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 when I interviewed in spring 2012, 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.
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 30-plus 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.
In 2012, Rouge has placed ninth on the Vacay.ca Top 50 Restaurants in Canada Guide, which was a first-of-its-kind ranking of the nation's eateries and was determined from votes by leading food experts and the general public. Now, Reynaud and Rogalski are expanding, with Bistro Rouge scheduled to open in February in Calgary's southwest neighbourhood.
The past 12 years weren't always so flush with success. In fact, the restaurant was down to its last $250 in working capital before things turned around, Reynaud said. He and Rogalski had taken over the Cross House Restaurant, which had a poor reputation, 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.
To see a video of Rouge and its cuisine, and read more about the restaurant, visit Vacay.ca for the full article.
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To become eligible for the Vacay.ca Foodie of the Year contest, which includes airfare, accommodations and dinner for two at one of the Top 50 Restaurants in Canada, read the details and follow the entry requirements here.