Canadian Chef Jessica Rosval at Modena’s Casa Maria Luigia
In Emilia Romagna, it seems everything gets better with time. This culinary heartland that spans the peninsula north of Tuscany and south of the Alps is where prosciutto and culatello, balsamic vinegar, and parmigiano reggiano only get better with age. Emilia Romagna is Italy’s food capital and the place an aspiring chef from Montreal chose to visit on her first trip outside of Canada. “Seven days after I arrived in Italy, I had a table reserved at Osteria Francescana,” Jessica Rosval says. “I was treating myself to dinner for my birthday. Massimo [Bottura] was going around saying hi to all the guests at the table, so we just started talking about food and cooking in Italy. Through the dishes that I was eating, I really understood how deeply emotional and poetic Massimo’s cooking is.”
Rosval grew up in Dollard-des-Ormeaux, a suburb of Montreal, in a large family of five sisters and one brother. She got her first job at 15, working as a hostess after school at an Italian family-style restaurant on Montreal’s West Island. She would sneak to the back during service and eat leftover bread while watching the activity in the kitchen: the team spirit among so much chaos, so much energy, that resulted in dishes that were so complete. “I was so impressed, and I decided, watching the team, I was going to do that,” she says. Just before her 18th birthday, after completing CEGEP, Rosval enrolled in culinary school. After working under chefs Laurent Godbout in Montreal and Melissa Craig in Whistler, Rosval followed a boyfriend to Italy in 2013.
The day after dining at Osteria Francescana, Rosval mustered the courage to contact Bottura. “I wrote an e-mail and expressed all of the things that I valued about his work, and I asked him to give me a trial in the kitchen,” she says. He accepted, and a weekend trial turned into two weeks, and she “just never left.” Rosval worked her way up to chef de parti at the three-star Michelin restaurant before becoming head chef at Casa Maria Luigia, the effortlessly cool guesthouse Bottura and his wife, Lara Gilmore, have opened in the Emilia Romagna countryside.
The restaurant at Casa Maria Luigia boasts a nine-course Osteria Francescana iconic dishes menu: The Crispy Part of the Lasagna, Rice in Camouflage, Five Ages of Parmigiano. “The opportunity to cook these dishes with Massimo and be able to serve them in this setting night after night is still a very emotional experience,” says the 36-year-old chef. For those who stay overnight, breakfast at Casa Maria Luigia is at the same tables or in the garden, with warm focaccia, erbazzone (a savoury tart with spinach), oven-roasted cotechino served on sbrisolone (crumbly cookie) and topped with zabaglione.
“In Italy, you have to be very careful with the ingredients that you choose. There is a purity of flavour that starts well before the kitchen,” she says. “It’s about finding the right ingredients, growing the right ingredients, and using the right ingredients at the right time. Italians have a kilometre-zero mentality. It’s what’s growing in season—when and where and why—and that’s what you eat in that place. It’s been like that for thousands of years.”
Rosval is forthcoming about the life lessons Bottura has instilled over the years. “He keeps reminding us that as chefs, we are more than just our recipes,” she says. “Sometimes we do lose ourselves in our daily routine, but we have capacity for so much more because feeding is giving, and hospitality is welcoming.” Over the years Rosval has translated this in her own special projects, most recently the Association of the Integration of Women (AIW), which she founded with her friend Caroline Caporossi to help migrant women integrate into the communities in Modena. As the organization’s culinary director, Rosval teaches the women how to cook professionally, preparing them for a future in the industry. “The idea was to create a restaurant to give real experience to prepare these women for jobs,” she says. The nonprofit restaurant Roots opened in Modena this past March, serving as a co-working space by day and restaurant by night. After four months, the women are integrated into the workforce.
Rosval recalls the night in 2013 when she first dined at Osteria Francescana and came upon a handwritten sign in thepiazza as she left the restaurant: “Basta trovare il coraggio. Il parto migliore del viaggio e domani.” (Just find the courage. The best part of the journey is tomorrow.) “I stood in front of that sign. It was what I needed. To not be scared and send Massimo that e-mail.”
Photography by Stefano Scatà.