Blair Lebsack and Caitlin Fulton, partners in business and life, didn’t want to wait around to open their restaurant, so they didn’t. Instead, they launched a series of seasonal, pop-up farm dinners while they searched. They found it in 2013, and with Lebsack running the kitchen and Fulton running the front of house, the duo have made RGE RD one of Edmonton’s best spots to experience local cuisine, and have even expanded it, added a private dining, events and sometime-retail space called the Butchery. Restobiz chatted with Lebsack and Fulton about the challenge of a farm-to-table approach, running a restaurant with your significant other and where RGE RD is heading next.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CRFN: Tell me about your backgrounds in hospitality.
Blair Lebsack: I’ve been cooking now for over 20 years, and I’m pretty much an Alberta boy. I started out doing food and beverage management with Red Deer College and enjoyed the cooking side a bit more, so I decided to take on an apprenticeship. I’ve worked in Banff, Bright Creek, Canmore, went to Saskatoon, then found a home in Edmonton.
Caitlin Fulton: I have worked in restaurants since I was 20 years old. I started working in restaurants as a server while putting myself through university, so I have an undergraduate degree in drama and comparative literature from the University of Alberta. But I moved around quite a bit in my twenties. I initially started going to theatre school in Toronto, and then I went to Vancouver for most of my 20s, and performing in theatre and always supplementing my income by working in restaurants. After awhile, it became clear that restaurants were more of a career and a passion, so that took over.
BL: And you love wine. You did a lot of wine research — we travelled a lot before we opened up RGE RD, and I think Caitlin’s wine knowledge is unbelievable. We have an outstanding wine and drink list at the restaurant because of that.
CF: Yeah, we ended up really being inspired by travel. I’ve been an avid traveller and spent time living in Bordeaux.
RGE RD started as a pop-up, outdoor dinner series. What made you two decide to transition to a brick-and-mortar restaurant space?
CF: We were actually in the process of looking for a restaurant space when the farm dinners began. We hadn’t quite found a permanent space, but that didn’t stop us from wanting to create meals, create experiences. But the plan was always to find a brick-and-mortar location.
BL: And we really wanted to prove to the farmers that we wouldn’t just talk about using the term “local.” We’d sleep overnight on farms and wake up in the morning and do chores with them. The two years of farm dinners before we opened our restaurant really solidified the way we wanted to take. Now when we ask a farmer to raise 100 pigs for the year, they don’t question us. They know we’re going to purchase those 100 pigs. We have a bit more of that one-on-one connection with them that allows us to really be right at the beginning of the process of our food. We convinced one farm to raise lamb for us so we can get lamb. We specifically get duck and geese breeds for us from another farm. It allows us to take our restaurant to the next level because we have that close connection with them.
CF: We’ve actually got a complete circle, a feedback loop. We’re not saving vegetables scraps from the restaurant that go back to feed the pigs, so they’re dropping a carcass and picking up some food for the week to supplement their feed.
Blair, you were instructing at NAIT before opening. What made you go from the stability of a teaching job to opening a new restaurant?
BL: Where you have holidays off, two months off in the summer and benefits and all those sorts of things to a restaurant? Honestly, I just love restaurants. It’s one of those things that, when first got into cooking, it was the feel of a restaurant that got me into cooking. It has turned into food, but a lot of it was hospitality, and I absolutely loved the feel of restaurants, and they took me to a different world when I visited different restaurants and got taken with what they’re doing. That’s just what I wanted to create.
With starting this whole project — the pop-up, the restaurant — you’re a pair in business, but also in life. Was there any nervousness with working so closely together?
CF: Yeah, for sure. I would never out-and-out recommend people go into business with their husband or wife, but I think in the case of Blair and I, we actually met working, so we had a very strong basis in terms of respect for one another as professionals. That’s always been present in our relationship. But definitely for us, starting a restaurant is as much an emotional process as anything. When you give up stability, when you give up all the comforts of a union job with benefits and all of that safety and go into the entrepreneurial realm, it has to be a labour of love, there has to be passion at the heart of it.
BL: I never would’ve wanted to do it with anyone other than Caitlin. I just trust her side of hospitality and knowing how to run that whole front of house side, it’s just amazing. We knew that going in.
How does managing all those different relationships with farmers at that granular level change the day-to-day of the restaurant?
BL: From the kitchen perspective, it makes you be creative. One of our things is that the farm dictates the menu, so it really helps you to focus on things that are from this area. We ask the farmers what’s going to be best on a weekly basis. Like right now, one of the best things is kale that’s been frozen once. Frozen kale is just so sweet and beautiful, so we’re getting this kale that’s fresh out of the field, but it’s been frozen once, and I’ll tell you, people should always want their kale to be frozen once. For ordering, it’s a lot of individual text messages and emails, so it’s not hard, but it is time consuming.
And on the front of house side?
BL: From the front of house side, our servers are always really excited to see what comes through the door. Their primary job is to relay that story of how it gets to the farm to the plate. They’ll always say, time and time again, they’ve never worked at a restaurant where they’re constantly learning about new things, and then there’s also just the breadth of information that they have to communicate every night. It keeps everyone really engaged.
Going back to my background as a storyteller, that’s now creating a unique experience for the guest and the dining room. We kind of have to bring people in. We’re welcoming them into a farmhouse every night, and we’re greeting them with a warm hug and a story.
What was the thought process behind adding the Butchery?
CF: It acts as an open kitchen and a dining room, so we can do private events and regular dining. And then we thought, how else can we engage with our community? Maybe they’re not coming in for dinner but use all these cuts of meat, so we started doing a pop-up shop. It happened once a month, just on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, we opened up to the public during the day, and we sell all of our — what would you say our butchery items are?
BL: Our butchery items are those value-added prepared foods, so pates, riettes, terrines, sausages, smoked meat…
CF: …ground meat. And we do bread. We have two wood-burning ovens in house and bake all of our own bread. For us, it was a way of using the whole animal because, once again, we work so closely with the farmers and don’t want to waste a thing.
How does that commitment to seasonality and boom-bust cycle affect operations at the restaurant?
CF: Oh, we are boom and bust.
BL: Really, that’s one of the fun things we’ve learned over the years. But we know the cycles. Root vegetables store well, and we have one farm, Prairie Gardens, that keeps their greenhouse open year-round for us now, so they grow us herbs and lettuces and flowers and stuff like that year-round. We get a lot of sunlight in the winter here.
CF: Also, we’ll leave certain root vegetables in the ground over the winter, so we’re picking these beautiful sweet root vegetables in the early spring that have been overwintered, so all that sugar is concentrated, which is great for culinary applications. But asparagus, you’ll never see it on our menu during winter.
What’s next for RGE RD?
BL: We’re opening a full-time retail butcher shop, hopefully by March. We’re taking 4,000 square feet and we’re doing everything. We’re going to be cutting steaks to order, if people want schnitzel we’ll be pounding that out. It’ll be that old-school butcher shop that’s heavy on customer service and knowledge, and we’ll direct people to what’s going to work for them. We’ll be making our own smoked wieners, smoked sausages, pastrami, hams; we’ll be doing pates, riettes and terrines, and full-animal butchery to have what we’re going to call our weekday steaks and our special occasion steaks, and I guess we’re also doing a bit of sandwich service.
CF: Yeah, a little grab-and-go lunch counter. During the day, people can get their lunch fix — we’ve always only been open for dinner.
BL: And we’re going to be fully licensed, so if we want to showcase something, we can let them sample a steak we cook up for them, and try it with a beer or wine.
CF: It’s adjacent to the restaurant in the same building, so we’re slowly taking over a corner. We’re not on a hot strip downtown. We’re across from a pawnshop, and we still manage to get customers to come visit us regularly. We’re hoping to be part of a real revitalization of this corner of the city.