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Quebec Chef Emily Campeau Chats About Life in Montreal, Paris, and New York Kitchens

Photo: Chef Fréréric Duca, Emily Campeau, José Maldonaldo and Collin Wagner

Over in New York City, much of the advance word on Racines, the white hot bar à vin transplant from Parisian restaurateur David Lanher, has hinged on the chef, Frédéric Duca.

Justly so. No less an authority than Eric Asimov, the august wine writer for The New York Times, recently wrote: "Loved my first meal at Racines. Go for the wine, stay for the food."

Duca deserves the buzz. The Marseillais was voted best chef of 2013 by French food critic Gilles Pudlowski and was at the helm when Paris restaurant L'Instant d'Or won a Michelin star. But the executive chef at Racines is not alone in his new Tribeca kitchen.

Enter Emily Campeau. Duca's sous at Racines is a native of Sainte-Thècle, a small town in the Mauricie, 40 km outside of Shawinigan. After stints in Montreal, Vancouver and Paris, Campeau is happy to call the Big Apple home for now. In conversation the chef exudes a wisdom beyond her age (she is 26) and telltale traits of her profession - grit, bluntness and confidence - but, mercifully, without a soupçon of arrogance.

So how did someone from Sainte-Thècle end up in a Michelin star kitchen in Paris and now at Racines in New York? What was that journey like?
Well that person is very ambitious. It's just a passion for cooking. I found that Montreal was a bit sleepy and I always wanted to travel. I've also lived in Vancouver. I went to cooking school in Montreal - at Calixa-Lavallée - and it was a forgettable experience. I went there because I wanted a diploma. I wanted to make it official. I was young, I was 18.

I did a stage at Simpléchic when Alex Gosselin was there. Then I moved to Vancouver. I worked at the Relais & Châteaux Wedgewood Hotel with Lee Parsons. He's an amazing chef.

I came back to Montreal and worked at the W [Otto] with Yves Lowe. I come back every now and then to see my family and friends and work a little.

You also worked at Hélène Darroze in Paris. What was that like?
I was a stagiaire first and then I was hired. I worked there for two years. It was like going to school. It was a proper French kitchen with a hierarchy - I was under Frédéric at the time. [Hélène] was sourcing the best ingredients possible. It was very interesting. It triggers a nice philosophy. I worked my way up to chef de patrie and then [Taku Sekine] left for Fish La Boissonnerie and hired me as sous.

Taku is one of the most amazing cooks. He's an overachienver, very pushy, changing menu items all the time. We made a lot of mistakes, which is a great way to learn. It was my first time managing a team and a kitchen.

How old were you at the time?
I was 24.

Did you travel a lot when you were in Europe?
Yes I did. I went to Japan. I lived in Paris for three years so everything within two hours of Paris we went to. London. A lot of France. Spain, Italy, Copenhagen, Russia, Greece, Portugal. I would have loved to have travelled more. But I'll be back.

How did your travels inform or influence your approach to your work?
I ate bad food in Spain when I was young and I decided it would be the last time. The more you eat the more your palate develops. So I made a point to research meticulously.

How did Racines and the move to New York come together?
It was circumstances. I was in Montreal on sabbatical. Frédéric wrote me to tell me that he was kind of working on a new project. A branch of Racines which I knew about from Paris. So I invited myself into the project. I told him: I would love to do this! Two years ago I was staging at Atera and WD-50. I wanted to come back with a strong gig because it's complicated in New York City. So Frédéric hired me as sous chef. We were working on Racines from abroad for a while, with Arnaud Tronche [general manager, sommelier and beverage director]. Adapting chef's ideas from Paris to New York City. It was very fun, talking with farmers and different purveyors.

Was it tough to adapt the concept from Paris to New York?
No, it wasn't challenging at all. It's already sold as a concept in New York - natural wine lists, super hard core, locally sourced food. New York already loves this.

It's interesting. Racines is 50% about wine. There are many bottles that you can't find anywhere in New York. And we have solid food too. People from the wine industry have been coming all the time, sometimes three times a week to sit at the bar. It's rewarding.

With so much emphasis on wine, what is the philosophy behind the cuisine?
We're not crazy about the pairing aspect. Whatever you order - there will be something good to drink with it. If you order a good bottle and a good dish, you should have a good time. Arnaud has a fantastic palate - he'll find you something. And we change menu items so often.

A couple of months in now, how do you feel about your experience so far at Racines?
It's been quite a ride. There are four of us in the kitchen and we work very hard - it's been extremely exciting. It's been super busy, a lot of covers. When I can give a half day off, it's good. I have two guys in the kitchen who are amazing. And the floor staff is fantastic.

With four in the kitchen, what is your official role?
Technically, I'm a sous chef but doing the job of a chef de cuisine. Eventually when the kitchen is more stable and we have more guys I'll get off a station and do more sous chef.

That first review from [The New York Times critic] Pete Wells is imminent, I imagine.
Pete Wells? He was here three weeks ago. He walked in on a Wednesday night. We treated him like a regular customer, which is hopefully what he wants. We tried to do the best we could.

Any plans to come back to Montreal and Quebec soon?
Coming back home is not in the plan. So busy! The next time it will be very cold.

I think I saw your grandmother ask for your nouvelles on Facebook. You should call her!
[Laughing] You saw that? My grandmother taught me everything! She's a great cook. She's awesome. I have to call her.

Call her right now.
No, I can't! I have to work and do my mise en place!

· Racines NY [Official Site]
· All Racines Coverage [-ENY-]
· All Eater Montreal Interviews [-EMTL-]


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