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"I've ordered stuff here that I've never had the chance to work with anywhere else," Roberts tells me. "There's always a chef in the kitchen. The cooks, the guys on the line, they come up with something they want to try, they run it by us and we try it. We have no boundaries."
This freedom -- this freak-show experiment in applied kitchen gimmickry -- means that Roberts, his partner-chefs and his galley (which started out overstuffed with 23 culinary students and recent graduates but has since been whittled down to a core of ten) cook whatever they want to cook or whatever they are asked to cook by a crowd of regulars who've been getting their dinner at Frisco's three, sometimes four, sometimes five nights a week. On the night I dropped in, someone in the kitchen had wanted to make stromboli, stuffed with what tasted like a puttanesca sauce without the tomatoes -- all ground meats and sliced black olives and tender artichokes in a decidedly French pastry shell that rivaled those turned out by the best bakeries in town. I was sitting at a table, devouring stromboli, when one of the cooks came out with an armful of stroganoff packaged for the prepped-food coolers. I asked if they had any left in the back that I could add to my dinner, and the guy at the counter said absolutely, it would just be a few minutes.
It took much longer than that, because the cook who'd prepped the initial batch of stroganoff went back onto the line and did a whole fresh order, warming the pasta, grilling off sliced chunks of steak, making a fresh sauce heavier on the butter and lighter on the cream than your standard-issue stroganoff, spiking the thing with black trumpet mushrooms, and finishing it with a hot-shot of paprika. But I was more than willing to forgive the wait, because each bite was better than the last.
7057 W. Alaska
Lakewood, CO 80226
Region: West Denver Suburbs
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Stromboli: $4.99< br>Mac-n-cheese (normal): $6.99
Mac-n-cheese (five-cheese): $7.99
Steak hash: $7.99
When I mention the stroganoff to Roberts, he knows exactly who cooked it: a guy they found through the professional program at Cook Street -- the school that produced the majority of the staff still working at Frisco's -- who has a Northern European background, was taught by his grandmother, then trained French and developed a love for Italian. "That's the kind of guys we get," he says. "They have a lot of different backgrounds as far as styles go, and that way we don't have to make a conscious effort to do any one kind of food. We don't have to have any labels. It's just whatever comes out of the kitchen."
Sometimes what comes out is fantastic -- that stroganoff, the stromboli, a brunch hash of grilled flank steak, cubed potatoes and eggs dripping with scratch hollandaise. Sometimes it isn't: Roberts's guys have a tendency to trip over their own egos or stumble simply from a lack of experience. One night the macaroni and cheese was a sticky, banal mess of al dente elbow macaroni and broccoli florets, on another a punishing mix of five cheeses that was too clever by half, the kitchen having scoured the globe for varieties I'd never heard of, when a nice farm cheddar would have been just fine. I tried a grilled pork loin plated over a Southwestern disaster of roasted chiles, black beans that hadn't been soaked long enough, and grilled corn cut right from the cob (a nice touch) but pulled too quickly from the oven, leaving the kernels hard and cold. While these blunders were the sort you'd expect from guys still learning their trade, the pork itself was excellent -- perfectly grill-marked and done mid-rare, topped with a mildly spicy barbecue sauce. Even with the mistakes, this entree was better than some I've been served at normal houses staffed by alleged pros.
"I've always been a manager or a trainer," Roberts explains. "But I've always been in the back of the house, okay? I've always had a sauté pan in my hand. I've always had burns all over my arms. And that's fine, but I always had this problem with the front of the house, because the way those managers thought was always about selling food. I wanted to educate people about food. I never got a chance to get out in the front and bring food to people. Until now."
He isn't talking about bringing food to people as a server. He's talking about bringing food to people, showing them the potential of great ingredients, teaching them (and, by example, his kitchen) what can happen when those ingredients land in good hands.
That's what Roberts has now at Frisco's: good hands. Five months have passed since the place opened, and it's taken every day to weed out the idiots, the losers, the guys who'd managed to get through years of schooling without absorbing one ounce of skill. The ten cooks left "are getting to be rock stars," Roberts says. "They're solid, solid guys. Not super-skilled yet, but they're getting there, you know?" And while he's not sure how long Frisco's will be able to keep working without a menu, without a net, he's going to hold out as long as he can.