Brik on York’s Shoshana Frost is training the staff on the Acunto Mario Classico wood-fired oven that was shipped from Italy, then installed and put through an eight-day curing process after a month at sea. Frost is no stranger to Acunto ovens; this handmade brick model will be the centerpiece of her menu of pizzas, small plates and entrees at Brik. Before signing on as executive chef at the wine bar, which is slated to open later this month, Frost was the corporate chef for the Wood Fired Oven Baker, a Denver-based company run by Ellie Olson that imports Acunto ovens (and other kitchen equipment) for American restaurants.
That was the job that brought Frost to Denver, and part of the reason that owner Travis Gee hired her at Brik. Frost had been living in Arizona, working as a chef for two wine bars while also running her own restaurant-consulting company, when Olson recognized her talents with Italian ingredients and hired her as a consultant to teach kitchen staff how to properly break down and slice prosciutto on the imported manual slicers her company sells. It was a gig that meant a fair amount of travel, but Frost couldn’t take time away from her responsibilities at the wine bars.
“I couldn’t do it all,” she explains. Instead, she took a full-time position with Olson and moved to Denver, while still continuing her consulting business. One of her consulting jobs was helping Gee design a kitchen and menu for the wine bar and eatery he was planning for the corner of Colfax Avenue and York Street. The menu the two came up with centered on Neapolitan pizzas and other oven-roasted dishes, and owed a great deal to Frost’s detailed knowledge of Italian ovens — and fondness for the pies that come out of them. Gee and Frost clicked immediately, and he soon offered her the executive-chef position.
Frost wasn’t always a pizza aficionado; as a child, her tastes ran toward fancier foods. “It wasn’t until I found Neapolitan pizza as an adult that I fell in love with pizza,” she admits, adding that the style allows the chef’s personality to shine through. “You get so personal with it when you start the dough from flour, water, yeast and salt and you stretch the cheese yourself.”
Although she wasn’t making pizzas when she was a kid, Frost has always loved cooking. Before she was ten, she created menus on Friday so that she could cook for her parents all weekend. “I set a few pieces of toast on fire,” she recalls, but she kept at it, and as a teenager created special dinners for her parents’ anniversary, which fell on Valentine’s Day.
“I grew up Jewish, so a lot of my cooking was influenced by that,” she adds.
In addition to cooking, Frost was passionate about the performing arts and attended the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, where she graduated a year early with concentrations in vocals and dance. In college her path was less clear, but she started working in restaurants for money — first in the front of the house, but “I was shy and gravitated to the kitchen because of that,” she says.
Eventually, Frost moved to New York City, and while she was working in restaurants, she also ate in as many high-end places as she could, then attempted to replicate dishes that were her favorites. One of those was an oxtail salad at Mario Batali’s restaurant Lupa: “I must have spent a year trying to get it right,” she remembers. But another move was in the works: “When I was in New York, I met my [now] ex-wife, who was from Boston, so we moved out there,” Frost explains.
After positions in restaurants in the Gloucester area, including executive sous-chef at the Eastern Point Yacht Club, Frost was hired by the Emerson Inn by the Sea in Rockport. “The day I got there, they had to fire their executive chef, so they offered it to me,” she says. Still, Frost missed “being in the trenches,” as she puts it, and so took a job at the Lobster Pool, a seafood shack in Rockport “with an open kitchen where it got up to 136 degrees.”
“I ran expo,” she adds. “What was fun about that was shucking 1,500 lobsters a day... I didn’t want what they refer to as ‘getting soft hands.’”
But after Frost and her wife separated, lobsters weren’t enough to keep her in New England, so she moved to Arizona to be closer to family — and in the process found the next phase of her career. Frost’s introduction to wood-fired cooking and Neapolitan pizzas came about when she worked in Vera Pizza Napolitana (VPN)-certified kitchens around the state and learned the details of the craft, which she started sharing as a consultant.
Now that she has her own kitchen with an artisan oven, Frost is thinking about how to let her own creativity come through in techniques and recipes. Rather than sticking with the rigid rules required to earn VPN certification, for example, she’s veering from tradition just a little — sourcing organic canned tomatoes instead of imported San Marzanos and using a spiral dough mixer instead of the VPN-mandated fork mixer. (Hers is still the compact but powerful Mecnosud brand sold by Wood Fired Oven Baker.)
Frost’s oven expertise is impressive; she talks about the split between Acunto brothers Mario and Gianni and describes how Mario went on to develop a “vulcano” style for his ovens, while Gianni stuck with the traditional domed roof. (Mario also makes a classic domed-roof version, which is what now occupies a considerable percentage of Brik’s kitchen.) Her experience as a corporate chef for the import company means that she knows every detail of how the ovens run and how to get the most out of them. “The fact that I know that the oven floor is exactly 13.77 inches thick,” she says, is part of what sets her apart.
But although she’s all about the technical details, Frost also loves the variables that make working with Neapolitan pizza so challenging — and rewarding. “I think it’s more handcrafted, more delicate,” she explains. “You can’t just toss a Neapolitan crust twelve feet in the air. It’s more of an expression; you can personalize it.”
When Brik opens, she’ll be personalizing her pizzas and the rest of the menu with house-cured meats and seasonal ingredients. “If we were open now, I’d have fiddlehead ferns,” she says, “and I’ll have Brussels sprouts — when they’re in season.” Even though that trendy ingredient can be purchased almost year-round from distributors, she promises to only have Brussels sprouts on her menu when they are available from Colorado farmers. She also insists on “never-ever” products for poultry, fish and beef: wild-caught fish and hormone- and antibiotic-free meats that have been raised cruelty-free. Frost is so adamant on this point that she’s putting a guarantee on the menu; she doesn’t believe in the phrase “where possible,” she says. “Do or do not. There is no ‘try,’” she adds, quoting Yoda with a laugh.
That attitude extends to Frost’s life outside of the kitchen, as well (although she admits that finding time for that life is rare these days). She recently learned how to swim: “It was my Eat, Pray, Love thing,” she explains. “I was terrified at first. The hardest part was getting over being embarrassed. I hyperventilated the first time I jumped in the water.” She started out practicing twice a day and now swims regularly as a form of stress relief; she’s also in a new relationship and enjoys spending time with her girlfriend and her girlfriend’s daughter.
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Despite the hours spent in a professional kitchen, Frost still cooks at home — right now, she says, she enjoys re-creating dishes from her time in New England, always using organic ingredients. (She’s been 100 percent organic since 2007.) She likes to try other restaurants — “I love Root Down, and if I’m going to go big or go home, it’s going to be Frasca,” she says — but after a sixteen-hour work day, she often can’t resist peanut butter straight from the jar.
Frost calls herself part of the “Oregon Trail Generation,” referring to the early computer game in which players gave instructions to guide their characters through a low-tech role-playing experience. She belongs to the group whose classrooms included personal computers as well as chalkboards. And this combination of access to technology without complete reliance on it continues to shape Frost’s emotional connection to her wood-burning oven. Yes, the logistics of having an oven built by hand with Italian clay delivered to a small Denver eatery involve laptops, smartphones and online payments, but now that that oven has been installed, the smell of pecan-wood smoke and the feel of the dough connect Frost to a more hands-on era, when making a pizza called for starting a fire, waiting for the oven to reach 800 or so degrees, mixing dough, working the mozzarella by hand, and putting it all together without ever relying on anything digital.
“It was almost as if I was going home,” Frost says of the moment when she realized cooking would be a career. “I’m not happy unless I’m cooking and I’m in a kitchen.”
And that home is now in the kitchen at Brik on York.