Continuing Eater Lounge coverage from the Cayman Cookout in Grand Cayman. Right now: chef of celebrated Calgary restaurant Rouge, Paul Rogalski.
You used to cook in the Caymans, right? How was that experience?
It was a long time ago. My memory says 1995, but it may have been more like 1994. I was at a restaurant up the beach from here called Hemingway's. I came down to the island initially to have some international experience and work for a large company, which was the Hyatt Regency — and to have the experience of living in the Caribbean, being that I'm Canadian and all. This was probably the biggest period of change in my life. Also, it's where I really learned about the ocean, which fueled my belief in sustainable seafood and conservation.
How has it changed? Would you call it a dining destination?
It is now. It for sure is now, with the Ritz-Carlton being here and the food being presented in their house. Look at Blue: I had dinner there last night, and it was sensational. Also talking to people here, they have told me a lot of great things — about lots of new restaurants, great concepts. There's also a broader range of concepts to choose from in terms of ethnicity. There's a steak house amongst other seafood places, fine dining and all sorts of options.
So, it's great to see the changes. The greatest change has been in terms of local produce. That is fantastic. We had stuff planted for this event; and I tasted some of it yesterday, and there's real flavor. I had borscht on my menu last night and I tasted the beet greens and they were salty! I'm used to beets, but wow, salty delicious. You could taste the terroir.
How did you come to be involved in this event?
Initially, I met Eric in California a long time ago, but again at the San Pellegrino awards in London in 2010. Then I heard that he was coming to town and I asked if he wanted to do something crazy Canadian, like go tilt some sleeping buffalo! He came for dinner instead and we had a really good time.
Years ago The New York Times referred to your tasting menu as one of the best things about the new Calgary dining scene. How would you describe what's going on there?
Calgary has grown. It's fairly isolated, and we're land locked. We have an environment very similar to Denver, right next to the Rockies. Most of our produce used to come from the Los Angeles market. And if it wasn't the Los Angeles market, it was San Francisco. So most people who were producing meat products were selling commodity. But since then, there has been more regional thought. Food producers realized they could sell to chefs in town instead of doing that. Lucky for me, about the same time this was brewing, we had just opened a restaurant.
The whole story of the restaurant is interesting. Before Rouge, I was at La Chaumière. There was this server that was fresh to the restaurant from Provence, France. His dream was to open a restaurant in the interior of British Columbia. And we clicked. At that stage in the restaurant, it was very much a front of house—versus—back of the house situation, and he didn't play that game. He was a chef before he was a server, so he would side with me on making stuff happen for a smooth service. He was on an entrepreneurial work visa and he kept coming in with businesses ideas and places he was looking at, and some of them were three or four hours away. But then there was a historical site in Calgary that became available, and the big thing that attracted me was that it had an acre of property, right outside of downtown.
So I was assisting him with suppliers, getting him hooked up with every angle in the kitchen. In the end the guy he was going into business with didn't have the money. He came to me and we got the business going together risking it all. At the time I had just had a kid and there was another one on the way, but my wife and I put our house on the line anyway. The building was in disarray — more a haunted house than a restaurant — but we saw potential. We had nothing to work with, so we kept the previous business' name. It was like a two-year soft opening. We bought ourselves new china, new stemware and new chairs. We ended up having some really great luck, as the city of Calgary decided to revamp the exterior. So they did a core sample on the wood to find the original color of the house, and as they dug through the layers, they found that the first layer was red. So that's where Rouge came from.
The two things that pop out in discussions about Rouge is that it's on the San Pellegrino list and that you have an emphasis on sustainability. With regards to the latter, most restaurants these days tout that approach, so what do you think distinguishes Rouge?
Well, we have a huge plot of land and a garden. Unfortunately we have had some really terrible winters — we have maybe 45 frost-free days, so growing tomatoes can be really hard. But growing a garden is still exciting. It's a really good experience for young cooks. We probably could be a little more advanced with our space usage. It would be great if we had more greenhouses to make to lengthen our growing season since that would increase food production. Still I'm proud to say that last summer every salad was from our garden. We really try, but sometimes Mother Nature's a bitch.
Some chefs pay attention to rankings and lists, and some don't. Do you want to move up the 100 Best List?
I'd love to. It changed my world and it changed my business. The biggest thing that happened was the increase in traffic. We also had more career-oriented people showing up with their résumés in hand, people who wanted to be the best they could. So that gave us a kind of kinetic energy. You know it was tough during the first years, getting the right chemistry.
People used to make more money driving a truck up north than being a chef in Calgary, so it was tough to match the numbers, but also tough getting people who really were into what we were doing. But the award — the fact that there were enough judges who came to Calgary — was a miracle on its own. The fact that they ate at my place...
I was the one of the managing Chefs of the Athlete's Village in Whistler for the Olympics. When I came back and I was just knackered and had lost like twenty pounds. My first day in the office at Rouge my executive chef Mike Dekker slapped this stack of mail on my desk — two feet of stuff — and first was a bill, second was a bill, and third was a letter from the World's Fifty Best. We couldn’t believe it! And then, three weeks later, I'm in London sitting next to Grant Achatz for the awards. Best surprise of my life.
Any big plans coming up? Anything you want to tackle?
I am so busy “being” and enjoying the zen of it. There have been a lot of opportunities we've said no to, but maybe something will happen, perhaps on television. There's maybe a cookbook on the back burner. But when it happens, it's meant to be.
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