Paul Rogalski and Olivier Reynaud provide home-grown flavour at their red house on the river
Down along the Bow River in Calgary, chef Michael Dekker wanders through his sprawling kitchen garden. It’s been an odd summer in Calgary but good for radishes, greens, chard and other cool-weather crops. The nasturtiums are bushy and loaded with blooms; the mint and sage spill across the pathways. “It’s been my pet project since I’ve been here — making it a true showcase,” says the 28-year-old chef who has been in charge of the kitchen at the award-winning Rouge Restaurant for the past two years.
Since it opened a decade ago, the 100-seat Rouge has become a major player on Calgary’s culinary scene, maintaining its commitment to fresh, local and sustainable ingredients and inspiring others to follow. “We can’t totally supply the restaurant with produce, but it’s a place to start the conversation about local food, and it’s a learning tool for our cooks,” says Dekker of the space that’s popular for outdoor dining, weddings and other events.
That’s key to the food philosophy here — the idea that texture, colour, nutrition and flavour are the foundation of any good dish, that the best food starts with the best ingredients and that sustainable purchasing and menu planning impact the entire industry, the environment and the planet.
There have been many accolades from local and national magazines over the years. But, a career highlight came last year when Rouge was named one of the San Pelligrino World’s 100 Best Restaurants — one of two Canadian restaurants named to the prestigious list, ranking 60th, followed by Ontario’s Landon Hall in 77th place.
Owners and longtime friends chef Paul Rogalski and Olivier Reynaud don’t know how their restaurant was noticed by the international judges, but they do know they’ve worked hard to create an authentic and unique experience, and such accolades make it a lot easier. “Since the award, we haven’t slowed down,” says Reynaud, who manages the business side of the restaurant, noting sales jumped 30 per cent in the year after the top 100 list was announced but keeping the exact sales numbers under wraps. “June was as good as December, sales wise. It’s unfathomable.”
This evening, Rogalski, Reynaud and Dekker share a table and the conversation, jokes and laughter flow easily.
It was 2001 when Rogalski and Reynaud opened the restaurant. Both had been working at La Chaumière, a longtime French restaurant in the city — Rogalski as executive chef and Reynaud, a new immigrant from Provence, France, working the front of the house. It was Reynaud who, looking for a business opportunity to secure his citizenship, noticed an advertisement in the local newspaper promoting the sale of the historic Cross House Garden Cafe.
When his first chef partner failed to close the deal, Reynaud made a last-minute appeal to his old friend — Rogalski quit his job and signed on. The old house was in bad shape and the duo had little cash, but it turned out to be one of the best decisions both men ever made. “The private rooms, the private terrace and garden — Inglewood [the now trendy neighbourhood] was not what it is today, but there was so much potential,” recalls Reynaud.
Today Rouge is a showpiece, its rich colours and historic ambiance a backdrop for big modern artwork and perfectly executed plates. The grand old house — a provincial heritage site — once belonged to A.E. Cross, a Calgary pioneer businessman and one of the backers of the first Calgary Stampede. But the old house needed a great deal of work when Reynaud and Rogalski took over, and it took a year of wrangling to get their landlord — the city of Calgary — to invest in improvements. “It looked like a ghost house,” says Reynaud of the peeling white Victorian façade. “There was dusty rose wallpaper and uncomfortable chairs — we didn’t have money to change things.”
But they could change the menu. “We let the building dictate to us,” says Rogalski, “and we decided we’d do what we know, which is fine dining. We believe in the fundamentals of hospitality.”
After government heritage experts determined the original colour of the circa-1891 house was a rich red oxide and the exterior was repainted, the restaurant was rebranded and relaunched as Rouge in 2003. It was up to the young restaurateurs to spruce up the interior, and there was little money left in the bank when they opened the doors. “We had customers in this room, and I’d be painting in the parlour,” says Reynaud, surveying today’s cosy dining room and adjacent atrium overlooking the terrace and gardens.
“We opened with $250 of cash flow, but we had 20 reservations on the books,” adds Rogalski. “A year and a half later, we were in the black.”
They both chuckle thinking of juggling a new business with young families — newborns being fed in the kitchen while their fathers took care of everything from cooking and accounting to washing dishes and mowing the lawn. “The restaurant consumed 16 hours of every day, but we had no choice,” says Rogalski. “It wasn’t a question of just paying the bills; it was a question of feeding our families.”
Now, celebrating a decade in business, Rouge has grown and matured into one of the city’s most influential restaurants. Inspired by his own chef mentors — Vince Parkinson, John Ash, Klaus Wockinger — Rogalski has paid it forward in his kitchen, showcasing small artisanal food products and inspiring young, passionate chefs to be the best they can be through training, education and creative freedom. “I expect them to understand the philosophy, and I charge them to do their homework, to think in the kitchen,” he says. “I’m looking for career-oriented chefs.”
Michael Allemeier, a chef instructor at SAIT (Southern Alberta Institute of Technology) says Rouge is successful on many levels — from the partners’ understanding of true hospitality and service, to their commitment to food quality and local producers, and their ability to inspire and empower a top team.
“It’s the perfect storm of all of those little things,” says Allemeier, adding Rogalski and Dekker also inspire culinary students. “Both are SAIT graduates, and I always see them down at the college. They understand the relationship between education and industry. We send them graduates and students — they finish what we start.”
There have been difficult times — Reynaud lost his young wife to cancer in 2009 — but the partners have endured and matured. “I couldn’t be here, so Paul came out of the kitchen, and we hired Mike [Dekker],” says Reynaud. “We’ve evolved as a restaurant, as personalities, but we keep putting ourselves back into the restaurant.”
That’s probably why it works so well. Executive chef Dekker is in charge of the kitchen and the menu, and general manager, Andy MacDonald, runs the daily operations, but Reynaud and Rogalski are there every day, too. “No one analyzes their restaurant to the degree we do every day,” says Dekker. “We look at every comment and every complaint like it’s a shot in the face. We’re never content.” Adds Rogalski: “We scrutinize ourselves to the extreme.” “That’s true,” chimes in Reynaud, “but then we take it to a new level.”
Still, they share a happy, relaxed camaraderie over Dekker’s six-course menu that ranges from an amuse of P.E.I. Village Bay oysters and a first course of blackened catfish on creamy grits with garden arugula, to sous-vide rib eye with black currant jam alongside a stacked bean and nasturtium salad, and beef tenderloin with tender shreds of lamb neck confit and tiny Saskatchewan chanterelles. But it’s the foie gras course that stops everyone in their tracks — sipping Sauternes with Dekker’s trio of foie gras mousse, seared foie gras atop boozy marinated cherries, and spooning up foie gras and bone marrow leaves a lasting impression. Sometimes seasonal and unique or taken from the à la carte choices, the Chef ’s Six-Course Menu, for the adventurous epicurean, is $95 per person. The chef ’s menu changes almost daily, while the overall menu is revised six times each year.
These days, Rogalski is focusing his time on promoting the restaurant outside Alberta — cooking with Michael Smith at the Vancouver Olympics and on Iron Chef America and joining Eric Ripert at the upcoming Cayman Cookout in January 2012. This past summer, when Kate and Will breezed through Calgary on their honeymoon tour, the Prime Minister hosted the entourage at a late, private dinner at Rouge. (The Royals themselves failed to appear.)
Rouge has long been an active member of the local and sustainable food community. The annual Feast of Fields Slow Food event is routinely held in the gardens, and the restaurant supports organizations ranging from the Kids Cancer Foundation and Ride for Cancer to Alberta Theatre Projects, Bocuse d’Or Canada and the Cross Conservation Area. Every year Rouge contributes between $35,000 and $40,000 in cash (and in kind) to community causes. When the team celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2011, it was with a charity dinner to help raise funds for disaster relief in Japan.
Rogalski is an outspoken champion of sustainable seafood, speaking at the Monteray Bay Aquarium, sharing his message with culinary students at SAIT each year, and ensuring seafood served at Rouge is 100-per-cent Ocean Wise-approved. Rogalski was also recently featured in a new book, A Boy After the Sea 2, focusing on the plight of our oceans and featuring 29 chefs from 16 countries.
It’s just another way to put Rouge on the map. But, like the crazy mile marker sign just beyond the restaurant’s front porch — which points out the distances to the places that inspire them, from Provence, France to B.C.’s Okanagan Valley — there’s a lot of inspiration, and a little craziness, inside these old red walls, too.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROTH & RAMBERG
More in Feature Articles
Kicking it Up a Notch: How to Add a Modern Twist to Traditional Italian Food
Making it Big: Extreme Brandz Takes the Lead
A League of Their Own: MLSE Scores Big
The C Factor: Chef Clark Champions the Canadian Seafood Industry
Hot Spot: Profiling Vancouver’s White Spot Resto
The Elephant in the Room – Ventilation and Exhaust Systems
Rise Up: Canadian Wines Shine on Restaurant Menus
Russo Rising: Profiling Chef Russo