Behind-The-Line with Riviera’s Executive Chef

March 11 2020

Do you believe in love at first sight? That was the case for Ottawa Chef Justin Holley and his business partner Matthew Carmichael with their third restaurant, Riviera. After successfully opening and running El Camino, a taco and tequila bar and Datsun, a shareable Asian fusion establishment, the chefs happened upon a unique space, leading to an immediate connection with their latest cuisine concept.

We recently spoke to Chef Holley about how they brought this third restaurant to life, and how he plans to cement its place as a capital city staple.

Riviera is the third restaurant collaboration with your business partner, Matthew Carmichael. Share with us what inspired you to open this establishment?

The two of us wanted to open up a restaurant where we would like to eat and serve the kind of foods that we enjoy cooking. As soon as we walked through the space we were inspired with ideas and what we wanted to create in there. Given that it’s such a classic and timeless atmosphere, we decided to stick to classic dishes. 

Your menu at Riviera has been defined as “new Canadian cuisine with Mediterranean hints.” Describe your flavour process for developing this menu style and how it came to fruition. 

I like to work pretty closely with farmers and fishermen, as we all do. I have some really good friends who are growing a lot of cool ingredients and always like to support them at Riviera.

As for the Mediterranean influence, I have a pretty extensive background in Italian food, so we have a great pasta program here. You'll generally see a little Italian influence in all of our main dishes and in some of our starters. 

For the winter, we're running a Classic Ragu Bolognese on Tagliatelle, but we do it with red deer rather than veal or pork. We make our own pancetta and grind it into the dish as well. 

Overall, we like to do subtle hints of Mediterranean influences to inspire our classic dishes.

Seasonality is at the forefront of Riviera’s food philosophy. How does this impact the frequency of your menu changes and the dishes that you create?

With thirty dishes on the menu, it’s too stressful to do a complete menu overhaul on a regular basis. Instead, you might see one dish be taken off the menu and then come back, or it might be replaced based on the ingredients coming in. For example, I'm not going to serve tomatoes in January or February. So, with something like our parotta, we're making it with persimmons now which are phenomenal this time of year as they come to their end. 

In what ways do you adjust your cooking and flavour techniques to accommodate seasonality limitations?

We only use old school traditional techniques like roasting, braising and searing. We're never going to sous vide ingredients or take on a modernized approach like this. Similar to our dishes, we like to keep our techniques classic.

From earning a spot-on Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants List to being named one of enRoute Magazine’s top 10 Restaurants, Riviera has received a number of accolades since opening its doors. How would you like to see your restaurant continue to evolve in the coming years?

I think my partners and I have would like to see Riviera as a staple and cornerstone in the Ottawa dining scene. We get a lot of our inspiration from restaurants like L'Express in Montreal, which has been around for forty years because they stick to what they do and do it well. We've been open almost four years and it hasn't slowed down since, which is great. 

One piece of advice that you would give a chef looking to open a restaurant in Ottawa.

Don't be afraid to do you. Don't try to be somebody else.