There are good chefs in Montreal, and then there are great chefs in Montreal—we want to hear their stories. That’s what you’ll find in these interviews, a series where Time Out Montreal talks to the incredible women representing the best of this city’s restaurant scene, all of whom can be found at Time Out Market Montréal. For our fifth interview, we spoke to the chef and restaurateur Cheryl Johnson, co-chef of the culinary powerhouse Montréal Plaza and its stellar market offshoot Montréal Plaza Deli, about going from a military brat to a CIA-trained chef, maintaining balance in the kitchen and what makes Montreal exceptional.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
There’s no one way to become a chef, but if you talk to enough of them, one constant emerges more often than not: Someone says, “hey you, this is what you’re supposed to be doing, so go do it.” If you’ve ever met Cheryl Johnson, who—with her business partner Charles-Antoine Crête—brought Montréal Plaza into the world, you may have a hard time imagining her needing to be talked into, well, anything, but it’s true. Like many others , her path to the Culinary Institute of America, to Montreal, to Toqué! and beyond started because someone saw what she couldn’t at the time.
What’s your cooking origin story?
I’m going to give you the shorter of the long version. I’m half Filipino, half American. I was born in the Philippines, I lived there until I was 12. We moved around a lot: my dad was a contractor in the military. We pretty much moved every two, three years. My first restaurant experience was in California, super random; I just decided to up and work in a restaurant one day.
Were you living there or did you randomly move there?
I was living there, studying engineering. I was enrolled in engineering. I started working in a restaurant, front of the house. I’d always enjoyed cooking but at the time—this is twenty-something years ago, before star chefs—it wasn’t really a career that made sense to go into.
What does that mean? “Make sense”?
My family is a bunch of engineers and computer types. For me to be like, “oh I’m going to become a chef,” it just wasn’t realistic.
How did you move from front of the house to back of the house?
I ended up begging my way to work in the kitchen. I was having a conversation with the owner’s daughter, who was managing the place, and she [asked], “if you weren’t studying engineering what would you be doing?” and I was like, “definitely working in a kitchen.” And she goes, “so why are you working in the dining room? Why don’t you work in the kitchen here?” Then it clicked for me. “Oh, I can?”
What restaurant was this?
Tomiko. I’m still extremely good friends with them. It’s in San Diego, Encinitas. [ed’s note: Tomiko closed in 2013.]
So you became a cook then and there?
Her mom was the owner, managing the whole thing and managing the kitchen, this 70-year-old Taiwanese lady. At first she said no, but the spark was already there, I was hellbent on doing it. I decided, “I don’t give a fuck, I’m going to wash dishes if I have to, and if I have to do it for free I will, I’d rather be back there than in the front.” And she gave in. At the front of the restaurant it was all the Japanese guys at the sushi bar and there were a bunch of Mexican guys in the back and they were all, like, “what are you doing here?” and then they fell in the shit during service and they started to ask me for help and realized, “hey, she can hold a knife, she knows what she’s doing.” A year after that, I became the manager in the kitchen.
Where did you learn to hold a knife in the first place?
At home. My Filipino side of the family is huge, and in an Asian family it’s all about eating. Constant eating, all the aunts and uncles, and everyone can cook in my family. My dad is actually a really good cook; I would say that they shared it, 50/50 in the kitchen, my dad and my mom.
How did you get here, to Montreal?
The same owner’s daughter, she was the one who pushed me to go to the Culinary Institute. She was like, “you need to go to cooking school and you need to take this seriously.” She helped me, I got in, and while at the CIA I had to do a five-month stage, and that’s how I ended up in Montreal. I didn’t want to stay in the U.S., I wanted to go somewhere else. When you go somewhere else you have to prove you’re 100% fluent in the language. So I found a little loophole— Montreal is English/French —and I did research on restaurants and I ended up at Toqué!. On the first day when I went for my trial, the person who opened the door when I knocked was actually Charles-Antoine, who is now my partner. Little did I know back then that my life was going to change.
Kitchen culture has sometimes been described as a “boys club,” and associated with debauchery, misogyny, and sexual misconduct. What has your experience been?
At Tomiko, the people that were in charge were women. Then I moved to Toqué!, where, even if it was 20 years ago, there was no difference. For me it’s never been a thing to be a woman in the kitchen. It’s always been normal. Charles-Antoine, who, at the time, was the chef de cuisine, he always thought that way—you need an equal balance of women and men. Having more of one or more of the other is not a good thing. You need to have both.
Why do you “need” both?
It creates a good temperament. Too much boys, there’s too much testosterone; too much women, it’s the opposite. We’re a man and a woman partnered together, and it’s funny — it’s almost like a mother/father relationship with our employees. There’ some things they go towards me, there’s some things they go towards him, but at the end of the day they know we always talk and everything is transparent. We’re a very family-oriented business.
You say you haven’t experienced that nastiness towards women, and some of the other people we’ve interviewed say the same, but why does the popular perception persists?
Old ways of thinking that are still there. It also depends on the place. If you go to France, it’s not the same as here, the mentality is not the same. Not just for women, for cooks in general. The kitchens are cutthroat [with] that macho mentality. Not just with women, amongst each other. I’ve heard crazy stories of, you’re working in the same kitchen but the guy next to you, when you turn around, is going to turn up the stove to burn your shit to put you in the shit. It’s a constant competition. I’ve never experienced that myself.
How does this contrast with Montreal?
For me, Montreal doesn’t have that mentality. For sure it exists, for sure there’s places — but there’s places everywhere. But in general, it’s more of a community. One of the things I find the most beautiful in the industry in general between chefs here: it’s not a competition. If, for example, we find a new farmer that has this or a fisherman who has that in small quantities, instead of keeping it to ourselves we call our other chef friends and say “we just found this guy who has fresh scallops, I’m going to come bring you some.” Everybody helps everybody grow. That cutthroat thing, it doesn’t really exist here. For sure it exists in some kitchens, I’m not saying everything is perfect and everyone is beautiful, but do I know those people? Have I worked there? Have I worked with them? Fortunately for me, no.
Where does Cheryl Johnson eat in Montreal?
I’m pretty boring, I go to the same places all the time! L’Express, it just makes you feel good. The Plaza is built on the idea of L’Express — the way the menu is kind of set up is the same. Jun I. Paloma, especially because she [Rosalie Forcherio] is one of ours who has started to spread her wings. Moccione. Those are my go-tos.