How a Canadian chef is helping migrant women put down roots in Italy

Canadian chef Jessica Rosval believes kitchens should be about building family and community.

Not just home kitchens or community gatherings, but the kitchens of the world’s finest restaurants, where a boys’ club culture of toxicity and exploitation has long been accepted as the norm.

For the past nine years, Montrealer Rosval has been the right arm of celebrity chef Massimo Bottura, who starred in Stanley Tucci’s film. In search of Italy series on CNN. She worked alongside him at his Michelin-starred restaurant, Osteria Francescana, in Modena, Italy, which she calls an “ethical kitchen”. Today, Rosval applies the notion of “kitchens as community” to a new culinary venture that helps women immigrating to Italy find a career and integrate into life in a new country.

Roots, the Modena restaurant she opened in March with her friend Caroline Caporossi, trains women to become chefs and encourages them to bring the flavors and dishes of their home country to Italian audiences.

Fanta Diaby, who is originally from Guinea and works as a chef-in-training at Roots, makes a traditional Tunisian cheese pastry called brik made from Italian Parmigiano Reggiano. (Chris Warde Jones)

Worldly menu with Italian touches

“So this menu is inspired by Cameroon, Guinea, Tunisia and Ghana, all of these countries coming together to create this really interesting flavor profile,” Rosval said, standing in the kitchen of Roots, a swanky restaurant in high ceiling from the center of Modena. , a space made available by the city.

Around her, a whirlwind of culinary preparation is underway, with four chefs in training preparing couscous, pastry brik with Tunisian cheese, and egusi, a hearty Nigerian stew, while laughing and joking with Rosval and Italian chef trainer Silvana Mattero.

All of the dishes the women prepare reflect their origin, with touches from their new home in Italy.

“This brik in Tunisia is prepared with fresh cheese, but as soon as [Tunisian trainee] Zouhaira Mahmoudi arrived in Modena, she started using Parmigiano Reggiano, representative of where we are today,” explained Rosval.

Roots, which Rosval started with Italian-American Caporossi, not only teaches women how to run a kitchen, but taps into a vast network of government agencies, small businesses and volunteers who help train women in all areas, from opening a bank to accounting and managing household finances to workers’ rights and dealing with Italian bureaucracy.

“This experience gave me the courage to become a cook,” said Fanta Diaby, who arrived in Italy from Guinea, West Africa seven years ago and worked intermittently as a hairdresser before moving on. join the Roots team.

“And it gave me friends.”

Roots chefs-in-training Fanta Diaby from Guinea, left, and Zouhaira Mahmoudi from Tunisia, would like to one day open their own restaurants, serving both Italian cuisine and dishes from their home countries. (Chris Warde Jones)

Reinventing restaurant culture

Creating a work environment that facilitates friendships makes Rosval particularly proud.

As anyone who has worked in restaurants or read about restaurant culture knows, kitchens are often steeped in toxicity, and bullying, sexism and exploitation can be rampant. Rosval says anxiety, depression and burnout are the norm among those who work in kitchens.

“I’ve worked in many kitchens where the chefs were transient workers,” she said.

“There’s always this underlying theme that unless you become this great chef…it wasn’t sustainable because the hours are too long, there’s no benefits, there’s no no maternity leave…Things that have made this a very unsustainable work environment, especially for women.”

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Montreal-born chef Jessica Rosval shares the inspiration and composition behind some of the dishes she created for her award-winning brunch at Casa Maria Luigia, a luxury bed and breakfast in Modena, Italy.

Despite her criticism of the mainstream culture of restaurant cooking, Rosval says life can be good.

Growing up in a large blended Jewish-Christian family in the West Island of Montreal, sitting around the table eating everything from grilled cheese sandwiches to gefilte fish, she taught him what a powerful community strength.

Rosval’s first job was at age 15, working as a host at an Italian restaurant. She says she would often sneak into the kitchen, mesmerized by the chaos and collaboration of what she calls “that cooking dance.”

At 18, she enrolled in culinary school and was recruited by Montreal chef Laurent Godbout of Chez l’Épicier, who saw her potential in a competition and eventually made her his party leader, or at the top of a menu section.

“What did he see in me?” she asked, laughing. “Courage, someone really wild, young and frank who would not say no to crazy events. Maybe my ignorance?

Rosval is also the head chef at Casa Maria Luigia, a bed and breakfast owned by celebrity Italian chef Massimo Bottura located just outside Modena in northern Italy. (Chris Warde Jones)

A life-changing meal

Rosval then worked in Whistler, British Columbia, with chef Melissa Craig at Bearfoot Bistro before leaving in 2013 to follow her then-boyfriend to Milan, where she was granted a work visa.

A week after her arrival, on her 28th birthday, she had a meal that changed her life.

It was at Osteria Francescana, Bottura’s three-star Michelin restaurant in Modena, a short drive from Milan. There he served a 12-course tasting menu called “Vieni in Italia con me”, – Come to Italy with me.

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“I was so emotional throughout the meal,” she said, recalling the menu which “took me to Italy, not just geographically or through traditional dishes, but really showed me the emotional, nostalgic and poetic side of cooking”.

When she left the restaurant, she felt changed, as if her life had reached a turning point.

The next day, she wrote an email to Bottura “a fan girl”, asking him to give her a chance in her cooking. Struck by her grade, he agreed to let her try for a few days.

Nine years later, Rosval runs all of Bottura’s international events. She is also the restaurant chef at Casa Maria Luigia, a luxury bed and breakfast opened by Bottura and his American wife, Lara Gilmore, in 2019.

Breakfast is overseen by Rosval at Casa Maria Luigia. She has also won several awards for the brunch she serves there, which mixes the flavors of Canada and Italy. (Chris Warde Jones)

She has won numerous Italian awards for the brunch she created and serves there – Canadian-inspired Italian dishes, including fish in pesto wrapped and cooked in cedar. These awards include Best Brunch of the Year, Best Female Chef and a coveted nomination for World’s Best Chefs Awards, Top 100.

Bottura, whose trademark uses artwork as inspiration for her culinary creations, says culture is “the most important ingredient for the chef of the future. And Jessica, she continues to read, to dig deeper, she knows we’re really focused on contemporary art.”

“She’s always thinking…evolving. And she’s North American, really well organized, not like the Italians, who are very good at dealing with the irrational.”

Caroline Caporossi, left, sits in the Roots with Rosval dining room. Caporossi, co-founder of the restaurant, says women’s careers are often the last priority of agencies helping immigrants integrate into life in Italy. (Chris Warde Jones)

From resistance to acceptance

These organizational skills are paramount not only to managing Bottura’s high-pressure, high-precision kitchen at Casa Maria Luigia, but also to launching Roots.

Rosval and Caporossi say they encountered a lot of resistance when they first pitched the Roots idea, with locals warning them that a restaurant run by migrant women with a mostly African menu wouldn’t fly in a provincial town. like Modena.

But the Roots team proved the naysayers wrong: the restaurant is full most of the time, with newly trained chefs proudly describing their dishes to diners.

Chef-in-training Zouhaira Mahmoudi chats with diners enjoying a meal at Roots. (Chris Warde Jones)

Caporossi says one of the most satisfying moments comes when they invite the women’s children to eat.

“They’re so proud to see their mums in chef’s jackets working in the kitchen. They say, ‘That’s where my mum works!’ “

When Roots first opened, Caporossi says the local press they received — the mayor of Modena stopped for a photo with the interns — helped the chefs network.

Many women did not know other parents from the school their children attended. But now, she says, they often hear “‘Oh, you’re the leader of Roots!’ And the teachers talk about it and the kids bring the newspaper and tell their friends. They’re so proud.”

For Rosval, Roots is a way to pass on everything she learned working in an “ethical kitchen” when she arrived in Italy.

“I didn’t speak Italian, I didn’t know anyone, but I had the first-hand experience of having the kitchen that became my family, my community,” she said.

“So yeah, Roots is about providing job training, but also giving them the community that would help them create those lives they dreamed of in Italy.”