Even for the restaurant business, notoriously susceptible to daft trends, the period of the open kitchen struck me as exceptionally ridiculous. I mean, do customers really not know what cooking looks like? Don’t they have kitchens of their own at home—and didn’t they go out to get away from them? But while I am happy that this trend is dead, I can still make a case for one exception—or at least say that it is a shame that the finest design feature of a restaurant called Rush, in Calgary, is one that you are unlikely to ever see: la cuisine.
This one is a showpiece. Two thousand shiny square feet, all told, centred by a bespoke $100,000 cooking suite from Montague, of California, an island at the centre of the action—one side designated for cooking fish and the other for meat. There is a refrigerator with four ice-filled shelves conceived to keep fish usably fresh for an extra week. The set-up includes four separate immersion circulator baths for sous-vide cuisine—and two fiercely hot planchas (one chrome, one cast iron) for applying the ideal finishing sear to the meat and fish slow-cooked in those plastic bags. There are state-of-the-art proofers and steamers, extractor hoods equipped with five successive sets of filters and UV lights—and to cap things off, a granite counter at the pass is precisely 42 inches high so that the chefs posted there do not have to bend over while saucing and garnishing their plates.
“For me this kitchen represents the best of [the kitchens at] the French Laundry, Daniel and the Inn at Little Washington,” Rush executive chef Justin Leboe tells me on the tour, speaking of three great American restaurants at which he has put in time.
Leboe is a Vancouverite and his kitchen career started there, rather predictably in the employ of Umberto Menghi, for whom he washed dishes. The CV has been on an upward trend since, and has included stints at Accolade, in Toronto, as well as at Escabèche in Niagara-on-the-Lake, at Patrick O’Connell’s aforementioned Inn, as well as a handful of well-considered stages at Daniel, Jean-Georges and the French Laundry. He was executive chef at Waterloo House in Bermuda when the call came from Calgary. “There I was on the beach, age 34, a faxed legal document in my hands,” Leboe recalls.
The most compelling part was the plans for the restaurant: the blueprints were incomplete—the kitchen was a blank page. And so, apparently, was the cheque waiting to pay for it. Leboe arrived in Calgary in September 2007 to find the city overrun with construction cranes. In the summer of 2008, a couple of months before Rush opened, oil hit US$145. “You couldn’t wipe the smile off people’s faces here,” Leboe recalls.
Rush opened in September; by November, oil was under US$50 a barrel, and while customers were not all staying home, they were definitely in the mood for more modest dining. But good restaurants have weathered far worse (for example I never did make it to the opening party for Yannick Bigourdan and David Lee’s Splendido, on Sept. 11, 2001). And a recent visit to Rush found them doing respectably—half full on a Tuesday night.
My meal began with an amusing take on a breakfast of corn flakes, with tiny potato crisps standing in for the cereal and a small pitcher of vichyssoise doubling for the milk. Highlights of what followed included a salad of barely cooked lobster with grapefruit and some impressively tender pork, cooked en confit, shredded, and pressed back against its crispy skin. An agreeable meal that did beg the question: precisely how much did the kitchen have to do with it? Did it really help the chef cook better or faster?
“A bit of both,” Leboe had asserted earlier in his fastidiously organized kitchen.
One might also assert that it will have to be a lot of both to earn back the three-quarter-of-a-million-dollar investment in the kitchen. And I can add that I have enjoyed many superior meals assembled in kitchens equipped at a small fraction of that cost. But then, if someone cold-called me to offer a two-hundred-grand upgrade for my home kitchen including an immersion circulator, a steam oven, Rorgue range, counter-flush deep fryer, and a wood-burning brick oven for the parking spot outside, I would answer a resounding yes, too. So hats off to Leboe’s good fortune—and take note that if you drop by Rush, ask for a tour. jacob richler
SPECIAL EVENT: Jacob Richler and Scott Feschuk will host a chef’s tasting menu at Rush on June 7.
To attend, go to www.macleans.ca/taste