When 22 year old Nathalie Des Rosiers first expressed her passion for the culinary arts with acquaintances, it earned her disdainful and dismissive remarks about how the field was essentially “a man’s world” and only worth pursuing as a part-time hobby.
But for Nathalie, who had always had the complete support of her loved ones, and who was too hard-headed to become discouraged, this was only an incentive to work harder. After completing her DEC in Liberal Arts at Dawson College in 2009, she took a semester off from her studies to test her ability to work in the food service, and applied to the culinary program at the Quebec Insitute for Hospitality and Tourism (ITHQ). Following this, she invested her funds in professional culinary equipment and started her own online catering company. Now, only three years later, she has already interned at some of the most prestigious restaurants in the world, placed 2nd in Canada in the San Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition, and cooked for royalty twice.
Born and raised in Montreal, Nathalie says she knew she wanted to be a chef since the age of five, when she spent Christmas Eve making Rice Krispies with her mother. Sitting on the kitchen counter with sticky hands, she can still recall feeling genuinely content in the environment. “I just always felt comfortable and happy in the kitchen. When I was really upset as a teenager I would sit on the kitchen floor to cry, or think, or write. It was where everything felt clear.” She explains. Her parents encouraged her to cook by enrolling her in a friend’s catering kitchen in the Eastern Townships when she was 12 years old. She credits the experience with teaching her the basics and introducing her to the art of cake and pastry making.
Since then, Nathalie has gained a wealth of cooking experience while working at restaurants such the upscale Toque in Montreal, and Chicago’s celebrated Alinea. Her skills and talent have even earned her compliments from royalty. When Prince William and Kate Middleton visited Montreal, they were hosted by the ITHQ, and Nathalie was one of a handful of culinary students chosen to give the royal couple a cooking lesson. “Prince William told me I was the best teacher of all the students helping him. I felt so special.” She laughs.
But it was her 2010 summer internship at The Fat Duck in England that Nathalie says had the most influence on her cooking philosophy. The Fat Duck, a three-star Michelin restaurant run by world renown chef, Heston Blumenthal, is widely considered one of the best restaurants both in the U.K. and the world. During her time working there, Nathalie says she learned to appreciate being a student and having the opportunity to continue her education in another country. “I now believe that the culinary world is an ever-evolving one and there will always be something new to learn about it.” She says. “I may like my chocolate mousse recipe, and people may say it’s the best they’ve had, but I can always learn new techniques to make it better, faster and even tastier.”
It is Nathalie’s commitment to being a culinary student for life, and valuing knowledge as an end in itself, that has motivated her to spend the upcoming summer as an unpaid intern at Noma restaurant in Denmark. Specializing in Nordic cuisine, Noma has claimed the ranking of best restaurant in the world for the past two years, and Nathalie says she is considering this her semester abroad to learn about culinary excellence by those who exemplify it best. She has discovered a great deal about her cooking preferences by working with the Europeans, who she says pay meticulous attention to both hygiene and presentation. “There is a lot of emphasis on style in European cuisine. They are not afraid to be modern, try different things and break clichés.” That kind of fearlessness and originality, she says, are qualities that Montreal chefs generally lack. Inspired by the European menu that offers numerous courses in tiny, delicious portions, Nathalie has attempted to bring the concept to Montreal through her catering company.
As hectic and time consuming as her favorite past time is, Nathalie has found beauty in the chaos. “In a kitchen rush I describe the fast movements and not bumping into the other chefs as ‘the ballet of the kitchen’.” Though she regards herself as a generally poised ballerina, she admits to not being above clumsy moments or instances of aggravation. “I get frustrated when recipes don’t work or simply aren’t to my liking.”
Equally frustrating is the sexist backlash that Nathalie says has become a norm for female chefs. “I’ve heard so many inappropriate jokes and been asked so many questions that I just walked away from, because I had no idea what to respond or how to react.” She believes that part of the reason why men have dominated the culinary profession is that they are not confronted with the crossroad decision between their career and having children in the way that women are. “Women who make it in the cooking world are always told by men that we are the best chefs, because we work just as hard as them, but are also able to multi-task. So essentially, if we stick through the tough times we do earn respect from the top chefs in the world.”
Although having a family is not in Nathalie’s immediate plans, she still thinks about the difficult decisions she may have to make in the near future, if she is offered a full-time job in Denmark after her internship. “I’ve been with my boyfriend for over three years and I love him so much, I don’t know if I’d be able to leave him for the job. But at the same time, I do want an international career and I do want my own restaurant outside of Montreal one day. I don’t want to have to give either of the things I love up.” It’s a decision Nathalie feels she will only be able to fully make in the moment. As for the here and now, there is too much to be done to worry about regretting decisions in the future. “I planted the seed of this dream and I won’t give up on it.” She says, firmly. “I’m proud of the choices I made. They haven’t always been easy, but I believe I made all the right ones.”
*You can check out Nathalie’s online catering company here: www.natscuisine.com
By Sophia Trozzo