Emily Butcher was studying classical piano, and like many other post-secondary students seeking part-time work, she found a job working in a kitchen. She never could have anticipated what happened next—the discovery of a newfound passion for the culinary arts, leading her to transition away from classical music and begin training to become a chef.
For Emily, food is a way of honouring her family and heritage. From making dumplings with her Chinese grandmother to picking fresh produce from the garden, Emily’s dishes are a reflection of her own life.
When she first heard about RAW: Almond—the outdoor pop-up restaurant situated on the frozen Assiniboine river—Emily thought the idea was outrageous. But another unexpected plot twist came her way, and she ended up working for its creator, Mandel Hitzer, at his restaurant Deer + Almond. Today, she’s the head chef at Nola, landing a spot as one of the featured chefs for RAW: Almond 2023.
Growing up in the Fraser Valley, British Columbia, Emily Butcher was surrounded by food. From her family garden, where she’d pick peas and asparagus with her dad, to dumpling-making with her aunties, fun and vibrant meals were a huge part of her childhood memories. Today, Emily is executive chef at Nola, one of the hottest new restaurants in Winnipeg. Emily hasn’t lost touch with her roots, still sourcing ingredients that emphasise location and seasonality, and focusing on using those ingredients to create exciting dishes.
Finding a Creative Medium
It’s hard to believe, given her list of culinary accomplishments, but despite growing up in a kitchen, Emily hadn’t planned on becoming a chef. Instead, she focused on academics, practising classical piano and ballet on the side. Studying can be a solitary experience, and she found herself craving a more energetic environment where she could create something as part of a team. While finishing her degree, she found herself working in a kitchen on weekends. This outlet led her to consider culinary school, and she tested the idea of working in tourism full time. “I fell in love with it,” she remembers. “I loved the challenge of it. You’re always learning. I thought … this is my creative medium.”
A Place of Her Own
After culinary school, Emily’s career expanded far beyond the Fraser Valley, and as she progressed through the ranks from cook to sous chef to chef de cuisine, she found herself working in Norway, visiting Ottawa to compete in the Canadian Culinary Championships, and placing sixth on season nine of Top Chef Canada. Though she didn’t initially plan to start a restaurant of her own—she was put off by the risk—she began to desire ownership of a space and a menu. And in 2021 she opened Nola, in Winnipeg, to critical acclaim.
“Nola is a shared plates restaurant,” says Emily. “I’ve always wanted to create a space for people to come and get away from their everyday life, have fun, and be social, and Nola has given me that space.”
The menu at Nola is an ode to Emily’s childhood memories. Inspired by her upbringing and her family heritage, the menu is unique and eclectic. Emily describes the process of creating a dish as a sort of dreamscape. “I usually start with one ingredient that I want to work with, and it goes from there,” she says. “I make use of a notebook and scribble ideas. I create a mind map of the
flavours and textures I want to create… Incorporating things that I love, a little bit of my West Coast Chinese background.”
Dreams Coming True
Emily’s favourite part of the job is collaboration and shared passion, creating different dishes together and exchanging skills within her team. “It’s a dream I didn’t know I wanted, but now it’s come true.”
Emily was also a guest chef at RAW:almond 2023, an outdoor fine dining festival on the frozen rivers of Winnipeg that brings both local and international chefs together to create a truly unique dining experience.
“You have a setting that’s already extraordinary, and you have guests who want to be pushed out of their comfort zone a little bit,” she says. “I feel like you can get a little bit more creative and daring with your menus.”
Outside of the kitchen, Emily also loves checking in on tables during service. It gives her a chance to speak with people about their experience, explain dishes they want to know more about, and truly connect with her guests.
“I think people always go out to dinner for the experience, even before the food. We really want to create a welcoming environment, a lively chatter at the tables, people passing food around and engaging with each other, being surprised at the dishes that are coming to the table, and just creating a buzz in the room.”
It’s for all of these reasons and more that Emily recommends a career in tourism: “If you want to share your culture through an experience, tourism can take you there.”