A long overdue celebration by Aiana Restaurant Collective on Wednesday night served as the perfect reminder that there’s something uniquely special about the downtown core that you’ll rarely ever find in cookie-cutter suburbs and strip malls.
Owner Devinder Chaudhary figuratively rolled out the red carpet for dozens of guests, serving foie gras bonbons, caviar blini, wagyu on toast, tempura oysters, squash soup, cannelés and other fancy food, all enjoyed with fine wines from his impressive cellar.
Aiana, which means “everlasting bloom”, is located in the Sun Life Financial Centre at 50 O’Connor St., just a couple blocks away from Parliament Hill. The stunning space, designed by Ottawa-based Linebox Studio, was formerly home to the iconic steakhouse Hy’s.
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While the party wasn’t a grand opening — Aiana has been in business since August 7, 2020 — there was a sense of renewal and hope in the air, particularly for a downtown sector that was abandoned by workers and patrons during much of the pandemic and clogged with trucks and protesters during last winter’s Freedom Convoy.
“Thank you everyone for filling this room with so much joy,” Chaudhary told a supportive crowd that included Liberal Ottawa Centre MP Yasir Naqvi, Ottawa Board of Trade president and CEO Sueling Ching and its board chair, Relationship Capital CEO Ian Sherman, Ottawa Tourism president and CEO Michael Crockatt and Ottawa Business Journal publisher Michael Curran. “This is exactly what I anticipated when I started building Aiana in 2019.”
If only he could have known what lay ahead for 2020, 2021 and 2022. “Perhaps I might have selected some other time,” Chaudhary added with a dash of humour.
He told OBJ that business is improving. “It’s definitely getting better. Every day is better than the day before.”
The businessman shared at the party his philanthropic plans to partner with Shepherds of Good Hope and the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation by hosting events in support of the two local charities.
There was a sense of respect and gratitude in the room for Chaudhary, who’s shown leadership in difficult times for small businesses, particularly in his neck of the woods.
“It’s incredible to see entrepreneurs like this make these investments into our downtown, because it is so important to get that revitalization, that vibe, back into our downtown,” Crockatt told OBJ at the reception. “It really just makes our city a more vibrant place. We couldn’t be prouder to see what Devinder has done with this place. It’s amazing, and the food here is incredible. It’s just a wonderful addition to our city centre.”
Aiana was recently named one of the best new restaurants by Ottawa Magazine. Its executive chef is Chaudhary’s son Raghav, who worked at Michelin-starred restaurants after graduating from The Culinary Institute of America.
Chaudhary’s background is not in restaurants but in accounting. He’s managing director of a financial consulting firm for the banking industry. “Being an accountant, I did the math. Of course, I put aside any bias that I might have had and said, ‘Does this business proposition make sense? The answer was ‘Yes’. Of course, nobody could have anticipated COVID. But it’s behind us, we’re moving forward and, hopefully, we get to the level we anticipate to be at.”
While Chaudhary is soft-spoken and courteous, he’s also a man of action. During the three-week-long truckers’ occupation, he helped to launch a grassroots fundraiser to assist the downtown restaurant industry. He contributed to it, as well.
His celebration on Wednesday was a way for him to bring greater attention to the downtown, which has been struggling to reboot itself in this new environment of remote work and hybrid offices.
“I cannot do it alone,” said Chaudhary. “Everyone has to be on board; everyone has to be cheerleaders for the rejuvenation and revitalization of the downtown.”
There needs to be support from the public, as well as all levels of government, he believes. “We need to get a little creative and imaginative to support these businesses.”
Unless the situation improves for the downtown, he told OBJ, more small businesses will exit the city’s centre once their leases expire. They’re not going to want to pay the same rent that they negotiated with building owners pre-pandemic, he added.
At the reception, Chaudhary took a moment to recognize and thank his staff at the restaurant. What’s interesting about Aiana is that it has no tipping system, which Chaudhary believes to be demeaning for servers. He’s replaced it with higher wages and a full benefits package for his team as a way of professionalizing the service industry.
“I think, as a business owner, it is my responsibility to offer a fair and equitable salary or wage,” he told OBJ. “My team members should not have to rely on the generosity of my guests.”
There were best wishes from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau read aloud by Naqvi, who promised to return to the restaurant with the country’s leader as his lunch date. “Mark my words,” said Naqvi, who recently unveiled the new Downtown Ottawa Revitalization Task Force. “His office isn’t very far from here.”
Chaudhary, who’s a director with the Ottawa Board of Trade, immigrated to Ottawa from northern India almost 30 years ago. He remains a proud maple-leaf-pin-wearing Canadian. “I was headed to Australia but then things changed and I ended up over here. I think that was the best thing that ever happened to me. There’s no other country like Canada.”