Indo-Hawaiian fusion. A French restaurant-slash-sushi bar that opens at nine o'clock at night and cooks through to the morning. I've heard a lot of bad ideas in my time, have seen a lot of suicidal business plans and even been involved in a couple (an Irish farmhouse restaurant in central Florida, a white-tablecloth diner in upstate New York). But Frisco's Deli and Market may be the most unlikely concept yet.
It starts with two rookie owners, Steve Devery and Bryan Lee (the first a trained chef with almost no real-world restaurant experience, the second a former engineer on Boston's Big Dig), who sign on three trained chefs (Paul Reilly, who was schooled at the French Culinary Institute in New York and then made his bones at Le Bernardin; Teri Nelson, an ex of Whole Foods Market with a specialty in prepared, industrial production; and Thomas Roberts, a thirteen-year veteran who did time with Lidia Bastianich and Mario Batali before coming to Denver to manage the opening of the Capital Grille), and then plunk them down in a brand-new restaurant in a suburban shopping center alongside twenty-odd kids from the local culinary diploma mills. Their mission: to create a three-a-day restaurant plus deli, plus market, plus catering operation.
This sounds like a premise for the worst restaurant reality show ever.
It shouldn't matter that the owners have the best intentions; most first-time owners do, and most first-time owners go broke fast. It shouldn't matter that the chef/managers are really putting in the hours, that the schoolkids on staff are quick learners. It shouldn't matter that Frisco's is located in a choice storefront in the new Belmar development, which is not your average shopping center. None of this should matter, because the basic idea -- essentially trying to cram a bistro into a deli simply by bashing the two of them together hard enough -- is ridiculous, a pipe dream of the terminally starry-eyed. It may look great on paper, seem possible in theory, but it's been tried before a thousand times, ten thousand times, and it never works. Eventually, the owners either smarten up and choose between the restaurant and the market, or they fail. Because in the simple and unforgiving economics of the food world, you can bank on this: If an idea doesn't work the first time someone tries it, it's probably not going to work the hundredth, either.
Except that it's working at Frisco's.
"It was an experiment," explains executive chef/marketing director/manager Thomas Roberts when I get him on the phone after a visit to Frisco's, determined to figure out exactly how much of his soul he had to sell to the devil to get this gig, and what the going rate might be. According to Roberts, the owners just wanted to see what would happen if they took a dozen or so young culinarians, put them under the command of a heavy hitter or two and let them go nuts. "It was an experiment with their life's savings, and I told them I thought they were crazy," he says. "But you know what? It seems to be working out for them."
Walking past Frisco's, you'd never guess at the noble experiment within. It looks just like any other yuppie storefront market hawking bagged artisan pastas and Stonewall Kitchen mustard, with a few steaks in the cold cases and some stinky French cheese in the window. Step inside, and it still seems like nothing special. Comforting earth-toned paint job, a nice mural along one wall, bottles of herbed olive oil for decor. At lunch, the counter does a brisk trade, serving fairly prosaic Boar's Head sandwiches and cold prepared salads to the Belmar window-shoppers and employees of the big-box retail outlets that surround the place. You could walk in and out of it a dozen times and never see anything unusual -- unless you happen to have an eye for food-world weirdness and think it's a little strange for so much real estate to be given over to tables, leaving room for only two wire racks of dry stock plus the meat case, the prepped-food case and the cheese case; or that for a place supposedly just making sandwiches and a few prepared meals, Frisco's appears to have an inordinately large kitchen with a lot of cooler space and too many white jackets running around.
I wasn't that smart, though. I just happened to wander in one night feeling a bit peckish, looking for a quick sandwich. Since there was no menu, no chalkboard list of specials, I asked the guy at the counter, "Do you guys do dinner?"
"Absolutely," replied the guy. "What do you feel like eating tonight?"
When I ask Roberts about the whole "what do you feel like eating" thing, he assures me that it's serious. "If we have it in the house, we can do it," he says. It's a little tough to hear him, because he's in his kitchen, clearing up the last of the day's lunch business so he can start setting up for dinner. "Our kitchen is very purveyor-driven," he explains. There are no order sheets for the produce companies, no worrying over pars and back stock. Instead, every morning Roberts calls up his guys at the warehouses to ask, "What looks good?," then has them send over the best of anything they've got. And that's dinner.
"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.
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.
"We're in a transition period now," he says. "Actually, we're constantly in a transition period. But I like being able to go out in the dining room and ask people, 'What do you feel like eating tonight?' I like how that feels. People have to understand that if they want the kitchen to make something special for them, they'll have to wait. We're not going to rush it just because you're in a hurry. If they want something fast, we have the prepared foods, we always have sandwiches. What we want are the foodies who want something really interesting to eat and who'll sit down and try us out."
And the foodies are coming. They're talking with the cooks, with the chef/managers, asking what's good. The guys who prepare their meals are bringing the plates right out to them, then checking back to see if everything's okay. The foodies are buying into Frisco's whole market-as-bistro concept.
Roberts watches over everything, frankly just as amazed as I am that the concept is working. He recognizes that so far, Frisco's has enjoyed a sort of charmed bubble, cooking for regulars, friends of the house and the captive audience of the upscale Belmar development, the owners' experiment underwritten by the slamming lunch business, the catering, the deli and market. But should word leak out about the little joint in Lakewood where they'll cook whatever your heart desires? "We're just getting to the point where we can stand on our own," Roberts responds. "I'm not sure what that means for the future yet."
Is he worried? Hell, yes. He's a smart guy, and he knows how easily something going so right can quickly go wrong. Too much business can be just as bad as no business, and a sudden rush can kill a place as surely as a sudden retreat. When you're working in a food-fantasy land like Frisco's, there's no telling how long the dream will last.
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