A Life's Story
April 02, 2022
Gracious, vivacious and tenacious
Restaurateur Valerie Anne-Owen made an indelible mark on the people she knew and the people she fed
By: Geoff Kirbyson
When celebrities, musicians, politicians and other dignitaries chose her restaurant for fine dining while they were in Winnipeg, Valerie Anne-Owen didn’t worry about breaking the odd rule.
As the owner of Le Beaujolais in St. Boniface, she treated virtually every customer like an old friend, but occasionally she went a little bit further and looked the other way. After all, it’s not every day that actor Christopher Plummer, former premier Duff Roblin, singer Nana Mouskouri or Mother Theresa wanted to break bread — your bread — at Table 6.
“(Singer) Tom Jones came in one night and stayed until 4 a.m.,” says Ted St. Godard, who worked as a waiter there for a decade.
“If Tom Jones wants to keep drinking, we’ll serve him.”
Mother Theresa was less of a nighthawk, but she did have a second helping of Île Flottante, one of the restaurant’s signature desserts.
Anne-Owen’s businesses — she also owned Restaurant Dubrovnik and Provence Bistro at various times — were regularly cited among the best eateries in Canada.
But she didn’t get into the hospitality business because it had been a lifelong dream; it all started with an investment in property near the Manitoba legislature, which culminated in converting an old boarding house into Dubrovnik.
“It was about building a career and a path for herself,” says her daughter, Heather Owen.
Anne-Owen left home in Virden at age 16 and moved to Winnipeg, where she lived with another family and worked as a bank teller to put herself through high school at Garden City Collegiate.
“She was tenacious,” Heather says.
Anne-Owen, 71, died of cancer in January.
Perhaps not surprisingly, she had hundreds of cookbooks around the house and she was constantly clipping recipes out of magazines.
“She never stopped thinking about food, where it was going and its evolution. She was committed to healthy living and eating good food. She continued to take cooking classes, it was always a central part of her life. People used to love being invited out on her sailboat because there would be an amazing spread,” Heather says.
Her expertise and passion, of course, made her a tough customer in other establishments.
“She always had a very critical eye for what restaurants did well and what they didn’t do well. She thought very few restaurants were worth the experience. She preferred to cook her own food and eat at home.”
Family parties, however, were another matter and were usually held at one of the restaurants — how else are you going to feed dozens of relatives? — and various aunts, uncles and cousins took turns cooking in the kitchen.
“Some of my favourite memories were those private dinners for our family where we explored food and wine in a casual, wonderful way,” she says.
“For her, there was a formality to dining. It wasn’t the ceremony of it, it was the emotions and experiences of being with the people you enjoyed while you ate wonderful food and drank good wine.”
Anne-Owen was also very committed to her community, even bringing in chefs from out of town to teach the kitchen staff at other restaurants, not just her own.
“She really cared about the people around her. She touched a lot of lives because she took a sincere interest in them. She helped people with their careers, as a mentor. She was an incredibly caring person,” Heather says.
St. Godard says Anne-Owen wanted Le Beaujolais to be the best it could be and she pushed her staff to help make that goal a reality.
“I never put a plate in front of a guest who didn’t gasp a bit at the stunning beauty of the presentation,” he says.
She may have been demanding but she was willing to put in a little elbow grease of her own.
“She came in early and peeled the skin off tomatoes and pulled the strings out of celery. She expected much from her staff. She was tough but she had a mother’s toughness, tempered with an obvious fondness,” says St. Godard, who is a doctor now.
“I worked there so long I still have waiter nightmares, but also so long that I sometimes refer to a patient in Room 32 as being at Table 32.”
Shortly after Le Beaujolais opened its doors, Brian Owen started going there for dinner. The professor at what is now the Asper School of Business at the University of Manitoba found the owner to be quite pleasant and engaging.
One of the school’s administrators asked him if he’d like to go to a dinner celebrating the winner of the International Distinguished Entrepreneur Award in June, 1991. It was April at the time. There was a caveat, though — he had to take a date.
So, he called up the restaurant and asked Valerie if she’d like to go.
“This was like being in high school. She said, ‘Let me check the book.’ And I could hear flip, flip, flip. ‘Sure, I’m free.’ I had a date for 2 1/2 months from then,” he says.
Owen thought it might be a good idea for them to get to know each other beforehand, so they agreed to meet at Le Beaujolais to chat. After eating the delicious plate of hors d’oeuvres that was almost immediately put in front of him, he asked the owner of one of the best restaurants in the country to go out to dinner. They eventually agreed upon Vietnamese. They pulled up in front of one of Owen’s favourite spots but Valerie said she preferred to go to another one down the street.
Owen suggested looking at the first restaurant’s menu before going anywhere else, but she insisted.
“I’m slow sometimes but I’m not stupid,” he says with a laugh. “Her area of expertise is food and she had a reason she wanted to go to that place. Marion Warhaft had written about it in the Free Press the week before and said it was a must-visit place. We had a wonderful time and it became our restaurant. I bet we went there 20 times in the next year.”
But Le Beaujolais was their home base away from home.
Owen even got seconded to work behind the bar one New Year’s Eve.
“Didn’t you used to be a professor at the business school at the U of M?” one customer asked.
Owen even got up the gumption to invite her over for dinner at his house. After a few stir-fry meals, he asked if she cooked.
“Why would I cook?” she said. “I’ve got a chef!”
They moved in together in September, just five months after their first meeting.
“It was a strong, immediate connection. We really liked each other,” he says, adding they got married seven years later.
“I’d do it all again in a heartbeat if I had the opportunity.”
There was just one problem with living with a restaurateur — everything at the house was, essentially, restaurant property.
The sharpest steak knife? It’s at the restaurant. An oval serving plate? It’s at the restaurant. Even Owen’s favourite hair brush? It’s at the restaurant. Same with his second-favourite brush.
“I went out and bought 10 brushes for $4 each,” he says with a laugh.
During the spring of 1997, former premier Duff Roblin visited Le Beaujolais along with his wife and a few friends. The Red River Floodway, also known as “Duff’s Ditch,” had, quite literally, been a lifesaver during the recent “Flood of the Century.”
Anne-Owen greeted him at the door, thanked him for having had the floodway built back in the 1960s — which he acknowledged gracefully — and, as she was walking them to their table, realized that other patrons were looking up from their meals.
She stopped and addressed the entire restaurant, “Ladies and gentlemen, Duff Roblin, the saviour of Winnipeg!”
The other diners rose in unison to give him a standing ovation.
Anne-Owen is survived by her husband Brian, her children, Todd, Tim and Heather and their partners; her granddaughters, her brother and the members of her extended family.
She eventually retired from the restaurant business in 2008 and moved to the West Coast, where Brian had been running his company, Western Opinion Research, for several years. (They commuted back and forth in the interim.)
“She became a West Coast woman,” Heather says. “She embraced the lifestyle and learned how to sail. She ran and she learned how to Rollerblade, which was terrifying for us to watch.”
But even in retirement, the restaurant bug never really left her. She saw a story on the front page of the Vancouver Sun one day about a local eatery that had been called the best Chinese-food restaurant in the world outside of China.
“She said, ‘That guy is going to be run off his feet. I’m going to go and help him,’” Owen says.
“The next morning, she packed up her knives and walked in. She told the owner she used to own a restaurant in Winnipeg and after reading the newspaper, decided he’d need assistance with the media, reservations and keeping things organized. The owner was on the phone at the time. He handed it to her and said, ‘OK, you can start now.’”
Owen says the most succinct way to describe his wife is “interesting and exciting.”
“Whenever you were with her, she was doing interesting things and she excited you. There was always stuff going on,” he says.