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Chef Dominique Dufour honed her talent as part of the Culinary Arts program at Toronto’s George Brown College, and supported it by working every role in a kitchen, from dishwasher to pastry chef de partie.
After completing global stages in England and the United Kingdom, Chef Dufour was humbled by a trip to the Yukon, where she learned the hard truth about how difficult food production in her own country could be. So, she opened Gray Jay Hospitality, with a menu featuring all-Canadian food. Eight months later, the pandemic hit.
We sat down with Chef Dufour to find out more about how she pivoted to keep her newly opened establishment alive and connected to the Ottawa community.
Could you describe how the larger Ottawa culinary community reacted to the pandemic? What actions did your team take?
When the pandemic hit, the first reaction of most restaurants was to be extremely cautious. Most people took a step back for the first few weeks to accept the magnitude of the situation, gage how people were going to react and understand what the demand was going to be for restaurants.
We started right out of the gate with take-home baskets. We're a very small family owned business and we wanted to be there for our guests in such trying times. Our first offering was a very comforting bone broth soup and other items you'd want to eat on a cold March day to feel better.
This was also a way for us to keep connected with our neighbourhood and client base, all while trying to retain relationships.
What did your day-to-day role entail before the pandemic, and how has it evolved since?
My role went from kitchen-only to creating baskets for holidays and handling reservations. We became a two-man team, my husband and I. We tried to create new programs to adapt to the situation. It required a new reservation system, a process for food delivery, orders over the phone and contactless payment.
It was a “wearing many hats” kind of situation while also trying to stay on top of the news, which kept evolving so quickly. We had only been open eight months when the March closures happened, so we celebrated our one-year anniversary when we still weren't really open to the public. Basically, a third of our first year was spent within this pandemic, but we did our best to pivot.
Instead of in-restaurant dining, you continue to offer your dine-in menu for takeout. Did you make any major changes to achieve this?
Before the pandemic, our focus was exclusively on Canadian food and our techniques were a little more complex. When we reopened, availability was paramount to our strategy. We wanted our food to be accessible whether our guests felt comfortable dining in or wanted to take food home.
We had to make some changes in the sense that some dishes from our previous menu wouldn't travel very well. Also, using only Canadian ingredients meant they changed very quickly with seasons and availability. For those reasons, no dishes on this menu were on the previous one.
We also created new versions of our desserts. For example, we have a dessert a la carte with ice cream sorbet on it. Instead, we created a sturdy whipped custard for delivery so that it could travel without melting.
What was it like for your team once you were permitted to reopen?
It was a slow build-up. As you're forming your patio and getting ready to re-open, you think, "Okay, we're going to open our doors, it's going to be exciting and people will support us right away: one hundred percent." That wasn't the case for us.
It wasn't that people weren't willing to come, but they still had a certain amount of fear. It also takes a while for the public to realize who's open and who's not, since everyone is still navigating the pandemic. With so much information to take in on all sides, it was hard for our opening to be properly distributed.
With my staff, every time someone had a cough, we were over-conscious about staying home. In the past you'd push through and go to work with a sore throat or a small cough, but not anymore. If you think you’re exposed to COVID, you go get tested.
What changes will you implement at Gray Jay to keep your new business model sustainable?
We are working to reopen the inside. It's going to take another adjustment and period of adaptation. We're also trying to be very aware of how our guests feel about the situation. At this point, for most businesses, it’s a question of dialogue. You need to be open with people, see where they are and learn what they're comfortable with.
We're currently working with another local business to do condiment boxes with online recipes over the winter months. People can give these as gifts for birthdays, Christmas and special occasions and cook with our house-made condiments at home. We're also starting to do online events for corporate groups where we send out recipe cards, necessary ingredients and wine pairings. People go to an online link and receive a cooking class over an hour in their own kitchen.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give restaurant owners in the process of reopening their business.
Listen: if you know your guests, you know how they feel. Ask questions and think outside of the box. Sometimes, the answer doesn't lie where it used to. You might need to search.
Given the current evolution of our country’s foodservice industry, what are some changes you’d like to see for it to bounce back?
I would like to see restaurants charge actual prices for their food. Unfortunately, I think a lot of people are undercutting in the industry. They tend to try and match what perceived value is as opposed to what the actual value is.
It’s also time for our labour force to be paid a decent living wage and for restaurants to increase their profit margins. They're razor-thin at the moment and I don't think it's the best way to operate.
Guests are a part of this equation as well. They may have to change how they think about dining out.