A new high-profile restaurant being announced always piques the interest of Ottawa foodies, but the announcement of chef Justin Champagne’s Perch is especially intriguing. Champagne, previously sous-chef at lauded Ottawa restaurant Atelier before becoming chef de cuisine at Bar Lupulus, boasts quite the culinary pedigree. His unique approach to ingredients and technique makes his food stand out among the finest in the city.
“I’ve been really fortunate to have been granted a lot of freedom to create in my last few positions,” he says. “This is the next step for me, to create an entire atmosphere and culture. A whole living, breathing restaurant. It’s exciting and terrifying all at once.”
While Champagne has been present for the opening of several restaurants, this will be his first as chef-owner. Adding to the pressure is the location, 300 Preston Street, which until recently housed another acclaimed Ottawa restaurant, Gray Jay. They, in turn, are moving to 221 Echo Drive, the former Canal Royal Oak.
“I can’t begin to express what I owe to Dominique [Dufour] and Devon [Bionda],” Champagne says, referring to Gray Jay’s ownership duo. “They’ve been so helpful during this transition. They really care about the Ottawa restaurant scene and have made it so I won’t have to do much to get up and running. I hope to honour them, both in the way we inhabit the space and by paying their kindness forward someday.”
The name Perch is indeed part of that homage. While it does refer to the local (and delicious) fish, it also refers to the fact that Gray Jay has taken flight from there, its original home, leaving it open for the fledgling predecessor to find its wings.
“I was walking my dog when I came up with the name,” says Champagne. “We were across the street from the restaurant, before the deal was finalized. I was kind of willing it to happen, and the name just popped into my head. Everyone I shared it with loved it.”
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He says not much will have to be done to the space to convert it into his vision. “It’s already such a well-designed restaurant; most of the tweaks will just be cosmetic.”
One tweak that will be slightly more than cosmetic will be the lowering of the kitchen pass to allow diners seated opposite a better view of the cooking and to allow cooks to directly serve their guests. “I really want the cooks to have the experience of seeing the guests’ faces when they receive their plates. I think cooks really benefit from seeing those reactions.”
Doing things that will benefit the staff is at the core of Perch’s values. That’s part of what Champagne refers to when he talks about sustainability.
“It’s not just the ingredients, although we’ll be sourcing those as carefully as possible, with an eye towards the highest quality we can get,” says Champagne. “We want to be sustainable in all things. I want our staff to be sustained, not just on the days they work, but in their lives. A true work-life balance, with an added nod towards maintaining good mental health.”
Champagne admits he doesn’t yet entirely know what that will look like, but vows to have open dialogues with staff and to figure it out, day-by-day.
“That’s another big part of our ethos, to get a bit better every day. We won’t just apply that to the food or dining experience, but to every facet of the business.”
It also means Champagne has an eye on the future and the footprint of the restaurant long before the doors are set to open.
“Composting properly is something I’d really like to implement. If I can, I hope to write a composting blueprint for Ottawa restaurants, something we could all do, and benefit from, together.”
“We’ll be doing our best to eliminate waste, trying to produce as little garbage as possible,” Champagne continues. “To that end, I won’t be cooking anything sous-vide. I can’t abide the use of the plastic anymore.” He adds that he hopes to find a sustainable replacement for plastic wrap in the future as well.
Those are all things Perch hopes to do, but what will Perch be?
“The restaurant will be split into two areas,” says Champagne. “The main dining area will be 14 seats for tasting-menu dining. The menu will be five courses for first seating and nine courses for second.” Those seats will be reservation-only, again with a nod to sustainability, so that only the correct amount of food is prepared per service.
“The remaining 14 seats will be the lounge area, for walk-ins where you can enjoy small plates, natural wines, and some funky, kitchen-inspired cocktails. There’ll be a variety of ways to enjoy Perch,” he says.
That’s important to Champagne, as he believes in curating an atmosphere of playful elegance.
“Look, I love caviar, champagne, and tasting menus, but I love jokes, pranks, and humour as well,” he says with a smirk. “I want people to smile as they’re eating. I don’t want the experience to be dry and boring. Make no mistake, it’ll be fine-dining elegance, but with a healthy dose of fun as well.”
If it all sounds ambitious, it should. Champagne is an ambitious chef and restauranteur who loves his industry and his peers. His excitement at finally opening his dream space is infectious and, with all the good things he has planned, one can’t help but root for him.
As the weather gradually begins to cool off in Ottawa, Perch will be heating up, opening sometime this fall. Until then, Ottawa foodies can follow along on Instagram, perched tentatively in front of their screens.