By Marian Staresinic
Justin Leboe originally hails from Vancouver, B.C, where he started his culinary journey. Starting at Umberto’s when he was only 13 years old, Leboe eventually became one of the original cooks to open the restaurant C in downtown Vancouver in 1997.
Justin has a natural talent when it comes to the culinary industry. He furthered his career by working under some of the most talented chefs in the world at restaurants including Daniel in New York City, The French Laundry in Napa, California, Waterloo House in Bermuda, Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Virginia, The Peninsula in Beverly Hills, California and Est, Est, Est in Melbourne, Australia.
He moved to Calgary in 2007 to help open the most highly anticipated restaurant in the city at the time, Rush, a very formal fine dining establishment. Justin moved on to open Model Milk in September of 2011. The cuisine can be described as elevated comfort food, and has forever changed the Calgary dining scene, now making it a contender for culinary capital of Canada.
Apart from being a restaurateur, Leboe runs marathons to raise money for charity and is a contributor to Brown Bagging for Calgary’s Kids Society. He is one of a group of local chefs that, just last year, gathered enough funds to pay for 10,000 school lunches. He was awarded Most Innovative Chef by Canada’s 100 Best in 2016. Here, he discusses his biggest influence and his advice for new chefs in the industry.
You’ve been named 2016’s Most Innovative Chef by Canada’s 100 Best, have worked in respected kitchens around the world and own two of Calgary’s most-celebrated restaurants. Tell us how you got there.
I’ve been in kitchens since I was 13 years old, but it wasn’t until later in 1997 that I started to seriously apply myself. Before finding my passion in the kitchen, I studied pre-law and political science at Simon Fraser University. Once I started working in in some of Vancouver’s top kitchens, I found that I felt right at home, even under extreme pressure. In 1998, I went to Toronto for four years to further my culinary career. I then travelled around the globe working at kitchens like New York’s Daniel and Le Bernardin, The French Laundry in Napa Valley and The Inn at Little Washington. When I came back to Canada, I opened up my first restaurant in Calgary, Rush. I knew I wanted to produce quality but accessible food. It was then that I decided to open up Model Milk and four years later, Pigeonhole.
What chef or chefs have been your biggest influence?
There are a couple of chefs that have influenced me over the years in terms of role models. The first chef would be Robert Allen in Los Angeles. Robert helped kick off my career while he was the Executive Chef at Wedgewood Hotel & Spa. Next would be Daniel Boulud, who taught me the quality and purpose of food presentation. And lastly was Chef Patrick O’Connell, who showed me how to run a successful restaurant. He was also the first to admit there are far more important things in a restaurant then just food alone.
What do you think makes owning restaurants in Calgary different?
Calgary is different in the sense that we don’t get the same volume of food tourists as Toronto or Vancouver. This changes the scope of my restaurants to focus on building customer loyalty.
What advice would you give to new chefs in this industry?
You have to learn to walk before you run. Everyone wants to be a chef right out of the gate, but it takes much more discipline and dedication to call yourself a chef.
What’s one thing everyone should know about you?
My favourite shoes are my Vans Skate high tops. They remind me of my childhood skateboarding days.
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About the author:
Marian Staresinic is the Vice President of Branding and Buzzing. She has been in the food business her whole career, beginning at Stratford Chefs School then as a restaurant and cooking school owner, celebrity chef talent manager, AGA Cooker Brand Manager, food editor and the founder of Windsor’s Slow Food chapter.
About Branding & Buzzing:
Branding and Buzzing is a modern food marketing agency that brings the buzz to their clients through engaging consumer conversations, social media and real-life experiences that are inspirational, memorable and most importantly, brand-driven. For more information, visit brandingandbuzzing.com.