By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
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By Nate Hemmert
Last week, on the day I filed my review of Frasca (see review), chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson was on a plane headed for New York City, where Food & Wine magazine was about to name him one of the ten Best New Chefs for 2005.
For Lachlan, for Frasca, for everyone in the house, this is huge. Myriad awards are given each year to deserving chefs and deserving houses, but this prize has particularly stiff requirements. For starters, the competition is nationwide, making for a big pool of contenders. Second, while F&Whas spies crawling all over the nation's top restaurant towns (just as I have mine skulking around Denver), a chef still has to make a lot of noise just to get noticed. And third, in order to qualify, a chef cannot have been in an executive position for more than five years. In other words, he (or she) is most likely young in years, and certainly young in terms of career.
While this limit keeps the game fresh -- with young turks coming in each year and old ones being retired in a kitchen version of Logan's Run -- it also forces (or at least encourages) chefs to become brilliant ahead of the curve. It used to be that a chef didn't hit his stride until his early thirties and wasn't considered possessed of any real mastery until he saw forty coming up on the horizon. And after that? Maybe ten good years before the booze, the long hours, the heat and the pressure started taking its toll.
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But that was then. Today the pace has accelerated, driven by an influx of dedicated galley professionals (as opposed to the blue-collar accidental geniuses and flaky headcases who used to make up the rank and file of most kitchens) and their need to hit it hard, hit it fast, and succeed while still pretty enough to negotiate a decent Food Network deal. Chefs are getting their first houses at younger and younger ages, with the break-even point (when you're either in a position to make your career, or thinking about leaving the kitchen and getting a job pushing used cars) drawing down toward the near side of thirty rather than après-forty. The Food & Wineaward, with its built-in expiration date, illustrates that trend. Rocco DiSpirito picked up his F&W award in 1999, when he was 32 years old. Wylie Dufresnewas 31 when he got his in 2001. Grant Achatzwas 28.
What F&W is really rewarding is precociousness. The award is a measure of future potential now being demonstrated as youthful brilliance, and the talented Lachlan -- who's all of 29 years old -- couldn't be more deserving. Given that he probably has at least thirty more full-bore years before he starts slowing down, it's a little scary to think what he might be able to accomplish.
So good for Lachlan, good for Frasca and good for us, too, because this makes three -- count 'em, three -- F&Waward winners working in the Denver/Boulder area. Bryan Moscatello took the prize in 2003, at the ripe old age of 34, when Adega's was the only kitchen he had to worry about. In 1999, a year before his thirtieth birthday, James Mazzio (who trained under another F&Wwinner, Charles Dale was the golden boy.
And the F&W honor isn't Frasca's only good news. At about the same time Lachlan got the top-secret word to book a flight to NYC, barman and grape-pusher Nate Ready (the guy behind the bar who doesn't look old enough to drink) learned that he'd passed the first two parts of his Master Sommelier exam, nailing both the straight book-learnin' and the practical tasting sections. He's still got to score high on the final portion of the test -- service -- but he's already making plans to take it either later this year in London or next year in San Francisco.
There are only about a hundred Masters in the world, with sixty-some working in this country -- and Bobby Stuckey, Frasca's wine director, is one of them. So when Ready passes, Frasca may be the only restaurant in the United States (and maybe the world) that can boast two Master Sommeliers on staff. Does a place need two? No. But still, how cool would that be?
Like Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson, Ready is also a veteran of the French Laundry. So that means Frasca can now lay claim to a James Beard Award-winning sommelier and floorman (Stuckey was at the Laundry when it picked up a second Beard award for Outstanding Restaurant Service); a chef crowned by those party animals over at F&Was one of the ten best whippersnappers in the country; a total of four Laundry veterans on its opening staff, since pastry chef Brendan Sodikoff is a Thomas Keller alum, too (he also makes the only dessert in town worth a $21 price tag: a spread of handmade, filled Valrhona chocolates that are so good you may want to sell a couple of pints of blood if you can't raise the scratch any other way); one Master Sommelier on the floor; and one more in the making.