“As far as being a chef goes, I just liked to eat! But everyone thought it was a good idea as they didn’t know what else to do with me,” says Chef Paul Rogalski of Calgary’s Rouge Restaurant.
Food was always a large part of Rogalski’s family; his maternal grandfather part-owned Calgary’s Bonton Meat Market, and his father’s Ukrainian parents fed the family with the produce they grew.
By grade 10 Rogalski had decided to be a chef, taking three years of food science at Sir Winston Churchill High School, and working at Fairmont Banff Springs in the summer.
“I was hooked, and started working at the Palliser Hotel,” says the chef. “Before I knew it I was running the kitchen at the Boulevard by myself, and I hadn’t even gone to SAIT yet.”
Rogalski continued to work at the Palliser throughout his culinary course at SAIT and beyond, until being offered a job at La Chaumiere. “I didn’t really know much,” he says. “But when I talked to the executive sous chef, he said, ‘Give me your notice right now! Go learn how to cook and don’t let anyone talk you out of it!’”
Not long after, the chef resigned and he was promoted. “So here I am, I’m a 22 year-old kid and executive chef of La Chaumiere restaurant, one of the top two restaurants in town,” Rogalski says.
His cooking epiphany came during a week with John Ash at Fetzer Valley Oaks, trying a fig still warm from the sun. “Right there my focus went from taking food and manipulating it to try and make it into something that it’s not, to celebrating the goodness that it is at that precise moment when its at its best – and it changed how I thought,” he explains.
Rogalski wanted international experience, so he and his wife went to Singapore, where as a student his team had competed at the World Cooking Championships and won gold. However, aged 25, he was legally too young to work there, so he returned to work at Delta Bow Valley, followed by a stint in Grand Cayman, and finally back at La Chaumiere where he met business partner Olivier Reynaud, who had just emigrated from France.
They invested everything in Rouge, but success took time. “Then in 2010 the San Pellegrino thing happened (Rouge was named as one of their 100 World’s Best Restaurants) and it changed everything overnight,” he says. “It changed the world.”
So what is Chef Rogalski’s special bottle?
“I actually don’t have an inventory of wine at home,” he says. “If we have multi cases, we seem to invite over multi people to enjoy them with us, so nothing sticks around very long in our house,” he adds.
On the table is a bottle of 2006 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon, a gift from an employee who had to leave the kitchen to try working front of house, where it’s a lot less dangerous.
“He had tons of aptitude; I really liked him a lot, and he asked if I would endorse him for a program at SAIT,” explains the chef. “It was a no brainer for me, I said ‘hell yes, you’re awesome’ and I wrote a letter of recommendation. This guy rocks, and he sent me a very sincere thank you. That’s so thoughtful – a thank you for something that I didn’t need to be thanked for.”
And when will he open the bottle? Rogalski was recovering from a bout of pneumonia when we chatted, but answered, “To share it with somebody who enjoys wine is the big thing, and good conversation and good wine is wonderful all the time, but I do find it’s something to be enjoyed with friends. Today would have been a perfect day – damned pneumonia!”