The Truffle's Rob Lawler on Spam musubi, brains, glutards and his favorite cheese
This is part one of my interview with Rob Lawler, former chef and the sovereign of cheese at the Truffle.
When you actually want someone to cut the cheese, Rob Lawler, who owns the Truffle with his wife, Karin, does it better than anyone. And Lawler, who took over Denver's stinky (in all the good ways) cheese emporium in early 2007, is particularly fond of one specific cow's-milk cheese from Switzerland: hoch ybrig. "It's just fantastic -- nutty, complex and earthy, with a really long finish," he says. Then again, muses Lawler, "talking about food and cheese is like dancing about architecture. It's all very subjective, but you really just have to try this stuff and experience it for yourself."
Long before Lawler became a bona fide cheese head, he was a chef -- and a vegetarian, although not simultaneously. "When I was sixteen, I was a dating a girl who was a vegetarian, and I got a couple of cookbooks and just started cooking, and that led me to consider cooking as a career, but once I started cooking professionally, I realized that being a chef and a vegetarian were incompatible," he says, noting that the year was 1992, when vegetarian cuisine wasn't exactly popular -- even in Boulder, where Lawler was living. "It would be different now, especially there," he concedes, "but I've always thought about where my food comes from, and I still don't drink milk or eat beef from feedlots."
When he began eating flesh again, he also found himself employed as a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant. He quickly moved on, landing a line-cook gig at the long-gone Mataam Fez in Boulder, where he cooked Moroccan food for nearly three years, and by the time he left, he knew that cooking was his calling. Lawler packed up his knives and made a beeline for San Francisco to attend culinary school, a move that also provided him with access to several of the country's best kitchens. "It was a fantastic experience; I worked at some amazing restaurants, and I just soaked it all in," he remembers.
He met Karin in San Francisco, too, and since they both had the travel bug, they jetted off to Europe for six months, stuffing their gullets in city after city after city before eventually returning to Boulder, where Lawler did time in the kitchens of several restaurants, including Q's and the Chautauqua Dining Hall. In 2002, he and Karin, now married to each other, moved to Denver, and Lawler secured a position at Sushi Den as the "tempura boy." "We went through no less than ten gallons of tempura batter a night, and that station was so fucking busy -- it was rough," he admits, which made leaving six months later an easy decision, plus Frank Bonanno was hiring kitchen staff for a new restaurant: Luca d'Italia. "He offered me a job as the pasta guy, and when lots of people left, I was eventually promoted to chef de cuisine," he remembers, working alongside an "all-star cast" that included Sean Cubberley, now the executive chef of Elway's in Vail.
And then Lawler got axed. "Frank has a really creative team," Lawler says, "and to be honest, I'm not the most creative chef, and I'm not great at controlling food costs, either, so, yeah, Frank fired me -- but everything's cool now, and I don't feel bad about it. He still buys his cheese from us, and we still eat at his restaurants."
When he got the boot, Lawler bounded around Brasserie Rouge, Duo and Potager, and he was part of the opening team of Rioja. But along the way, he started thinking about a career change. "Karin and I randomly walked into the Truffle one afternoon, asked Dave Kaufmann, the original owner, if he was interested in selling it, and three months later, it was ours," recalls Lawler, who, in the following interview, weighs in on brains (they're not just for zombies), his countless kitchen disasters and the nastiness of natto.
Six words to describe your cheese shop: Fun, delicious, beautiful, inspirational, improving, inclusive and personal.
Ten words to describe you: Father, stubborn, demanding, optimistic, grateful, addictive, concentrated, opportunistic, generous and critical.
Favorite ingredient: Perfectly ripe, seasonal produce from my back yard. We have a postage-stamp-sized backyard, so whenever I can pick enough of something besides tarragon to include in a meal, it's a very satisfying rarity.
Best recent food find: I just learned how to cook Spam musubi from our friend, Ellen, who makes Helliemae's salt caramels. It's one of those weird, why-is-this-so-damn-good sort of things. You basically sear off slices of Spam, hit the pan with some garlic, soy sauce, water and sugar and then pack it into a form with Japanese rice, and then you wrap it all in toasted nori. It's like eating fast food, because you feel all cheap and dirty afterward, but it's just so good. Our boys love it, and Ronnie, our four-year-old, keeps saying, "Thank you, Papa, this is good!" He's never had McDonald's, but if he did, he'd probably say the same thing.
Most overrated ingredient: I think most everything has its time and place, and anything can be prepared well, but it's weird to me that boneless, skinless chicken breasts are so popular with your average American. You may as well just eat from a tube, because it's boring food for boring people.
Most underrated ingredient: Brains. They're really subtle, and not just for zombies anymore. We get a whole pig every year, and that's always the first thing I eat, sautéed with brown butter and sage. It's a real pain to get them out of the skull without breaking them up. They have the flavor of sweetbreads, but the texture is closer to scrambled eggs. My boys love them, too, and Karin, my wife, is afraid she'll get the hunger for them.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: There's a ton of good food in Colorado right now, which is really inspiring. Justin Brunson is making some terrific bacon that we sell at the Truffle. It's Niman Ranch pork bellies, cured very well and smoked pretty heavily; I like it a lot. There's also cheese that's as good as any in the world being made right here, too, and I'm also looking forward to selling our friend Milan's pickles. He's Indian, owns the Queen Anne B&B, and has USDA approval to do open-vat unpasteurized vegetable fermentation. He's got good stuff like traditional sauerkraut working, and his produce is from Sprout City Farms.
Favorite spice: Pimente d'espelette. It reminds me of France, and it tastes great.
One food you detest: Natto. It's fermented, slimy, rotten soybeans, and just thinking about it makes me sorry for the poor, half-starved Japanese bastard who first ate them and then decided they were going to be dinner.
One food you can't live without: Japanese rice. Karin and I eat it three to four times a week. It's our go-to easy dinner, along with salmon collar, hamburger and egg, furikake, unagi, avocado or a fried egg.
Favorite music to cook by: Elephant, by the White Stripes.
Rules of conduct in your store: Making sure that when someone comes into our shop, it's the best part of their day.
What's never in your shop? Processed cheese food -- like Velveeta and Cheez Whiz. It's neither cheese nor food.
What's always in your shop? Raw cow's milk. Karin, the boys and I drink four gallons of milk a week. We get it from our friend Michael Amen, who raises goats, chickens, ducks and cows on the Ugly Goat Dairy in Elizabeth. He's got the cleanest henhouse I've ever seen, and he treats his animals as well as most Cherry Creekers treat their little entitled dogs. We're trying to talk him into getting a pig for us. The love he has for his animals really comes through in the end.
What do you cook at home that you never make at the Truffle? I cook pretty simply at home -- lots of pasta and Japanese foods. Most people are surprised at how little cheese we actually eat -- well, probably more than your average person, but I think we eat less cheese than people would think.
Favorite food from your childhood: My mom is a great cook. She and my dad lived in Turkey before I was born, and she used to roll her own phyllo when I was a kid, long before you could buy it in stores. Seriously, can you imagine doing that? One of my favorite dishes she makes is a lamb- and rice-stuffed eggplant with lots of parsley and lemon. You only get it about once a year, when the eggplants are about the size of her fist.
Favorite cheese in your store: My mom comes from a family of farmers in Putney, Vermont, right near Grafton, so they always had a chunk of Grafton cheese on the counter. They used to get it from a little shed by the side of the road with a cash box and hunks of cheese on a shelf. That still tastes like home to me. But I also love hoch ybrig, abbaye du belloc, Anton's rot leibe, and shepherd's halo from Fruition Farms. We rarely sell anything we don't like -- and we certainly never reorder the cheeses that we don't.
Guiltiest food pleasure: Raw cookie dough. Doesn't matter if it's oatmeal, peanut butter, shortbread or chocolate chip; I like the dough better than the cookies, which drives Karin nuts for some reason.
Weirdest customer request: To make something without wheat in it. I mean, really. It was fine for 10,000 years' worth of your ancestors, but not you? Glutard.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: I accidentally swallowed a horsefly while on a run in the woods. We don't get them in Colorado, which is fantastic, because they're not good.
What's one thing about you or your store that people would be surprised to know? The Truffle has been here since 2001, and yet we still get two or three people a week who think the shop just opened.
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