shove him into a current, assuming that he’s a strong enough swimmer to get back to London.

Maybe the issue isn’t the show, at all, but rather proof of how hard this year has been. 2020 has been such a shit show that the The Great British Bake Off no longer works as visual valium. This is what they warn you about drugs in your elementary school D.A.R.E. program: Start and you’ll keep chasing stronger and stronger highs as your body adapts. So what’s next? Attempting to drop further into a fantasy world that’s free of coronavirus and host shake-ups? Where red foxes bound through fields of clover and the air smells of baking bread? Or maybe we grow up and admit that the idealized world of Bake Off was never real to begin with and that we need to develop healthier, steadier coping mechanisms? Ha, sure! I’ll get to that eventually, but tonight I’m going to eat an entire tear-and-share shaped like Mary Berry while watching Gasford Park and hope it helps to fill the void.

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