Justin Leboe took a job at the now defunct Umberto in Vancouver when he was 13 and immediately knew he wanted to be a chef — he just didn’t know for how long. So, Leboe remained in the kitchen, even during his brief stint at Burnaby, B.C.’s Simon Fraser University (SFU) where he studied political science, admittedly to satisfy curiosity and appease his parents.
After dropping out, Leboe snubbed the formal education system, furthering his culinary training by writing the best chefs in North America to ask for work. His skills were shaped at some of the finest restaurants around the world, including L.A.’s Peninsula Hotel, Toronto’s Accolade and California’s French Laundry.
But, the chef’s restaurant Model Milk is a departure from the fine-dining restaurants in which he sharpened his culinary skills. In fact, after moving to Calgary to head up a new fine-dining site called Rush, he decided to create a restaurant that was less constrictive in terms of the menu and atmosphere. “Where I come from, and the background and the timeframe of where I worked, fine-dining was the goal of every chef,” Leboe says, explaining how landing a job at a high-end restaurant was always defined as the moment you knew you had arrived. His own culinary venture would be different. “I wanted this restaurant to be a reflection of my personality,” he says.
That personality is reflected from the ground up. To start, the restaurant is named for the building that it’s housed in — Calgary’s first dairy, which was constructed in the 1930s. Leboe kept the name of the property and preserved much of the original space, too. He describes the 110-seat restaurant as “contemporary” and “raw,” a place where he could cook dinner for his guests as he would if they came to his house to eat.
Since opening in September 2011, there have been 45 menu iterations, but there are a few mainstays. For example, Leboe has a “love affair” with hamburgers, and there is always one on the menu. At the end of 2012, the burger was an all-natural beef patty, cured for 12 hours, served with mushroom ragout and topped with cheese curds ($18). Another signature dish is the pork tenderloin, wrapped in house-made sausage and bacon and smoked over a southern-style barbecue fire ($28). “I wanted to have a restaurant where I could serve foie gras truffles on the same menu that had burgers and fried chicken,” Leboe explains. “We achieved that.”
Although the toque — who was the only chef named on Calgary Herald’s 2012 list of Compelling Calgarians — has lived around the world in places such as Virginia, Los Angeles and Bermuda, he has lost his restless energy. “At some point in this world, you have to pick a piece of ground and fight for it,” he says.
The rising culinary star is reluctant to divulge what’s next for him, but he will say: “We have more cards up our sleeve.” And, with the accolades Model Milk is receiving, from customers, critics and on media lists such as enRoute’s best new restaurant round-up and Maclean’s rundown of the best restaurants in Canada, there is sure to be interest when Leboe finally reveals his hand.