How a Canadian chef is helping migrant women put down 'Roots' in Italy
Roots, Montrealer Jessica Rosval's new restaurant in Modena, Italy, is staffed by migrants training as chefs
Canadian chef Jessica Rosval believes kitchens should be about creating family and community.
Not just home kitchens or communal gatherings, but kitchens of the world's top restaurants, where a boys' club culture of toxicity and exploitation was long accepted as par for the course.
For the past nine years, Montrealer Rosval has served as the right-hand woman of celebrated chef Massimo Bottura, who was featured in Stanley Tucci's Searching for Italy series on CNN. She has worked alongside him in his Michelin-starred restaurant, Osteria Francescana, in Modena, Italy, which she calls an "ethical kitchen." Now, Rosval is applying the notion of "kitchens as community" to a new culinary venture that helps women who immigrate to Italy find careers and integrate into life in a new country.
Roots, the Modena restaurant she opened in March with friend Caroline Caporossi, trains the women to become chefs and encourages them to bring the flavours and dishes of their homelands to the Italian public.
Worldly menu with Italian twists
"So this menu is inspired by Cameroon, Guinea, Tunisia and Ghana, all of these countries coming together to create this really interesting flavour profile," Rosval said, standing in the kitchen of Roots, a chic, high-ceilinged restaurant in central Modena, a space provided by the city.
Around her a whirlwind of food preparation is underway, with four chefs-in-training making couscous, the Tunisian cheese pastry brik, and egusi, a hearty Nigerian stew, all while laughing and joking with Rosval and Italian trainer chef Silvana Mattero.
All the dishes the women are making reflect where they come from, with twists 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," Rosval explained.
Roots, which Rosval launched with the Italian-American Caporossi, not only teaches the women how to run a kitchen, but taps into a wide network of government agencies, small businesses and volunteers who help train the women in everything from how to open a bank account and manage household finances to workers' rights and dealing with Italian bureaucracy.
"This experience has given 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 joining the team at Roots.
"And it's given me friends."
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 is aware, 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 a lot of kitchens where 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 maternity leave … Things that have made it this very unsustainable work environment, especially for women."
Despite her criticism of the dominant restaurant kitchen culture, Rosval says it can be a beautiful life.
Growing up in a large, blended Jewish-Christian family on the West Island of Montreal, sitting around the table eating everything from grilled cheese sandwiches to gefilte fish taught her what a powerful communal force food can be.
Rosval's first job was at 15, working as a host in an Italian restaurant. She says she would often sneak back to the kitchen, fascinated by the chaos and collaboration of what she calls "this dance that is cooking."
At 18, she enrolled in culinary school and was recruited by Montreal chef Laurent Godbout of Chez l'Epicier, who saw her potential at a competition and eventually made her his chef de partie, or head of one section of the menu.
"What did he see in me?" she asked with a laugh. "Gutsiness, someone really wild, young, and outspoken who wouldn't say no to crazy events. Maybe my ignorance?"
A life-changing meal
Rosval went on to work in Whistler, B.C., with chef Melissa Craig at the Bearfoot Bistro before leaving in 2013 to follow her then-boyfriend to Milan, where she got a work-travel visa.
A week after she arrived, on her 28th birthday, she had a meal that changed her life.
It was at Osteria Francescana, Bottura's Michelin three-star 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.
"I was so emotional the entire meal," she said, recalling the menu that "brought me around Italy, not just geographically or through traditional dishes, but that really showed me the emotional and nostalgic and the poetic side of cooking."
When she left the restaurant, she felt changed, like her life had reached a turning point.
The next day she wrote Bottura "a fan girl" email, asking him to give her a chance in his kitchen. Struck by her note, he agreed to let her try out for a few days.
Nine years later, Rosval runs all of Bottura's international events. She is also head chef of the restaurant at Casa Maria Luigia, a luxury bed and breakfast opened by Bottura and his American wife, Lara Gilmore, in 2019.
She has won a slew of Italian awards for the brunch she created and serves there — Italian dishes with some Canadian inspiration, including fish with pesto sauce wrapped and baked in cedar. Those awards include Best Brunch of the Year, top female chef, and a coveted nomination for the World's Best Chefs Awards, Top 100.
Bottura, whose trademark is using artwork as the inspiration for his culinary creations, says culture is "the most important ingredient for the chef of the future. And Jessica, she keeps reading, getting deep, she knows we are really focused on contemporary art."
"She's always thinking … evolving. And she's North American, really well organized, not like Italians, who are very good at managing the irrational."
From resistance to acceptance
Those organizational skills are paramount not just in running Bottura's high-pressure, precision-fuelled kitchen at Casa Maria Luigia, but also in launching Roots.
Rosval and Caporossi say they met with a lot of resistance when they first presented the idea of Roots, with locals warning them 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 fully booked most days, with the newly trained chefs proudly describing their dishes to diners.
Caporossi says one of the most satisfying moments comes when they invite the women's children to eat.
"They are so proud to see their moms in chef jackets working in the kitchen. They say, 'This is where my mum works!' "
When Roots opened, Caporossi says some local press they received — Modena's mayor stopped by for a photo with the trainees — helped the chefs with networking.
Many of the women didn't know other parents from the school their children attend. But now, she says they frequently hear "'Oh, you're the chef from Roots!' And the teachers talking about it and the kids are bringing the newspaper and telling their friends. They're so proud."
For Rosval, Roots is a way of passing on all she learned from working in an "ethical kitchen" when she arrived in Italy.
"I didn't speak Italian, I didn't know anybody, but I went through first hand the experience of having the kitchen that became my family, my community," she said.
"So yes, Roots is about offering professional training, but also offering them the community that would help them create these lives they came to Italy dreaming of."