We’d like to take a look at some of the up-and-comers in our Ottawa Food and Beverage scene. These are the people to watch when it comes to local and delicious fare.
Ask around Ottawa what’s the best spot for a dinner out on the town, and North & Navy is sure to come up. The six-year-old Northern Italian restaurant is well-loved by its neighbours and foodies across the city.
North & Navy boasts a well-curated and varied wine list, a comfortable and inviting atmosphere, superb service and, not least of all, delicious food. Certainly, some of the credit for that goes to the kitchen’s secret weapon: Chef de cuisine Eric Chagnon-Zimmerly.
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Born in Ottawa, he discovered his fascination with cooking early on and enrolled in Algonquin College’s suite of culinary programs; Chef Training, Culinary Management and Baking and Pastry Arts.
Shortly after graduating in 2013, he took a senior cook position at Sidedoor under then-chef Jonathan Korecki, whose unique style of cooking and use of worldly ingredients resonated with Chagnon-Zimmerly. At the end of the three-year stint, he was off to Vietnam for a working sabbatical.
“After working for Jon, it was really important that I got out there and experienced a street-food culture firsthand,” he recalls. “I was there for eight months. I really tried to immerse myself in everything that was being cooked and eaten.”
Upon returning to Canada and wishing to expand his knowledge further, Chagnon-Zimmerly took a position in the Jackson-Triggs Niagara Estate cellar during vintage season. This fostered his understanding of wine.
“It was a great experience,” he recalls. “I made a lot of great contacts and got a real hands-on education about wine: Not only how it’s made, but how to cook in harmony with wine. To not overpower, but to harmonize your flavours with the wine, is a skill that’s so important in fine dining.”
Returning to Ottawa in 2018, Chagnon-Zimmerly was faced with uncertainty as the job he had come back for fell through. This would prove to be fortuitous, as a friend put him in contact with Adam Vettorel, head chef at North and Navy.
“I came on at a time when there was a lot of turnover in the kitchen,” he recalls, “so I was able to kind of prove myself right away.”
Indeed, a mere three months after joining the team, Chagnon-Zimmerly was promoted to junior sous-chef. He was immediately fascinated with the restaurant’s in-house curing room, which became a volunteer passion project. “There was a lot of trial and error at first,” he remembers, “but I’m a fastidious note-keeper, so I was really able to track the progression of the salumis I was creating.”
After only a year, Chagnon-Zimmerly was again promoted, this time to sous-chef proper. He had found his feet at NoNa, and his charcuterie program was successful and expanding.
“We started doing what we call ‘Pig Day’ at the restaurant,” he says. “We close for a whole day in October and bring in five to six whole pigs to really kick-start the charcuterie for the year. It’s a real team-building exercise. Anyone, from the cooks to the waitstaff, is welcome to come and learn. Not everyone gets the experience of breaking down a whole animal, so it’s a valuable day.”
Chagnon-Zimmerly is particularly proud of the coppa, pancetta, guanciale, and lonza he and his team produce: “I’m happy with it all, don’t get me wrong, but I think those are the items we’re really nailing.”
When it was internally announced that Vettorel and business partner Chris Schlesak would open a second restaurant, Chagnon-Zimmerly was promoted for a third time, to become North and Navy’s chef de cuisine. The kitchen would run under his watchful eye and he would be responsible for new menu development, as well as all the other duties of a chef.
The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns would have other ideas about that.
With all work on that new restaurant, Cantina Gia, halted, and NoNa’s doors shut, it was up to Chagnon-Zimmerly and Vettorel to close the kitchen and start talking about how to move forward.
“I remember it not seeming real at first,” he recalls. “Adam and I just both showed up at 9am with this manic energy. We started cleaning the kitchen and discussing what to do next.”
These early discussions led to North and Navy being one of the first high-end Ottawa restaurants to offer takeout, paving the way for many others in the industry.
“Looking back, we weren’t thinking about coming out ahead of anyone. It was more about how to save the product, would the community want our takeout—and were we even doing the right thing?”
Finally, as restrictions eased and Vettorel was able to go back to the business of opening a second spot, Chagnon-Zimmerly was able to fully embrace his role as chef de cuisine.
“March of 2021, that’s when it really felt real,” he remembers. “Guests were back in the dining room, and the menu was mostly mine. It’s been a real transition.”
Not only a change of position, he emphasizes, but also of becoming a leader and teacher. “It’s gratifying, seeing your cooks learn and improve. We’re a small team and we’re as close as we’ve ever been. My job isn’t just about being the best cook I can be anymore, it’s about fostering the skills of others, and I really enjoy that.”
Chagnon-Zimmerly isn’t sure what the future holds for him yet. “I’ve learned I like teaching and I’d like to study the anthropology of food,” he says. “Of course, I love working on charcuterie and making fresh pasta, too.” Years ago, he might’ve said he wanted to open his own space.
“Now, though, I know I’ve found a home here at NoNa.”