Fun, simple, and elegant. Those words best describe chef Emily Butcher’s vision in co-creating Nola, a new-concept restaurant in St. Boniface, Winnipeg. Partnering with Burnley Place Hospitality to open in 2021, the restaurant has thrived as one of Canada’s Top 30 Restaurants in 2022, finding its niche with foodies in the local culinary scene.
CFRN chatted with Chef Emily about that vision, where it came from, and what it means to be part of the heart and soul of the local community.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CRFN: Tell me a little about your background and how you got started as a chef.
Butcher: I grew up in a very food-focused family. We had a big garden, my grandmothers were always in the kitchen, and there was always a lot of cooking going on.
That being said, it wasn’t my academic passion growing up. I got my undergrad degree in music theory and piano at the University of British Columbia. Having tried a number of different summer jobs, I ended up applying to a restaurant for a front-of-house hostess position.
On my way out of the interview, I was stopped by a female sous chef who asked me if I wanted to cook. I liked cooking and so I accepted, and that’s where it all started. I worked there on weekends and through summers, catching the bug and doing a sort of mentorship program there. It was a great opportunity to work through my basic cooking techniques and present them to the chefs. At that point, it made sense for me to go to cooking school, so I did a one-year program at Vancouver Community College and began my cooking career.
I eventually moved to Winnipeg, working at Deer + Almond for about seven years, moving up to the chef de cuisine position.
CRFN: You competed in Top Chef Canada, Season 9. What was that experience like?
Butcher: They called and asked me to apply, and it was great timing. It was during COVID-19, and we were doing some renovations at the restaurant where I worked. It seemed like a fun challenge! I had competed in the Canadian Culinary Championships the year before and I really enjoyed that experience. I had never really considered competitive cooking as part of my career path before, but I loved it and saw it as a way to push me out of my comfort zone, re-learn things, and build my skillset to a new level. So, I went for it!
It was an amazing, surreal experience. The competition was much harder than I had anticipated. Those kinds of experiences really force you to stand up for yourself and your dishes, despite being critiqued. It was so empowering, though. I think it helped in the way that I was able to take that leadership role at Nola and it made me feel ready to tackle that.
CRFN: What was the impetus for starting Nola?
Butcher: Well, after competing I knew I needed a change, a new challenge in my career. Mike Del Buono (owner/operator of Burnley Place Hospitality) was running a little sandwich shop around the corner from Deer + Almond and he called me for a meeting. I thought maybe he wanted to collaborate on an event, but he told me he was looking to open a restaurant that had already found a location – and he invited me to be the chef. So, Nola just sort of landed in my lap at the perfect time!
CRFN: What is Nola’s philosophy?
Butcher: Fun, simple, and elegant. Those were the words we always came back to. We both really wanted a share-plate concept, with the lively atmosphere that you get when people are sitting around a table passing plates as they experience the same flavours. I really wanted to capture the excitement that comes with gathering for food in a warm, inviting atmosphere, with high energy and a comfortable feel.
You don’t have to get dressed up, but you can. You can bring family, it can be fun with friends, maybe a date night. It’s just a warm and inviting atmosphere and we felt that Nola embodied that. Mike came up with the name, and while it doesn’t have a specific meaning, we really thought it evoked that familiar feeling of home.
When we chose the logo – with its calligraphy – it really spoke to my half-Chinese background. I wanted to bring that background into the experience with modern, nouveau Canadian cuisine.
CRFN: Do you have a favourite dish on the menu right now?
Butcher: There are a number of dishes that are really special to me. I definitely draw from a lot of my family food memories. My dishes tend to start out with a memory because that’s what I want people to feel when they sit down to eat; it’s that sense of nostalgia.
Our steamed daikon cake is a family recipe, originating from an auntie of mine. My mother got her recipe, and it included these funny notes like “add a coconut spoon full of shrimp” for me to interpret. I added my own twist, too. Instead of using the smoked Chinese sausage called for in the recipe, I feature smoked goldeye, a regional fish from a local fisherman here in Winnipeg.
I’m also very fond of the fermented turnip broth we have on the menu. Fermented foods always make me think of places with harsher climates. Winnipeg’s growing season is slim, so we do a lot of pickling and fermenting, we lean pretty heavily on cellar vegetables. And that’s a good thing! We take these sometimes-basic vegetables and make them outstanding.
And then in the summertime, we just have tons of fun, constantly thinking about what we can preserve to use later. This is our first summer, so it’s been a little bit of catching up, wishing we had preserved some of the things we missed, but those are the things we’re learning for next year.
CRFN: What was it like to be named by Air Canada as one of Canada’s Top 30 Restaurants in 2022?
Butcher: It was unexpected and awesome! We are a small community-oriented place, but we have amazing restaurants here and a great culinary scene. It’s exciting to be on the list with such great company in our first year. We’ve just been so focused on keeping the restaurant going, but at the same time, that kind of recognition says that the team’s hard work is paying off. We’re making something special here. I’m always proud to have a restaurant in Winnipeg.
For more information about Chef Emily and Nola, visit the website at nolawpg.com.