Chef Natalie Rosen is making crabcakes, salad, and ginger cookies. Not for the guests of Fawn, an upscale yet casual downtown Halifax restaurant she co-owns, but for the staff. Many restaurants provide staff meals, but rarely are they this good. Three Halifax women own Fawn, where they aim to provide diners with excellent food in a lovely place, and to give staff a more genial workplace than they might expect.

Rosen and two other cooks are in the “rave cave,” a downstairs preparation area with white walls, no windows, and music. (The noise cannot be heard from the dining room.) With a familiar grace, Rosen slides the crabcakes into the fridge. “They’ll be happiest in half an hour,” she says, and heads upstairs to the kitchen – her main turf.

Half an hour later, Rosen and a cook work together, dunking the crabcakes in egg yolks, then into homemade breadcrumbs. Soon it’s time to start the cookies. After combining the dry ingredients, she takes her phone out to scroll through the day’s reviews. Her eyebrows raise and slightly pursed lips widen to a smile.

“We’re popular!” she sings.

“I don’t know how you do that so casually,” a cook says.


“Read reviews.” Looking at reviews, he says, makes him nervous. When you hear someone doesn’t like the food you put so much work into, it stings.

Rosen is keenly listening, a look of concentration on her face. She is one of the three owners of Fawn, a restaurant founded on an unusual She says that the more you practice, and the better you know your recipes, the easier it is to know if a bad review is truthful or a case of differing tastes. “It comes,” she says with a shrug, “with confidence.”

People who grow up with a childhood like Rosen’s often have degrees, work on Bay Street, maybe perform open heart surgeries. She was on that trajectory. Rosen wanted to be a doctor and make heaps of money. If she spent as much time on lawyering or doctoring as she does working at Fawn, she’d be a millionaire. But that’s not what she wants.

Rosen went to a private school that prioritized independence and free thinking. At home she was exposed to different kinds of great foods. Her father, Jeff Rosen, is an artist and founding creative partner of WildBrain (formerly DHX Media), a kids’ content company home to TV programs like Inspector Gadget and the Teletubbies. He was even a primary writer on Theodore Tugboat. Natalie Rosen, meanwhile, at 14 began working in cafés making paninis and baked goodies. It was a good way to get cooking.

Rosen’s mother, Dorothée Rosen, cooked close to three full meals a day for her family while Natalie was growing up. She just liked doing it. Her mom was particularly interested in the more scientific side: where the food comes from and how it’s created. As soon as Rosen was able, she was in the kitchen right next to her mother, learning and creating. A photo shows her as a toddler standing on a stool reaching up to the kitchen counter to help. She didn’t just cook with her mom, either. As kids, Natalie and her sister Emma would create cooking shows on their family tape recorder. Her mom still makes meals for Natalie, in a house she can see from her own.

After graduating high school, Rosen began her ascent to medical glory by studying psychology at Mount Allison University. But after two years she dropped out. Confused and directionless, Rosen got a one-way ticket to Europe. She stayed in a crammed hostel in Paris, planning to live off her café savings from the past six years. One day she was wandering the dreamy city streets when she stumbled on Le Cordon Bleu, a prestigious culinary school. Intrigued, she walked inside. Rosen was taken aback for a moment; the space is gorgeous, with all its French grandeur. There’s even a café in the lobby. She went to the reception desk and said, “Hi, I’m wondering if you do tours?”

The receptionist said yes, of course.

“Right now?” Rosen asks.

“Actually, yes.”

Natalie joined a tour group making its way through impressive kitchens and immaculate classrooms. For years, Natalie had been insisting that she would find a high paying, non-cooking job where she could make an impact. But at Le Cordon Bleu, everything felt right. It was everything she loves about cooking, magnified: the organization, the control, the creation. On the streets of Paris, tour completed, she bursts into tears.

Back home in Halifax she decided, that’s it: I am going to be a chef.

When people think of chefs they often think of a red-faced and angry Gordon Ramsay, screaming his head off at some poor cook on the edge of tears. And while those reality TV antics are often overblown, they portray an unfortunate truth.

Generally, kitchens are boys’ clubs that operate with little oversight. In 2018, the Canadian Press reported that about 60 per cent of Canada’s chefs and cooks were men, while 70 per cent of restaurant support workers – mainly servers – were women. Men and women are evenly split among North American culinary students, yet that isn’t reflected inside professional kitchens. One reason is that it can be easier to survive a kitchen shift as a man.

It is often hard to be a female cook. Plenty of restaurant workers could tell you a nightmare story about a chef. At another restaurant in Halifax, a cook slapped a woman’s behind so hard that the whole kitchen fell silent, then began to laugh. The Harvard Business Review in 2018 called sexual harassment in the restaurant industry “pervasive,” and estimated that 90 per cent of women staffers and 70 per cent of male staffers had been harassed at least once. Lewd comments, inappropriate jokes, and flat-out misogyny is the reality in too many kitchens. Women cooks don’t want to be accused of being a bad team player if they speak up, and male counterparts don’t want to be labelled killjoys for standing up for them. Many kitchens have a culture of “locker room talk” supported by collective silence.

Rosen is helping to change that. When she became chef at Field Guide, a Gottingen Street restaurant owned by her Fawn co-owners Katie Tower and Ceilidh Sutherland, she knew exactly the kind of boss she did not want to be. Rosen doesn’t want to yell at anyone. She doesn’t want to make them uncomfortable. She never wants to make someone feel like they don’t belong. She wants them to have fun. Her personal motto is “cultivating kindness in kitchens.”

By all accounts, she is. In calm moments after a rush of orders, Rosen checks in. Have all the cooks had water? When was the last time they’ve eaten? Do they need a little break before the madness starts all over again? Rosen is the first to admit she’s a little tougher on the men in her kitchen, but “tough” means something different to her than some others in the industry. “Tough” is a gentle reminder that he doesn’t have time right now for chit-chat.

“Tough” is saying, “Hey, are you keeping an eye on that?” to a cook who is multi-tasking.

“Tough” is being serious and clear, but never mean.

Designing the kitchen for Fawn, Rosen knew she wanted to see the dining room. She also wanted to see outside. She’s a believer in the right to light, the idea that during a shift workers should be able to see sunlight. The kitchen at Fawn has a large, rectangular window onto the dining room and out the windows onto South Park Street and the Public Gardens.

“That was the biggest thing for me,” she says. “I will never work in a closed kitchen ever again. I think it breeds bad behaviour.”

Her cooks agree. One said he couldn’t imagine working in another kitchen, and not just because of the light. This, he says, is the best managed kitchen he has ever known.

Sunday high tea begins in 10 minutes. Rosen is flitting around the kitchen, checking this, tasting that. This is home base.

In one corner of the kitchen, essential information is pinned on the walls where both cooks and servers can see it. A seating chart of the dining room is divided into sections named after the Spice Girls. The section up a flight of stairs is called Sporty Spice. Posh Spice is the corner of the dining room where a massive blue and red abstract painting, painted by Rosen’s father, hangs above a luxurious curved red velvet booth.

Fawn is the only restaurant in Halifax that offers high tea. Pitched to the owners by staff – who presented the idea as a PowerPoint presentation – high tea has quickly become Fawn’s most popular service. “It actually probably saved us,” Rosen says.

High tea at the Fawn in Halifax.
caption High tea consists of sandwiches, sweets and cookies.
Chatlotte McConkey

In winter, restaurants can become ghost towns. Exhausted from all the pomp and pageantry of the holiday season, customers in January and February often stay home. The biggest respite is offered on Valentine’s Day, when occasion diners show up in full force.

But today, a couple weeks before Valentine’s, Fawn is pretty busy. In the dining room there is a baby shower, a group of girls, and a few couples on dates. Cooks roll up slices of cured salmon and stick them upright onto a buckwheat pancake (called a blini) using crème fraiche. Rosen is piping devilled egg mix into the awaiting whites, gingerly separating the yolk from the piping bag with her finger. Cooks stack the delights onto a decorative plate tower made of vintage English china. And get this: one of the servers made a couple of towers by drilling holes in the middle of plates, then gluing a metal rod down the middle. She wasn’t on the clock when she made them; she did it in her spare time.

This is a common theme at Fawn. Staff appear to genuinely enjoy their work – and because they feel so dedicated to the place, they spend spare time thinking up new ways to contribute. Even if that’s bringing in a little treat for everyone on shift. Rosen and her two co-owners have purposefully cultivated this environment. Servers can wear whatever they want to show off their personalities. But it is their tipping system that really sets Fawn apart.

In the restaurant industry, it’s generally believed that servers are entitled to the greatest share of the tips because they are the ones doing table service. Rosen acknowledges that it’s difficult to be a server; they need great problem-solving skills and do a lot of emotional labour. On the other hand, kitchen jobs are immensely physical. It’s intense, you need to be productive, and it is a lot of pressure. Expectations for the kitchen are high. Still, at a typical restaurant the servers might take home up to 90 per cent of tips, leaving as little as 10 per cent for the kitchen.

At Fawn, it is one team, one dream. Tips are divided equitably. The owners’ goal is to pay everyone a livable wage. So while the dishwashers make more in tips than probably anywhere else in Nova Scotia, the servers are making less. For the most part, staff understand. If you don’t share the owners’ philosophy that everyone deserves to make an equitable, living wage, Fawn probably isn’t the workplace for you.

February 12 was a Monday. Less than two weeks ago, Nova Scotia was pummeled with its worst snowstorm in 20 years. Now the forecast says up to 30 centimetres are coming tomorrow. Rosen is standing on her icy driveway when she slips, her legs swing beneath her, she falls back – and hears a crack. She lies on the ground for 10 minutes, held down by pain.
At the hospital Natalie’s mother, Dorothée, cannot believe that her daughter is so calm. In the waiting room, and later in a hospital room, she asks the doctors and nurses if they’re doing alright, if they need to eat or drink. They’re having a long night, too. After a few hours, x-rays reveal a broken elbow. Natalie goes home, where she doesn’t get a second of sleep. In the morning she’s supposed to be preparing for Valentine’s Day! How is she supposed to cook with one arm?

Exhausted and in pain, Rosen gets to Fawn a little after noon. She’s got her Yankees hat on and her red hair in a messy, low bun. Most of the staff already know; last night at the hospital Rosen sent a message to the kitchen group chat. She let them know quickly because someone would have to cover her shifts. Everyone volunteered.

Sitting at her desk in the office, Rosen opens a pill bottle by pressing it against her chin and turning. She takes a painkiller and goes back to her laptop, continuing to move the schedule around, tapping the keyboard with her right hand while her left arm hangs in a sling. When her sous chef Sarah Allen arrives, they joke a bit about the accident. Then it’s right down to business. The brioche needs to be made today; Rosen will send her the recipe. Allen assures Rosen they’ll survive without her tomorrow, that she should stay home and rest. Rosen can’t really think about that right now, though. They still have so much work to do.

On Valentine’s Day, Rosen trades her chef whites for a yellow striped T-shirt with a ruffled hem. A black apron is tied around her back and neck, her slinged left arm tucked inside. It will be too hectic for her to work in the kitchen tonight, but she can help prepare now, a few hours before the first dinner reservations arrive.

In the rave cave she kneads together the ingredients for gnocchi. It’s quiet and she’s working silently, consumed by the task in front of her. Even with one arm it looks natural. She lifts the mixing bowl, dumps out the dough, and kneads. Cuts the ball of dough into sections. Rolls the sections into strips. Finally, she cuts them to inch-wide pieces. From the kitchen sous chef Sarah Allen can be heard asking the cooks if they are feeling okay and if they need a quick drink of water.

On Rosen’s left forearm is a tattoo of a few words in German from a lullaby her mother used to sing: alles wieder gut. Everything will return to goodness.

Editor's Note

This article first appeared in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald on March 8, 2024.

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About the author

Charlotte McConkey

In May 2024 Charlotte will graduate from King's with a Bachelor of Journalism degree.

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