Justin Leboe Best Chef

Congratulations on being chosen best chef in Calgary by our readers.

Thanks. It’s always gratifying when it’s readers rather than critics. It makes it a little bit more special.

Why is that?

I think it’s more of a natural response it’s more of a broad spectrum. Food writers and critics in general have very specific things that they look for because… that’s what they do for a living. To hear it from the people that come through the doors every day is a little bit more gratifying. I see critics every two or three years — I don’t get reviewed weekly you know what I mean? Critics have enough on their plate food writers bloggers have enough on their plate. As a restaurant as a chef and as an owner you don’t see them. They come in when you open then they come in maybe once or twice in the next couple years with their hat on as their actual job. You don’t get reviewed quarterly — food writers would be 500 pounds.

In Calgary we have a lot of well-known chefs now. Is the scene quite competitive? Do you get along with each other?

I think it’s competitive in a healthy way. There’s a certain amount of camaraderie with most of the chefs in the industry. You tend to identify with people that are in your peer group and go through on a daily basis what you go through and I don’t think this industry is any different. It’s competitive in that it’s businesses and restaurants sometimes at this level like to push the envelope a little bit and be as progressive as possible while maintaining an accessibility… but I think that part of it’s healthy. I think what we have in Calgary is pretty special in that there’s a real camaraderie even amongst the generations because there’s some people that live and work in Calgary that when I started cooking were my role models examples mentors. It’s cool now to be sort of like mentioned in the same breath as the people you spent 20 years looking up to.

So do you think local chefs push each other to be better?

I think so. Certainly amongst a core group of 10 or 15 chefs we do push each other to be better and I think the industry and the city as a whole benefits from that — looking at what somebody else is doing and going that’s really cool. There’s sometimes — maybe not even in Calgary but because the industry is so small in North America — that you’ll see something and you’ll be “I really wish I had thought of that.”

Did you always know you were going to be a chef from the time you were a kid?

I think I did. I started washing dishes at 13 for a really famous chef in Vancouver at the time and they literally two weeks after I started sent me home for two months because I wasn’t 14 and we were breaking child labour laws. I had to go home until I was 14 and then I came back to work. But I remember the first shift that they marched me through the kitchen and I actually saw professional chefs and professional cooks at work I just sort of intrinsically knew at that moment that that’s what I wanted to do. The problem was I was 13 and there’s a whole lot of second-guessing later on as to whether the 13-year-old was right. So I went to university to go to law school with an undergrad degree in poli sci and philosophy but at the end of the day this is what I felt most fulfilled by this was the thing that made me the happiest. So I left school and just started writing letters to the best chefs that I could find and the best restaurants at the time that I could find…. In 15 years I moved eight times geographically back and forth across the country across the continent and to Australia.

But you were able to work?

I was able to work. I worked at a lot of places for free. It was a lot of saving and sacrificing at the current job to make sure you had three to six months to go and work somewhere else for free. And that served me really well — I don’t have a formal culinary education and I don’t have a formal apprenticeship I never spent a day in culinary school. It’s funny because they ask me to go and talk to students now.

So you go to teach but you were never a student?

I go to share my experience really and help prepare them for certain realities — the upsides and downsides of what we do for a living.

I know you’ve worked at some of the top restaurants in North America and of course you were here at Rush so why did you make the move from fine dining to Model Milk?

For me it really started when I was living in Los Angeles in about 2004. I was working at one of North America’s best hotels ran the dining room was the second in command for the entire hotel kitchen and there was really no worry about cost or luxury. At the same time it began to dawn on me that maybe this didn’t fit my personality didn’t reflect who I was as a chef or who I was as a person. From 2004 there was still about six years of working in fine dining before I made the move to Model Milk. There was a business plan written in 2004 for what would eventually become Model Milk so there was a six-year evolution of that idea to get to this point. I just wanted a place that was maybe more casual maybe more accessible a little friendlier and far less formal than fine dining. A place where people came in and were sort of surprised at the lack of convention that sort of takes place at a restaurant that executes food at a level as high as we can buys ingredients that are the best that we can uses things like lobster and truffles on a menu but puts them into a format that’s a little bit loud feels a little bit like a dinner party. That was the goal for me was to take the formality out of it and bring back the dinner party feeling of 10 people around a table.

So great food but less intimidating.

Far less intimidating. There’s a certain amount of trepidation that goes with fine dining that I think leads to indigestion personally. And I’ve experienced that — even though I’ve done this for 20 year now I feel it. The first time I ate at a Michelin three-star in Spain — it was one of the world’s greatest restaurants — I had to walk up and down the block four times to work up the nerve to go in because it had such a daunting intimidating aura about it. For me that was really the second time the light went on that this might not be the thing that makes me the happiest…. I spent a fair amount of time in The French Laundry kitchen where chef Thomas Keller was and is a role model — no disrespect to him but Model Milk reflects me maybe more than that does.

You needed to do your own thing.

Yes absolutely.

I understand you change the menu so often you keep track.

Yeah we number the menus chronologically in the top corner.

Why is that?

It started out as a way for us to see a progression. We started out changing the menu every week and then we realized that probably wasn’t a good business model for the restaurant so then we slowed it down and changed it every two weeks and now every two to three weeks there’s a fairly substantial change to the menu. There’s some things of course that will never come off and some things we take off and we get complaints to high heaven about them.

Chicken and waffles?

We took it off — it was the worst week of my life. It’s staying off for a while though I’m adamant. There’s other stuff on the menu to eat and so far everybody’s been really good. We had one family come in last week for chicken and waffles and the kids were all excited about it so yes we managed to get them chicken and waffles. But outside of that it’s done to help us change with the seasons. Some things have really short seasons especially in Alberta so it gives us the flexibility if we change menus that often to use that stuff. The other side of that is that cooks stay motivated the morale stays higher they stay excited about food. They get complacent if the menu doesn’t change for six months they cook the same thing over and over. I’ve experienced it personally — shockingly it’s at one of America’s best restaurants and the menu maybe four dishes changed every year and they were so protective of their status as a great restaurant…. Many Michelin three-stars and restaurants at this level are so paranoid about changing anything for fear that it will jeopardize their standing that they just don’t. As a cook in one of those restaurants it’s the worst experience in the world to stand at a station for eight or nine months and cook exactly the same thing every day. You get really good at those five or six things that you do but…. I want the restaurant to never be static. I hope that Model Milk never gets to the point that we become so conservative with how we view where the restaurant’s at that we’re afraid to change anything so the first idea was to keep changing the menu to avoid that mentality of getting your feet stuck in cement and secondly was to keep the cooks interested and thirdly was the seasons. It’s worked well for us so far.

Can you tell me about your partnership with Concorde and the plan to open new independent restaurants?

No (laughs). That was a very organic conversation that started months ago and ended up here. It was sort of a conversation of where do we go what does everybody want and we ended up with a partnership where Model Milk comes out of Concorde and goes into a new company. Concorde is still partners — that relationship is rock solid. I look up to all the partners I have within Concorde but I’ve worked most closely with Brad (Morrison) and Victor (Choy) — those guys are just so part of what we do here that they needed to be part of the new company. I needed them because they’re great sounding boards and there’s a lot of synergy and seeing the world the same way that goes on with the three of us that it’s really easy to sit in a room and make decisions. The partnership works really well. So it gave me the opportunity to own something outright to run something completely on a day-to-day basis and by the same token I get to work with this great group of people. We’ve got a few new concepts coming up. One is an extension and events space for Model Milk that we’re calling PDR that’s going to be sort of a pop-up space. The idea is that we’ll sell it for private events but we’ll also use it for our own pop-ups and we’re talking to restaurants and cocktail bars across Canada right now about bringing them to town for a weekend and having them open their own restaurant for three days in Calgary in that space…. When we start to do that I think that will be a lot of fun for everybody involved.

You’re also opening a brand new spot next door?

Yes called Pigeonhole. Pigeonhole was born in a cab in London and it was Brad Victor and I sitting in the back of the cab talking about an idea for a restaurant concept and we were talking about — in terms of formatting of the food — ethnicity and whether it was one particular ethnic group or one particular format. One of them said “Why would we limit ourselves?” And the other one said “You mean ‘pigeonhole.’” And the three of us just sort of looked at each other and went that has to be the name. It just fits perfectly for what we were talking about. If the spirit of Model Milk is a little bit irreverent and a little bit unconventional then Pigeonhole will probably be even more so. It still has attention to quality and attention to detail but it’s not formulaic. When it opens it will be the furthest thing from a set formula of what a restaurant is supposed to be as we can make it — to try and achieve more again of that same feeling that you’re in somebody’s house rather than in a restaurant.