Emma Adamski is the leader of the pack | Food | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

Emma Adamski is the leader
of the pack

An innovative entrepreneur and total visionary, the Cafe Good Luck and Dairy Bar owner’s approach to food and business is making us all “cool by association.”

Emma Adamski is the leader  of the pack
“I think people are really drawn to humble food,” says Adamski.

Emma Adamski is an animated talker. She laughs a lot, doesn't take herself too seriously. But as laid-back and playful as she is, she's equally intense about her job. She's passionate about food, about co-workers. She's a hard worker, a doer. "The way that I feel about it is that if I can do it, you can do it," Adamski says. "Wanting it enough to really make it work is what it comes down to."

It's Monday morning and Cafe Good Luck is closed. Adamski is relaxed, wearing an oversized North Brewing sweatshirt, her hair pulled up in a loose, loopy ponytail. She slides two coffees onto the table, white milk glass Spring Blossom Pyrex mugs—the ones with the green band of flowers that run around the top. You know the mug. Your mom drank coffee out of one of these mugs. The cafe smells like butter and cinnamon: Bakers Zach Faye and Justine Rafuse are in the kitchen testing recipes and doing prep work for the Tuesday morning crowd. There is music playing, and every now and then tinkles of laughter spill out from the kitchen. 

As we chat, her business partners fall into their Monday routines. Graham Read is tucked into a nearby table doing some work on a laptop. Sonny Adamski wanders through to the kitchen and then back again, stopping by to check in with Emma on the cafe's grocery list. They need white onions. They also need shrimp. They don't need bacon, there is already lots of bacon. The entire vibe is like Adamski's loose ponytail: Totally pulled together, but very relaxed.

Life ain't easy for a young restaurateur. It's not easy for young people in general. Baby boomers have put a lot of effort into making sure that you can, in fact, take it with you when you go. While you can't entirely blame people for wanting to remain in the workforce, especially in this economic climate, later retirements and less availability of well-paying jobs for graduates means that making it—it being not just a living, but life in general—work, has perhaps never been more complicated. Climb the ladder of success, they say, Ayn Rand novels in their back pockets. But what do you do when traditional career ladders have turned into Penrose staircases?

Sure, the dream for a young cook is obviously that you go to culinary school and then you turn to page 88 in the Choose Your Own Adventure that is life and suddenly you're Nigella Lawson or David Chang. But usually you end up on page 36 and A door to your right flies open, throwing a brilliant shaft of light into the corridor. Suddenly you are surrounded by a circle of snarling chimpanzees. They begin to close in. The end. OK, that is actually an ending to Choose Your Own Adventures #15: House of Danger. But, frankly, it is also the restaurant industry. 

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For those working in food, the rungs of a career ladder include trudging away as a prep cook while a watered-down Gordon Ramsay shouts at you until you climb up a rung to the line, where you will be shouted at some more.

Old-guard chefs and restaurateurs still demand dues to be paid. Walk the 10 miles they walked uphill in the snow, tick all the boxes and maybe then you'll deserve a place at the table. Maybe.

For 28-year-old Adamski, it made more sense to just make her own table.

"I kind of just already knew from being in school and even just knowing all the superficial things I knew about kitchen culture that I wasn't going to feel super comfortable long-term in that kind of environment," she says. "I was like, I could tough this out while I'm young and resilient but after a while...fuck. You hear just like horror stories from everybody, you constantly are just told how hard of a job it is how you are never going to make money, blah blah blah."

Things just aren't as complicated or difficult as people outside of an industry are led to believe, Adamski says.

"None of this is rocket science, none of it is that hard. It's just guarded information. And it's just like the more that it gets out there and the more workplaces are diversified it's better for everyone." Entrepreneurs like Toronto restaurateur Jen Agg, who started her first business at the age of 21, have been a definite inspiration. "Maybe it's more of a personality thing: Knowing I won't fit into anywhere around here in the industry I want to work in so deciding to make my own environment. I think that's been more my goal than to make any greater statement."

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Clockwise from left: Adamski’s zucchini blossom poppers, cucumber and peashoot salad with garam masala yogurt, classic three-fold French omelette with gruyere and herbs (and Birdie’s Bread Co. sourdough) and shrimp toast.

There is no adorably pat, Food Network-friendly back-story for Emma Adamski. No black-and-white vignette of foraging for mushrooms as a toddler or quaint family lore about being raised like bread in a bakery. She grew up in the southern United States before moving from Arizona to Nova Scotia at the age of 12. Her father honed what skills he had in a firehouse kitchen in Ann Arbour, Michigan.

"I can't remember how many firefighters were in their house but everybody had their speciality, their recipe. My dad became known for being the resourceful dude," she says. "So I grew up seeing my dad cobble together delicious things: I'd be like 'Dad, what did you marinate this chicken in?' and he'd be like 'Diet Coke, orange juice, grainy mustard and a little bit of liquid smoke.' Nothing was off the table. He definitely had a passion for cooking in a creative way, not just in a gotta-put-supper-on-the-table way, and I was always included, especially when I got older."

She laughs at the flip side: "My mom has her four recipes that she makes. She makes them at Christmastime. She loves Hello Fresh."

Adamski herself has become known for being a resourceful dude. She is capable, creative and bright, one of the most enterprising young people in Halifax's food community. Beyond the business acumen she shares with her partners at Manual Food and Drink Co., she has a rare talent for cookery. And for anticipating what people want to eat. As Chris Reynolds, co-owner of Stillwell, says, "She's a fucking wizard!" 

Her first job was at Dee Dee's Ice Cream in Peggys Cove when she was 15. After a foundational year at King's in 2009, she knew that an academic environment and career wasn't something she was interested in. She had enjoyed the work at Dee Dee's, so thought the culinary program could be a fit and enrolled in NSCC's two-year culinary arts program. Adamski realized a few things: "I love being on my feet all day. I love making things. I actually may be better at this than I thought I was."

After attending NSCC, she worked in several industry jobs: Her first fine-dining job was at Stories at The Halliburton Hotel. She also worked front of house at Lion and Bright, as a line cook at La Frasca and creating desserts at Field Guide. It was after six months working with Frederic Tandy at Ratinaud—"It wasn't a stage, it was paid, but it was like 'you're here to learn a few things and then you'll be moving on'"—that something crystallized for her.

"That experience really showed me what you could do with a low-key set up with a really simple pantry and nice quality simple ingredients," she says. "And he was young and had worked his own way up in the industry and that was something I wanted to do myself. It showed me there were a lot of things you can do in the food industry that isn't just a kitchen warrior/line cook kind of thing."

"I have been following Emma closely since the first time we crossed paths when she was doing desserts at Field Guide," Jenna Mooers, owner/operator of north end Halifax's EDNA, says in an email. "I remember it vividly—a French toast doughnut. I believe it was the only dessert I've ever given a round of applause to. Every dish of Emma's since then has followed a similar equation: Her food is well sourced with quality ingredients, the basics are executed flawlessly (think the most heavenly classic pie crust), simple and uncomplicated (think perfect soft scrambled eggs) all with the most lovely air of playfulness (fairy toast with sprinkles or anything from Dairy Bar)."

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"Jenna Mooers is a hero," Adamski says. "She is our literal business mentor. We saw that business from its opening, how thoughtful everything in there was, from the decor to the server station to the depth of the shelves. It was one of the first times locally I had seen somebody that I could tell had prior restaurant experience themselves really crafting the functionality and design of the space."

Mooers says she was thrilled when Emma approached her about a mentorship through Futurpreneur Canada. "I honestly feel like I learned just as much from Emma and her Good Luck team as they learned from me. Maybe that's part of the magic of the mentor/mentee relationship. As an entrepreneur, Emma is highly dedicated and devoted to her businesses, yet she balances that with a great sense of humour and ability to add a sense of playfulness—the same playfulness that shines through her food," she writes. "In the food business, you have to be able to have some fun with it and have a sense of humour–sometimes I think it's what gives entrepreneurs the endurance to persevere."

Downtown Dartmouth's Cafe Good Luck, which will celebrate its first year of business at the beginning of August, is the first year-round restaurant from the Manual Food and Drink Co., a company Adamski started in 2013 with her husband, Sonny. Originally Manual Co. focused on wedding catering and a doughnut subscription service. They were, in fact, one of the very first out of the gate with fancy doughnuts in Halifax. 

In 2016 the pair opened Dairy Bar, a seasonal soft serve ice cream and coffee stand that operates alongside Stillwell Beergarden. "On a surface level I like their approach to hiring, how they manage and interact with their staff, the customer service they deliver," Adamski says of the folks at Stillwell. "They're finding a way to introduce the city to things that maybe people aren't necessarily ready for; they are kind of the sacrificial lamb so everyone else can do it in the next five years."

The two businesses working together makes sense. Stillwell has been an innovator from day one and Manual Co. also continually shows itself to be ahead of the curve. It's not an overstatement to say that the Stillwell Beergarden and Dairy Bar's soft serve were game-changers in Halifax. Summer wouldn't be what it is today without them. "She knows exactly what she wants and how to get it, which feels rare in the industry," says Reynolds. "There's a level of badassery she seems to carry as well, which makes me feel cool by association."

Adamski doesn't view herself as a bellwether of food. Not just because it's hard to take credit for trends, since they tend to wash up on the shore of Nova Scotia like five-year-old messages in a bottle, but because she is less interested in the external push of what people think is cool than she is in the internal pull of what she herself finds interesting.

"I'm just spending a lot of time educating myself. I have a huge collection of books and magazines. I'm constantly looking every day, not just online but I'm always reading magazines, I'm always going back and looking at old cookbooks. I have binders and binders of recipes," she says. "I'm generally really interested in food culture and everything that is going on in other places around the world. Other people have already solved problems that I'm going to have tomorrow and I feel like I get a lot out of seeing other people in the industry solving those problems. Live, on the internet," she says with a huff of laughter. 

That said, though, Adamski says it can be frustrating to see established businesses wait for young entrepreneurs to take a chance on something new and untested only to essentially turn a new concept into copypasta. "There are benefits to it being a small city because it's almost easier to build up a following and that hype, but it is a bit of an echo chamber. Once something works other people are like 'Oh I'll do that, too' and it takes a bit of wind out of your sails." 

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Just before twilight, there is magic in the light at Cafe Good Luck. The sun streams golden, throwing shadows through plant fronds and around the edges of the curved lettering in the window across the small dining room. Everything becomes pleasantly diffused like an old Polaroid, profiles limned, hair haloed and dust motes dancing around like they're being directed by Joe Wright.

Two years ago, when the Adamskis brought in Graham Read as a third partner, their intent was to build something that felt sort of worn in, comfortable. The result is a cafe that is young and cool, but also feels as comforting and familiar as that Pyrex mug. During brunch and lunch the cafe is jam-packed. In quieter times, when there are only one or two people drinking coffee and snacking on scones, you'll often find Adamski at the booth that sits under that sunny front window, tucking into soup or eggs, sliding a tray of pasta into the perfect light to snap for an Instagram post or sketching out menus in a binder.

Cafe Good Luck's menus are very much a reflection of who Adamski is as a person. "It's not really about being The Most Whatever," Adamski says. "There's definitely a young cook mentality of fussiness, but what I think what people are after now is more simple. I think as people become more interested in cooking and eating good food at home, they like eating things and seeing things at restaurants that they could tangibly also make for themselves. I think people are really drawn to humble food."

She says she feels weird calling herself a chef sometimes, the idea that "you have to have had this specific resume to qualify as that category of person" still resonating on some level. "I do spend a lot of time questioning and doubting whether or not I have enough experience to be doing what I'm doing," Adamski says. "And it's not like I'm doing it and it's all going great. It is a struggle. And I'm sure that with 15 more years' experience under my belt it would be..." she pauses, mid-thought. "No, there would just be different struggles."

"Funny, she sometimes (kindly) says she looks up to we at Stillwell as young entrepreneurs but last time we sat down together it was I seeking her advice," says Reynolds in an email. He calls Adamski "someone who's thoughtful and wise. Someone who has fun at work but also gets deadly serious when she needs to be, when something isn't good enough. Not suffering fools (for long) is an admirable thing about her, too. She also runs the best cafe in the city."

After launching a dinner service three nights a week, Adamski is transitioning out of the Cafe Good Luck kitchen somewhat. The restaurant has brought on Janie Bogardus, formerly chef de cuisine at The Watch That Ends the Night. She will now focus on the cafe's week-day and brunch menus, allowing Adamski to focus on dinner service and the baking and pastry program. "I'm sort of at the point where I'm kind of done being in the kitchen all the time. I know I'm always going to want to do that at least a little bit but I'm more interested in exploring the business side of the industry."

The business side of Manual Food and Drink Co. has been a huge priority for Adamski, especially her attempt to create a space where everybody is happy: Customers feel welcome and staff feel safe. "I'm very much still learning how to be a boss and I think that's where a lot of my emotional and mental energy goes into is doubting my leadership abilities," Adamski says, adding that it's important to stay connected to the day-to-day operations. 

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Adamski is adamant that the reason why her kitchen operates so well is because of her staff, that a lot of what happens at Cafe Good Luck happens not because she does it, but because she is open to their good ideas and how they can express their own talents.

"If you let yourself be vulnerable, if you're open to learning and receiving feedback and criticism and everybody is pretty honest about what they are thinking and feeling...I like that and have definitely benefited from that as an employer," she says. "And I know a lot of my staff have had jobs at other places where they could have been doing this stuff there but their employer was maybe threatened by them or didn't give them the opportunities or resources or skills to do it."

She says she's still working on being a consistently present boss. It's another thing that she wants enough to make it work.

"I think just trying to be understanding of the fact that people are people and this is their job and while I want everyone to be as passionate and into it and excited as I am—there's no possible way anyone will ever be as invested in this kitchen as I am.

"And I can't expect that of them, and I can't expect them to put this place above their personal lives or their safety or their well-being, because honestly I can't afford to pay them enough to do that. Also: They shouldn't have to." 

Melissa Buote is a contributing editor at The Coast and five seconds away from getting a restraining order from Orville Peck because she posts drawings of him all day on Twitter.

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