Restaurant gets food from the source

As a young chef, Blair Lebsack questioned why most food arrived in boxes on a truck from a central supply depot.

“I always asked the driver where it came from and he didn’t know,” he said.

Lebsack had grown up on a mixed farm near Red Deer where they raised livestock and garden produce for the family. They milked the cow and let the cream rise to the top overnight and had a root cellar for storing produce like corn and saskatoon berries.

As an adult, he continued to have connections to agriculture and used that when he became an executive chef.

“There is a disconnect in Alberta about where people get their food. As a young cook, I felt there was a much better way to use stuff.”

He started small by getting one farmer to supply what he needed and it grew rapidly through a network of other producers joining in.

Lebsack and his partner, Caitlin Fulton, then got involved with growers, helping out on a farm. That spawned their idea to offer a dining in-the-field experience.

“It was one of those really special dinners that led us to a whole new extent of what we do and we haven’t looked back,” said Lebsack, who took a food and hospitality management course and has taught at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.

He saw it as one way to educate people about food production while they dined on items like corn succotash just metres from where the ingredients were grown.

“It’s not just about food but the entire experience,” said Lebsack, noting the event includes farm tours and demonstrations.

The first dinner at Rge Rd 135 in 2011 led to more. He now offers as many as 14 such dining experiences annually, usually serving 70 to 90 people, in addition to running the three-year-old restaurant in Edmonton called Rge Rd.

Appreciative diners gather for a meal at Prairie Gardens in Bon Accord, Alta.  |  Blair Lebsack photo

Appreciative diners gather for a meal at Prairie Gardens in Bon Accord, Alta. | Blair Lebsack photo

“As a young cook, I would get excited because of the rush when the restaurant is full and you are busy. Later on, it was the business of making people feel good. We are in the hospitality business, not just cooking food.”

His restaurant has added a butcher and retail shop to add value to basic cuts through creations like pates, terrines and rillettes.

Lebsack believes in using the whole animal and doesn’t mince words on his menu, calling them “the questionable bits.”

Some of his favourites included grilled heart, beef tongue pastrami and pig’s head.

“We can always sell a tenderloin but it’s important we sell other parts as well,” said Lebsack.

His patrons are knowledgeable about the restaurant’s offerings and philosophies.

“We are minimizing food waste and respecting farmers,” he said. “They are stewards of the land … and they push the restaurant and food industry in Alberta forward by being open and willing to grow things we request and improve each year.”

Lebsack gushes over the flavours of heirloom tomatoes and his latest food find, Malabar spinach.

“We overuse strawberries for a few weeks in July then don’t use them for the rest of the year,” said Lebsack. “We don’t eat bad strawberries in November and think that’s the norm.”

“The farm dictates the menu,” he said.

“We want to meet them in the field and tell them what we need and work together.

“Sometimes we get a delivery of ducks at 5:15 because that’s when the farmer can get here,” he said.

His focus is local and fresh so supplies come in from producers like Nature’s Green Acres, which supplies pigs and cattle.

Mighty Trio is one small business that Lebsack has worked with to supply hemp, canola and flax oil.

Owner Sean Superkoski said Lebsack sought out niche enterprises like his at farmers’ markets and elsewhere.

“It takes an extra level of commitment for that,” said Superkoski, who noted his oils are priced like extra virgin olive oil.

Lebsack experimented with the oils to create salad dressings, bread dips and cooking oils.

“As a chef, you have to really know what you are doing to make them stand out on the plate and have oil do its job,” Superkoski said.

The benefits are two-fold in allowing Rge Rd to incorporate new flavours into its menu items and to promote the origins of ingredients.

“If we are getting people coming to the farmers’ market saying we tried it at this restaurant, that’s amazing for us,” he said.

Superkoski said the restaurant’s servers are trained and knowledgeable about food production.

“That commitment to local really feeds the notion that we’re onto something and doing the right thing,” he said.

Lebsack’s menu is built around what is in season, available and at its peak. In the winter, they rely on greenhouses and are keen to add more vertical growing operations. He also reaches out to western provinces like B.C. for fruit and to Manitoba for camelina oil.

“Northern Alberta is still untapped in what we are still using but it’s getting better at using what we have,” he said.

His advice to other chefs wanting to take a similar approach to running a restaurant is to start by making a connection with a farmer for an ingredient and let it grow from there.

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