Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
CALGARY, ALBERTA — When Olivier Reynaud moved from Avignon to Calgary in 1999, he didn’t anticipate being a pioneer. That seems to be what happens to entrepreneurs in Western Canada, however, and it wasn’t long before the co-proprietor of Rouge found himself at the forefront of a local food movement in Alberta’s largest city.
Getting a quantity of product that wasn’t frozen or shipped in from afar was difficult and sometimes impossible back then. So when Reynaud and business partner Paul Rogalski opened their restaurant in 2001, they established a garden in the back of the heritage building that houses Rouge. The garden produces the herbs and vegetables used in the restaurant’s salads during warmer months. It’s not unusual to see chefs running from the kitchen to the garden to pick the ingredients for the dishes that are served to diners waiting eagerly for their meals.
“I was used to France, where you would go to the market and get what you needed for the kitchen that day,” Reynaud said last month, not long after Rouge racked up another notable award, earning Canadian Independent Restaurateur of the Year honours from Food Service & Hospitality Magazine. “Fresh, authentic, good food is our emphasis, it’s our passion. Having a garden is very crucial for us to accomplish this type of cuisine.”
The kitchen staff, led by Rogalski and executive chef Michael Dekker, turn out exquisite dishes, thanks in part to what’s in their own backyard. Dekker says, “The best product possible for us is out of the garden.”
Being in Alberta, Rouge is hardly vegetarian fare. The best Beef Tenderloin I’ve had in Canada came out of Dekker’s kitchen and it’s also not unusual for line caught salmon and halibut plucked from British Columbia’s Pacific coast to wind up on plates at Rouge within 24 hours.
ROUGE RANKS NO. 9 AMONG TOP CANADIAN RESTAURANTS
In 2010, Rouge landed at No. 60 on the World’s 100 Best Restaurants list, the highest of any Canadian restaurant in the ranking that year. Reynaud said the notoriety of that recognition has kept the restaurant’s tables occupied fully for most of the past 24 months. “It did a lot. We were doing well before but for about two weeks straight after that announcement all I did was answer the phone,” he said, noting that requests for media interviews and dinner reservations spiked after the announcement.
Now, Rouge has placed ninth on the inaugural Vacay.ca Top 50 Restaurants in Canada List, which will be published on Thursday and was determined from votes by leading food experts and the general public.
The past 11 years weren’t always so flush with success. In fact, the restaurant was down to its last $250 in working capital before things started to turn around, Reynaud said. He and Rogalski had taken over the Cross House Restaurant, which had a poor reputation in the city, according to Calgary-based food writer Cinda Chavich, and word was slow to get around that the heritage building, which is owned by the city, was under new management.
Soon after Reynaud and Rogalski adopted Rouge as the name, their fortunes rose. Rouge opened on April Fool’s Day, 2003, Reynaud’s birthday, but its success has been no joke.
It’s established itself as the place to go to for special occasions and big nights out, and Rogalski has zoomed to prominence in the national culinary stage. A trip to Calgary can’t be complete without a visit to this restaurant. It’s a destination in itself — that’s how important Rouge has become to Canada’s food scene.
Reynaud’s European aesthetic is apparent beyond the cuisine and how it’s sourced. Rouge’s space is refreshing. It’s not in a big, open box with cool modern décor or a lower-level basement that chefs snap up for the cheap rent. In the trendy Inglewood neighbourhood, the house — formerly owned by A.E. Cross, one of the four founders of the Calgary Stampede — has loads of charm, with intimate rooms on two levels, splashes of its namesake red throughout, and an air of both elegance and warmth.
“I was looking for something with character, and this is a beautiful house, a heritage site,” says Reynaud, who previously ran a restaurant in Andorra out of a centuries-old barn. “It is part of the philosophy of hospitality, to make people feel welcome. We can do that in a house like this.”
MORE ABOUT ROUGE RESTAURANT
Address: 1240 8 Avenue Southeast Calgary (see map below).
Contact/Reservations: 403-531-2767; website: www.rougecalgary.com/reservations.
Menu prices: Main courses range from $36-$84 (Chateaubriand for two).
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