It has been six months since Blair Lebsack and Caitlin Fulton opened the doors to RGE RD, their 44-person, farm-focused restaurant in Edmonton, AB, and surely, it's been a steep learning curve.
The initimate dining room showcases vintage lighting, recycled tongue-in-groove plank tables and tea towel napkins that offer the farm house dining experience in a modern environment.
The vision for RGE RD is simple. Lebsack explains: "We wanted to bring the experience of our farm dinners into the city and into a more controlled environment." The idea started when Lebsack taught NAIT culinary students in the day and ran on-site farm dinners, which brought clients physically out to the suppliers and showcased foraged, local ingredients from the site.
"RGE RD's name comes from a recurring theme of the range roads we travelled on to visit our farm suppliers for these dinners. In fact, I even grew up on RR1.” says Lebsack, whose family had land outside of Red Deer. "Our menu is designed to be accessible and casual; however, we do offer more elaborate experiences, which can make managing the front house tricky. Our environment is comfortable and intimate enough to handle a three-hour stay for parties on a road trip a or chef's tasting, and managing that with the needs of more casual patrons has been an adventure.”
Lebsack's farm upbringing plays an important role in the style of food that is served at RGE RD. “I had been surrounded by these ingredients my whole life, so I didn’t know any different," he explains. "My dad was friends with a dairy farmer who he bought milk directly from. Up until I was a teenager, I had no idea what store-bought milk tasted like. You can imagine my surprise when I first tried it and thought, 'what is this stuff?' It was then that I started to understand the importance of knowing where the things we eat come from.”
It is this approach, bringing producers and consumers together that Lebsack and Fulton support and is reflected in the overall experience at RGE RD. This philosophy is extend to its wine list that strongly features wines from B.C. and Ontario, with good representation from producers like Blue Mountain, Black Hills and Chteau des Charmes.
Everyone at RGE RD, from the kitchen to the front of house, has a deep respect for the local ingredients, as they see how much effort goes into their growth and production. This gives them the knowledge that they can then share with patrons, which diners have come to expect.
This respect is most evident in its signature menu feature — Questionable Bits — which aims to use normally discarded part of the animal. "In knowing that this animal was grown and died for our consumption, the very least we can do is use as much of it as we can, says Fulton. "When we have only one per cent waste from a 200-pound animal, that reassures us that we are doing as much as we can.“
While this head-to-tail approach is wholesome, it also leads to challenges in managing patron expectation. “ Our menu doesn’t have beef tenderloin, because we can only get so many tenderloin cuts out of a side of beef. We have to be as creative as possible," says Fulton.
The menu at RGE RD is always a work in progress and varies seasonally and sometimes, daily. When the team is doing a chef's tasting dinner, the ingredients used can change every day.
“Our suppliers will call us and say, 'Hey we have ten rabbits or two Guinea hens,' and will want to know if we want them," says Lebsack. "Of course, we do, but there aren't enough of these to be showcased on our daily menu, so making things work with seasonally availability is a bit of a game. It is just part of the fun and adventure of doing what we do, everyday.”
Judging from RGE RD's current levels of success, this is a game that Lebsack and Fulton will be playing for a long time.