Interview with Chef Dominique Dufour
Chef Dominique Dufour says no to lemons and yes to lichens
Words— Jeremy Freed
Aside from poutine and maple-glazed doughnuts, examples of truly Canadian cuisine can be hard to find. With influences from Indigenous culture, early European settlers and myriad other more recent immigrant groups, Canada’s food traditions have evolved over the centuries without coalescing into a single identifiable genre. An evolution, however, is actively ongoing at Gray Jay, which opened this past summer in Ottawa. Here, chef Dominique Dufour is working on a new definition of national cuisine defined not by any particular cultural tradition but by the land itself. Alongside her partner (in work and life) Damian Bionda, Gray Jay presents artfully plated dishes like PEI mussels served with Saint-Laurent river seaweed salad, and gooseberries with pumpkin, soy and toasted hay, that elevate locally grown and foraged ingredients while celebrating the Canadian terroir. We spoke to Dufour about her craft, her menu and the challenges of cooking without lemons.
Why did you want to open Gray Jay?
If you work for someone else you’re constantly compromising. We just wanted to do something that was truly personal, that came from the heart and was what we wanted to cook, and there’s no way to do that except to do it for yourself.
How would you describe the restaurant’s concept?
Gray Jay is a chef’s table, which means the service is handled by whoever has the most strength in that department. We have sommeliers who go to the tables to talk about wine, and the chefs go to the tables and talk about the food.
What’s on the menu?
The food is entirely Canadian, so we only use fruits, vegetables and protein from Canada. Which means no coffee, no lemons… nothing that’s not made or grown here. We try to put forward the foragers and farmers of the region and we explore the history of Canadian food and our identity through that.
Why did you think an all-Canadian menu was a good idea?
If you look at all of the great cuisines throughout the world—if you look at Italian food, Spanish, French or Japanese, the one common ground they all have is that they exploit what is in season and is all around them. As a young country, Canada doesn’t have a very defined food culture and food identity, and I think that the only way we can achieve that is by reflecting upon what we produce and leaning on that.
Is Ottawa a good place to find local ingredients?
Oh yeah, it’s absolutely fantastic. And we’re always learning about new foragers and people doing microgreens. That’s the beauty of it—that the menus are inspired by the wonderful people we get to meet, and the relationships we create with the farmers are reflected in the food.
Does winter present a challenge to finding ingredients?
In the winter, it’s about diversifying who you get stuff from. There are a few nice greenhouse farms in the region that can provide fresh greens in the winter, but also, if you look back at the roots of Canadian cuisine, there’s so much that revolves around root vegetables and cabbages. We don’t tend to think those are exciting, but they can be. It’s also about planning properly. At the end of the summer, we started preserving to diversify our offerings in the winter, so we’ve been canning, preserving and freezing a lot of the vegetables to use them throughout the winter.
How do you get by without lemons, though?
It’s the hardest for our bartender because so many classic cocktails lean on citrus. Unfortunately for him, we don’t have any intention of bringing in lemons, but once a year we get a harvest from this farm called O Citrus, which is just outside Montreal, and they grow lemons, limes, kefir limes, buddha’s hands and yuzu. They grow it in a greenhouse in Gatineau and they’ve just begun harvesting. We preserve some of those, and I’ll conserve the juice and the rind, and I’ll dehydrate the pulp and the seeds and make extracts out of them. It’s just a question of exploiting properly and being creative.
What’s popular on the menu so far?
So far the most consistent dish has been Labrador scallop and O’Brien beef, with egg yolk, shallots, chanterelles and sea-asparagus. That’s a dish that’s really struck our guests so far so we’ve kept it on the menu by popular demand. But we have a hard time with something being on the menu all the time because we are such a seasonal kitchen.
What ingredients are you excited about this fall?
I’m working with some organic corn producers in Quebec to work with huitlacoche. It’s a fungus that that grows in corn cobs. In Mexico they call it "black gold," and people will pay similar prices to truffles to get this mushroom. We’ve just in Canada started growing a proper amount so chefs can work with it. I also just got a contact from a company in Nunavut that has shrimp and arctic char that I’m really excited to bring in. And it’s the start of wild game season, so we’re going to do wild boar, goose, deer, moose, and try and bring in as much terroir as we can.
How are people responding to some of the weirder things on the menu?
I think that if you come from a place of passion and dedication within your craft people have no problem trying things. We serve smoked oysters with fried lichen and people are willing to try it. And once they try it they get it! It’s just a question of breaking the stereotype of steak and potatoes and a green salad… It’s getting them out of their comfort zone.