DesBrisay Dines

Meet the 28-year-old Ottawa-born chef turning heads on the international fine dining stage

It might have been that she was underage: at 19, she couldn’t go out post-shift with the rest of The French Laundry brigade. So she “put her head down.” She worked on technique and honed her skills, discovered new things to cook, new varieties of vegetable and fish she had never encountered before. Mostly, Ottawa-born chef Emmanuelle Leftick tells me over cake and coffee last week, she “learned to really hustle.”

Ottawa-born and -raised, Emmanuelle is home. For now. A position at chef Corey Lee’s three-star Michelin restaurant Benu awaits her return to San Francisco. The catch? She needs her green card, a convoluted and costly process. The U.S. visa granted to her three years ago (for “An Alien of Extraordinary Ability”) has run its course.

chef Emmanuelle Leftick
Chef Emmanuelle Leftick. Photo courtesy of Emmanuelle Leftick.

Will she return to Canada, to Ottawa or Montreal, and open her own place one day? Many ask her this, poor girl, (me included.) She struggles with the answer, (of course she does.) She has family and friends she loves in her hometown, but she also has a dream job in the United States.

“I wouldn’t rule it out,” she tells me as she forks into her chocolate cake, “…but right now, I want to keep growing, keep learning. You know, I always thought I was creative, but then I started at The French Laundry and, well… I’ve learned a lot!”

And she’s learned a lot in a number of impressive places. The twenty-eight year old has had a cooking career that’s taken her to some of the world’s most celebrated restaurants. And it all began here, after her fear of fish turned her away from the marine biology plan, and her love for cooking crêpes for her “food-obsessed” family made her think chef school might be the way to go.

Leftick headed to Montreal for that, to the Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec, and to early jobs at Chez L’Épicier and with chef Jean-Baptiste Marchand at La Fabrique. And then the opportunity to stage at Toronto’s Susur (arguably Canada’s best known restaurant, owned by distinguished chef Susur Lee). While at Susur, a further stage (an unpaid internship) was secured at Thomas Keller’s legendary The French Laundry in the Napa Valley.

One week into the three-month placement at The French Laundry, chef de cuisine Corey Lee offered her a job. She started with the cheese program. Then moved to garde manger. Leftick returned to Ottawa when her visa ran its course, but with an offer to be part of the opening team at chef Lee’s new restaurant Benu tucked into her carry on. That was in 2010, when she was 23, and she’s been at Michelin three-star Benu for the past five years.

During the year it took to open Benu, Leftick left for Spain to stage at Ferran Adria’s El Bulli – then widely considered the world’s finest restaurant – a pretty remarkable accomplishment. She stayed in Spain six months, finding further opportunities to work, including at Michelin star El Poblet in Valencia, where the casual, rustic cuisine made a lasting impression. Then to France for an internship in the kitchen of Maison Troisgros, a Michelin three-star in Roanne, before returning to Benu for its inauguration.

So what does she like most about coming home? Kettleman’s bagels, fresh cream cheese and smoked salmon. Family, friends, and the chance to cook for private parties, and in restaurants as a guest chef while she awaits that elusive “green card.”

We’re working on some of those Ottawa restaurant take-over opportunities. Stay tuned. For now, I just thought Emmanuelle Leftick’s hometown should be introduced to a remarkable young talent.