Rge Rd’s Blair Lebsack named first Edmontonian Hokanson Chef in Residence

Chef to share the value of sustainability – in more ways than one

Like all restaurateurs, Blair Lebsack (Cook ’01) felt the impact of the pandemic – though not quite in the same way.

When health restrictions shuttered the hospitality industry in 2020, Rge Rd joined the mass, unwelcome pivot to takeout. Having never stocked up on to-go boxes that were suddenly in short supply, the restaurant initially resorted to sending out orders on old plates.

It was, Lebsack recalls, “no fun at all.”

But that time was also unexpectedly validating, and not just because so many customers stepped up to support from a safe distance. As it turns out, the food philosophy upon which Rge Rd was based would help see the restaurant through.

In 2013, Lebsack and his wife Caitlin Fulton opened what was then a single, cozy dining room furnished with tables made from old barn wood in Edmonton’s 124 Street shopping and entertainment district. It was a bricks-and-mortar expression of their focus on buying almost exclusively from local producers – then an uncommon approach.

That foray into farm-to-table cuisine attracted accolades.

Immediately, that foray into farm-to-table cuisine attracted accolades. Noteworthy publications gushed, ranking Rge Rd on regional and national best-of lists (in March, it made Edify magazine's Best Overall category for the 10th time, in which it has placed first five times).

But the real success was stability during an unprecedented challenge. As other restaurants struggled with supply chains disrupted by COVID-19, Rge Rd didn’t. Takeout boxes aside, “we actually had zero issues,” says Lebsack.

Rge Rd’s food suppliers were not only within the province but small enough that their staff could operate safely and therefore reliably. Produce and proteins could ship as normal.

“So all of these systems we had set up, we realized how important they were,” says Lebsack.

That’s just part of the message of the value of sustainable practices that he’ll share with students as NAIT’s 2024 Hokanson Chef in Residence. The appointment makes history for the program, which has brought chefs from across North America to campus. Never before has it enlisted one within walking distance of campus. Nor has any chef been a grad.

From March 11 to 15, Lebsack will be able to share a story of homegrown success that has seen Rge Rd not only survive but thrive, expanding to include a retail shop featuring the products that made the operation what it is today.

“To go back to NAIT and show people that it did work,” says Lebsack modestly, “I think that’s pretty neat.”

The Rd back to NAIT

chef and co-owner blair lebsack at the butchery at Rge Rd, west edmonton

“We've been wanting this for a long time,” says Culinary Arts and Professional Food Studies head Perry Michetti (Cooking ’90), who spearheaded the idea of Lebsack taking on the role.

The Hokanson Chef in Residence was introduced in 2009, beginning with the selection of Vancouver-based chef Rob Feenie for the role. It’s now an annual educational tradition at NAIT (see sidebar below). In a way, Lebsack’s candidacy was set even before the program’s inauguration.

In the mid-2000s, Michetti attended an event at the now closed Union Bank Inn’s Madison’s Grill. Lebsack was cooking. “At the end of the dinner I thought, ‘That's probably some of the best food I've eaten in Edmonton, ever,’” says Michetti.

Later, Lebsack treated him to a tour of the kitchen, explaining how the menu involved onsite butchering of whole animals from local growers. Michetti was struck by the novelty. “I was like, ‘You could be onto something really cool here.’”

In fact, he was so impressed that he convinced the chef to join NAIT as an instructor – for a little while, at least. Lebsack taught from 2010 to 2013. “We knew that he wasn't going to stay.”

Lunch by Chef Blair Lebsack

On Thursday, March 14, Hokanson Chef in Residence Blair Lebsack will lead a public lunch service of his design at Ernest's Dining Room, NAIT's on-campus restaurant:

  • three-course set menu (drinks not included)
  • $28/person (includes tax and gratuity)

Book a reservation by emailing ernests@nait.ca or by calling at 780.471.8676.

He had plans. Even before studying cooking, Lebsack had fallen in love with restaurants. “They transported you to another place,” he remembers feeling. “The music, the decor – all these things made you feel like you could have been anywhere.”

But there was, really, only one place he wanted to emulate: home.

Lebsack grew up on a mixed farm near Red Deer. They ate what they grew. The flavours were authentic and rich, and they surreptitiously set his palate.

“It made me realize how great the products were,” says Lebsack. “I remember being 18, the first time I moved out of the house, and going to the grocery store and thinking, ‘These vegetables are horrible.’” He’d go pick from his grandmother’s garden instead.

Rge Rd, and the path it made for Lebsack to return to NAIT now, has all of this experience and insight baked into it. When he and Fulton saw the “untapped potential” of Alberta in the local restaurant community, they saw an opportunity. “Let’s let our talents put this on a plate and put it in a restaurant,” they thought.

“When it comes to really promoting and using local food, he is the Godfather,” says Michetti. “And nobody has ever done it better.”

Another kind of sustainability

the butchery at rge rd, a restaurant co-owned by blair lebsack in edmonton

Today, Lebsack connects not just customers and local producers, but chefs and producers too. In 2020, he and Fulton “doubled down” on their concept by opening The Butchery, Rge Rd’s retail outlet.

“We essentially get all of our proteins from The Butchery,” says Rosario Caputo (Culinary Arts ’05), owner of Impasto Lab, a private dining operation. Those proteins – lamb, beef and more – are from the same suppliers he relied on for his restaurant, Cibo, which he closed in 2021.

“Blair has a reputation as one of the leaders in showcasing farm-to-table and [in] building that relationship with the farms that are raising these animals.”

Caputo believes such role-modelling has improved the local culinary community as a whole. “I feel like [Blair] opened the door for other chefs to take that approach as well.”

For that alone, he recommends students “absorb everything that Blair has to say.”

But that will be just one part of Lebsack’s message. He’ll advocate another sort of sustainability as well.

Now 49 years old and still seeing room for growth as a chef and entrepreneur, Lebsack wants students to know that food and hospitality can nourish healthy, long-term careers. Over the years, he and Fulton have moved Rge Rd staff into positions to accommodate lifestyle changes. He wants students to see similar futures for themselves – for their sakes and his.

“You need young people in the industry because they have a vibrancy and excitement,” says Lebsack.

What’s more, says Michetti, aspiring chefs need to know that their future can play out in Alberta. Lebsack is proof. He never worked outside of the province. Instead, he honed his craft – and his vision – as a young chef alongside experts at revered restaurants close to home.

“He's the local guy who made it here in Edmonton and is doing tremendous things,” says Michetti. “Our students are going to think, ‘Hey, he can do it, maybe I can, too.’”

Lebsack wouldn’t disagree. There’s no secret in Rge Rd’s sauce – its suppliers are listed right on the menu, like a how-to guide. If the goal of his restaurant is to transport guests anywhere, the delicious irony may be that it’s only more deeply into the heart of Alberta.

“What we do works,” says Lebsack. “And it should work for everybody.”

blair lebsack, 2024 nait hokanson chef in residence, at Ernest's restaurant at NAIT

A brief history of the Hokanson Chef in Residence

hokanson chefs in residence connie desousa and john jackson with students at NAIT

Thanks to a gift from philanthropists John and Susan Hokanson, the Hokanson Chef in Residence program brings the cream of the culinary crop to NAIT for an annual week of inspiration and instruction for students.

Each chef has brought a distinct food philosophy and industry-tested skills to the polytechnic. Since 2009, it has included 14 chefs, including the likes of Susur Lee, Lynn Crawford and Calgarians Connie DeSousa and John Jackson.

It’s the only program of its kind in Canada.

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