Chef News

Frasca Chef Rob Hurd Dishes on the Fall Menu and Being Named One of the Best Restaurants 2021

Frasca was named one of 2021's best restaurants by the New York Times.
Frasca was named one of 2021's best restaurants by the New York Times. Julia Vandenoever
On October 12, the New York Times released its annual list of the fifty best restaurants in the United States, with a special focus on highlighting the "most vibrant and delicious," and two Colorado spots made the cut. Comal Heritage Food Incubator in Denver was recognized not only for its stellar food, but also its mission of training immigrant and refugee women in food service, preparing participants to open businesses of their own.

The other honoree is no stranger to awards. For seventeen years, Frasca Food and Wine has been a staple on best-restaurant lists not just locally, but across the country for its food inspired by Italy's north-easternmost region, Friuli Venezia Giulia. Its front-of-the-house work is also legendary: Frasca has won three James Beard awards, including one for outstanding service in 2019. But when the pandemic shut down restaurants all over the state in March 2020, fine-dining eateries like Frasca faced a unique set of challenges.

Despite having to shutter completely for twelve weeks and making big adjustments like designing an "at home with" dinner kit program, Frasca managed to open that June, bringing nearly every employee back. Rob Hurd, who'd joined the Frasca team as sous chef that January, then was laid off two months later, finally made it back to Frasca in May 2021.

Originally from Michigan, Hurd became an executive chef at the age of 21; he's worked in Paris, New York City and Northern California. After being laid off for a few months, he rejoined the Frasca team at Tavernetta, a sister restaurant in Denver; a year later, he landed the role of executive chef at Frasca. And just five months after that, he woke up to an early-morning text congratulating him on the New York Times honor.


We recently talked with Hurd about his experience at Frasca so far, his approach to the food, and how his time in California inspired a wild-boar ragu that's on the menu now.
click to enlarge Toc' in Braide, a polenta-based dish with red kuri squash and burgundy truffle, is on the current fall tasting menu at Frasca. - ROB HURD
Toc' in Braide, a polenta-based dish with red kuri squash and burgundy truffle, is on the current fall tasting menu at Frasca.
Rob Hurd

What was it like joining Frasca as sous chef in 2020, before the shutdown?

I was just getting my feet wet, to be honest. I was diving in and working all the stations with everybody and kind of just seeing the next step. I was really just kind of learning the systems...and then we got shut down.

What was it like going back, but in a role at Tavernetta in June 2020?

No one really knew what was going on at that point. Tavernetta was down a manager...I got a phone call on Friday at 9 p.m. saying, "We're opening back up, will you take the sous chef position at Tavernetta starting Monday?" I was like, "Yeah, let's do it." So Monday morning I rolled into Tavernetta and kind of just shocked everybody — I mean, they knew I was coming, but I hadn't met any of the team down there before I just showed up.

How was your experience there?

I had a great time. I love Tavernetta. I mean, I love the company in general, but Tavernetta is pretty special in the sense that they had a tight-knit team when I arrived there, and they were super-welcoming. And [chef de cuisine] Cody [Cheetham] does an amazing job of letting everybody have a voice. Going through COVID and how fast you have to pivot, everybody just made decisions, and it was a really cool experience. And then to have a restaurant that can serve 350 to 400 guests a night, and you're still making handmade pastas and all the ragus from scratch and breaking down lobster for the tagliatelle. It's completely scratch cooking for a lot of people, and it's pretty amazing.

How did you end up in the executive-chef role at Frasca?


Chef Kelly [Jeun] just decided it was time for her to venture off and try to work on some stuff she's been wanting to do. Through our company, we try to promote within, but we do it in a way where the position is opened up for all employees to apply, and then it's opened up for outside people to apply. So I went through the whole process. I did an interview, I did a tasting, and then got the job offer.

How did you approach creating your first tasting menu for summer 2021?

For these first couple of menus, I really just wanted to keep them very rooted in the classics of Friuli. So I would start by just writing down some classic dishes. I kind of come up with one list of all the summer ingredients, and then I come up with a list of cooking techniques, and then I come up with the list of "What is Friuli?" Like polenta, buckwheat — all these dishes.

Then I just kind of start floating ideas between those and developing it from there. Friuli is based off mountains, vineyards and seaside. And that's kind of the inspiration of menus going forward — like, what can we pull from the mountains, what can we pull from the vineyards and what can we pull from the seaside? That's the through line on the menu.

How did you find out about the New York Times list?

I woke up that morning pretty early to a text from my meat purveyor saying, "Congratulations on the New York Times." And I'm like, I have no idea what he's talking about, so I just Googled it and I found it. But yeah, that was pretty special. To know how hard everybody on this team has been working to get something like that is an amazing thing.

The
Times specifically mentioned items from the summer tasting menu. How did that feel?

For me, this is about the whole experience. So the kitchen, we want to hold up our end of the bargain. We also know that the front of the house holds up their end of the bargain. They offer great wines and pairings, and the service and the hospitality, so it's truly a group effort, and that's how we approach it daily. It's never about an individual, so it's just pretty special.

Was this award extra-special because of the timing?

This felt good for the team coming out of the pandemic because of how much time we put in trying to figure out what to do through the pandemic — and how we're still trying to figure out what to do. I mean, the amount of times that we pivoted and offered meals to go and Thanksgiving dinners and just, 'How can we make sure that we're staying relevant?' And then, when we do get to open up the restaurant, to have so many guests show their appreciation for being here, and, you know, taking care of them in the past that they all came out and supported us. It's just been a humbling experience.

On a recent visit, the wild boar ragu off the quatro piatti menu was a standout. What inspired that dish?

That dish in itself was related to my time in Napa. During the harvest season every year, my tomato farmer or a vineyard right next to where I was working would just be ravaged by wild boar coming through and eating the fruit when it's at its peak. They just knew, like, now's the time we gorge because it's the best. So it would always be at this peak harvest time when everything was perfect, you would hear, "Oh, the boar are back, the boar are back."

So they were allowed to get a private license to hunt the boar on their property. With the animals that were taken from the property, they would hold parties and a celebration of that time. So you would marinate it in the wine that was being made, and then you would braise it. And it would just be a bunch of people eating wild boar and drinking wine and having a bonfire. So it came from my time in Napa, and I've had it on the menu everywhere I've worked since during this season.

Frasca is located at 1738 Pearl Street in Boulder and is open from 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 5 to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Reservations are available on Tock. For more information, visit frascafoodandwine.com.
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Molly Martin is the Westword Food & Drink editor. She’s been writing about the dining scene in Denver since 2013, and was eating her way around the city long before that. She enjoys long walks to the nearest burrito joint and nights spent sipping cocktails on Colfax.
Contact: Molly Martin