Dominique Dufour arrived in Ottawa from Montreal a little over a year ago, to be the opening chef at Norca, the restaurant in Le Germain Hotel. Now she is branching out, soon to open her own restaurant in partnership with her fiancé Devon Bionda, who is also a chef, and a third silent investor.
“It’s like playing skip rope,” says Dufour during a recent conversation. “You’re standing on the sidelines watching the two ropes swoop round and round, waiting for your moment to jump in. This is my moment. When we found this space, Devon and I knew it was the right place.”
The right place is the old Domino’s Pizza store on Preston Street. Dufour and Bionda are stripping it to its bones. The kitchen is gone. Everything is gone, waiting for them to start again, to build their own vision in this long, slim space, which will seat 15 people at the bar and a further 15 to 19 at tables.
And their vision will be something new to Ottawa, much as the creative, different food produced at Norca was new to the dining scene in this city. “We are not planning to do another Norca,” says Dufour. “It’s pointless to repeat.
“The idea of this restaurant will be to bring you closer both to the person who prepares your food and to the food itself. I want guests to talk to the person who actually cooks their food. It’s the whole principle of breaking bread with others.”
To this end, Dufour and Bionda plan that their restaurant, to be called Gray Jay, Canada’s national bird, will be a form of chef’s table, but probably not one you’d expect. If you envision a succession of courses parading from the kitchen, each one chosen by the chef, you’ve got it wrong. At Gray Jay, each chef will be working at a station in the main dining area of the restaurant, interacting directly with guests. “I think we will be forced to be more creative, in tighter spaces with people watching,” says Dufour. “It will be the chefs’ responsibility to thrill and interact with customers.”
Cooking will be done front-of-house. Dufour and her team aim to break down the barriers between food, chef and customer.
Gray Jay will not be offering a set menu, “because for us the element of choice is really important,” explains Dufour, “and we want people to feel really welcome here.”
For now, all that Dufour will give away about the menu is that ingredients will be Canadian (she took the same approach at Norca) and will be strongly seasonal. Bread and charcuterie will be made in-house and there will be an extensive cheese list, much as one expects a wine list. The restaurant will place a great emphasis on wine.
“Kerri Smith, the front of house director at Norca, taught me that wine is food,” says Dufour, “and it is an important catalyst for food.” Everyone who will be working at Gray Jay is getting a WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust) certification and taking an exam in Toronto, to hone their wine knowledge.
Gray Jay will open in early June at 300 Preston St. Parking is plentiful and free after 5.30 on the street, or across the road in the adult high school.