When it comes to the bright lights in Ottawa’s culinary scene, several young stars are blazing new trails and earning accolades for the inventive dining experiences they offer. Their success is credited to a network of supporters within the city’s restaurant industry.
Coco and Marlo De Leo—√Ę‚ā¨¬®DreamLand Café
Sisters Coco (22) and Marlo (21) De Leo may be young but they have an abundance of passion and talent, as evidenced by the success of their Preston Street eatery, DreamLand Café. Coco started working in the kitchen at Westboro’s Fratelli at age 16, and found the restaurant industry to be an appealing career path. Meanwhile, Marlo worked as a hostess and bartender, honing her front of house skills.
Armed with recipes from their beloved nonna and a keen appreciation for what it takes to delight diners, they made their vision of owning a restaurant come true with DreamLand Café, which serves up old-school Italian food with a twist. “Many of our regulars are people who have travelled to Italy and they say our food is as good or better than what they had there, which is really gratifying,” says Coco.
Coco’s time at the Culinary Institute of Canada in P.E.I. was worthwhile, but she preferred to keep learning by getting back into the kitchen full time. Their parents have always been entrepreneurs, so the young restaurateurs count on them and a great accountant as sounding boards, as well as their treasured mentor Pasquale Valente, the patriarch of the clan that owns Fratelli restaurants. “His enduring passion shows me this business is sustainable in the long term,” says Coco.
Marlo sees distinct advantages of youth. “I have no other commitments like kids or a mortgage, so I can just focus on myself and the business. I also have the energy to make sure that every guest has the best possible experience.” Coco agrees and adds, “We have a different take on how to run a restaurant and we also put a lot of emphasis on making sure our staff feels safe and valued.”
Dominique Dufour—Gray Jay Hospitality
Just 30 years old when she recently opened Gray Jay Hospitality in Little Italy, Dominique Dufour has a list of culinary triumphs that might give one reason to think she is far older. The Montreal native, who attended culinary school at George Brown College, toyed with the idea of joining the fashion industry before realizing food was her true passion.
She’s worked in numerous establishments across Canada, including a treasured stint in the Yukon, as well as in England and Spain. Dominique was also the co-founder of Les Femmes Chefs de Montréal, an association aimed at showcasing the contributions of female chefs and producers and creating a level playing field for all chefs, regardless of gender.
Dominique was an ideal fit when recruited last year to open Norca, the stylish restaurant at Ottawa’s chic Le Germain boutique hotel, where she leveraged her locavore philosophy to devise a menu focused exclusively on produce and proteins from Canada. Once Norca was running smoothly, she was ready to open her own place. “My partner Devon Bionda and I chose to stay in Ottawa and open Gray Jay because we found the culinary community so supportive and we really like the quality of life here. We bike to work and can forage close to home.”
Named after Canada’s national bird which is known for being friendly, the restaurant’s approach is to serve reasonably-priced, crave-worthy dishes with great wines and cocktails in a laid-back environment. The focus is on hyper-local ingredients and a chef’s table concept makes the experience more personal and memorable.
Dominique cites Steve and Jen Wall at Supply and Demand as being very inspiring, both in terms of their food and the atmosphere they have created. Marisol Foucault at Edgar and Yannick LaSalle at Les Fougères are two other local chefs she admires greatly.
“A chef once told me something invaluable, which was to be sure to take time to look inwards not just outwards,” she offers as advice to aspiring young chefs. “Don’t let what other people are doing be too much of a distraction.”
Phil Cameron—√Ę‚ā¨¬®German Embassy
A self-proclaimed lover of eating plus an injury which cut short a promising career in basketball drove Phil Cameron, now 26 years old, towards the culinary industry. “When I started cooking often for myself, I discovered how much I loved it so I decided to enroll in the culinary program at La Cité collégiale,” he recalls.
Phil’s carefully-structured career has included stints at the Chateau Laurier and House of Commons. He’s now head chef at the German Ambassador’s residence where he also serves as residence manager. On the side, he works as a personal chef for hire and is an apprentice member of Culinary Team Canada which competes in prestigious international competitions. plus a regular volunteer at the Ottawa Mission and occasional teacher at La Cité.
While the combination of long hours at the embassy plus all his volunteer work can be overwhelming, Phil says he wouldn’t change a thing, especially while he is young, energetic and doesn’t yet have a family. His youth means he sometimes is not taken seriously, but he loves proving the doubters wrong as he continues to prepare himself for the future. “I would love to become one of the competing chefs on Team Canada and maybe one day open a restaurant,” he notes.
His list of valued mentors includes two from the House of Commons: Chef Judson Simpson and sous chef Robert Graveline, whom he respects for his ability to balance work and family. He admires Chef Ric of the Ottawa Mission for giving so much to others and president of the Ottawa chapter of the Canadian Culinary Federation, Chef Janik Quintal of St. Albert Cheese, regularly offers valued guidance. Chef Louis Charest at Rideau Hall inspires Phil with his imagination and innovation.
Phil believes being a chef is the best job in the world but going in, people need to accept that it involves a lot of sacrifices, including foregoing sleep and a social life. “If you are passionate then go for it but consider formal training to learn proper techniques. Most importantly, put your ego aside and recognize that you will always have things to learn in this industry.”