This is part one of my interview with Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, co-owner and executive chef of Frasca Food and Wine. Part two of my chat with Mackinnon-Patterson will run in this space tomorrow.
Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson has some advice for gung-ho chefs who want to work in the illustrious kitchen of Frasca Food and Wine: Get in -- and get out. "When we hire people, we want them to know that we don't want them to stay here for more than eighteen months -- that once they've seen all the seasons once, it's time to move on," says Mackinnon-Patterson, the executive chef of Frasca, Boulder's shrine to the Friuli region of Italy. "It kind of freaks people out when we tell them this, but while we're happy you're here, we'll also be happy when you're gone." There's simply not enough room in the Frasca kitchen for advancement, he insists, and if you wear out your welcome, it only leads to one thing: bottleneck. "Our deal is that we don't want to promote based on seniority," he notes. "We promote on merit."
Mackinnon-Patterson, a 2005 Food & Wine magazine Best New Chef, the recipient of the James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef in the Southwest, and a competitor on Bravo's Top Chef Masters, was born in Ontario, got his own culinary start in the kitchen of a St. Louis country club, then jetted off to Paris, where he snagged his Certificat d'Aptitude Professionnelle at the lofty Ecole Gregoire-Ferrandi. He apprenticed at two Michelin star-rated restaurants in France before returning to the States and joining the highbrow crew at Thomas Keller's French Laundry, where he met Bobby Stuckey, a Master Sommelier and his business partner at Frasca, which the two opened in 2004 to near-instant national acclaim.
Mackinnon-Patterson, who says he gets ten resumés a week from desperate chefs who want to land a job in his newly expanded kitchen -- and a lot more phone calls from cooks who want to stage -- is cynical when it comes to today's culinary pedigree. "There are so many chefs right now who just want to hang out rather than cook -- chefs who have a taco stand or a sandwich shop by day and then say, 'Fuck it, I'm going to turn this into a value-driven sit-down restaurant with table service at night' -- and that bugs the shit out of me," gripes Mackinnon-Patterson.
If you operate a restaurant that way, he wonders, "how are you going to know how to open a bottle of wine or, for that matter, help someone put their coat on?" Front- and back-of-the-house training has become a lost art, he laments: "The restaurant industry -- especially when it comes to chefs -- is pathetically non-academic." So much so, he says, that if you want to be a chef, you should have to accumulate a minimum number of training hours in the business, whether it's in restaurants, at culinary school, or both.
Mackinnon-Patterson pulls out a calculator and starts crunching numbers. "Before you have your own full-service restaurant, you should have at least 10,000 hours under your belt. That's working fifty hours a week for four years, which seems perfectly reasonable to me," he says.
In the following interview, Mackinnon-Patterson dishes up more food for thought, weighing in on the saturation of food trucks, the shocking number of Boulder restaurants that don't take advantage of the town's proliferation of farms, and why portobello mushrooms are too perfect.
Six words to describe your food: Straightforward, Northeastern Italian, seasonal, clean and sustainable.
Ten words to describe you: Funny, hardworking, Canadian, artistic, interested, father, intense, silly, goofy, athletic and quirky.
Favorite ingredient: I love fresh rosemary. It's oily, fragrant and diverse. Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Squash blossoms from Red Wagon Organic Farm and Cure Organic Farm.
Best recent food find: I just went to Chicago with my family, and we ordered all the tamales on the menu at Frontera Grill, one of Rick Bayless's restaurants. Next time I go back, I'm just going to keep ordering tamales until I pop.
Most overrated ingredient: Portobello mushrooms and other hugely cultivated funguses. They're almost too perfect; they're all the same size and same shape and they have no blemishes, which is somewhat gross. Aside from that, the flavor of portobellos just doesn't match that of other mushrooms.
Most underrated ingredient: The spice savory, which we use a lot at Frasca in the summertime. It's not on a lot of vendors' lists, but it's on the farm lists all summer long. I love that it's so pungent and that our customers often ask about it. You don't often see it on menus.
Favorite spice: Fresh cinnamon is amazing. I've only had it once in my life -- and that was at Frasca.
One food you detest: Eels. They remind me of snakes...and I am terrified of snakes.
One food you can't live without: This is tough. There are lots of foods that I can't live without. Bread and cheese were originally at the top of the list, but now that I'm thinking deeper, croissants are something I absolutely couldn't live without.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Cleanliness is the most important rule by far, and I'm also always stressing the importance of organization to my chefs. Aside from those, taste everything that you cook. This seems obvious, but you'd be surprised how many people don't. I also insist that all the chefs wear toques. I don't want hundreds of hairs flying around everywhere.
Biggest kitchen disaster: Before our recent renovation at Frasca, our kitchen was really small, so we were always working on top of one another, which created a difficult and cramped work environment, especially as we tried to add more chefs to make the menu more sophisticated. I knew we had definitely outgrown the space when one of our chefs went to light the oven and got distracted. He was holding down the pilot light for too long, and when he fired up the torch to light it, he burned his eyebrows off. I also cut part of my finger off in a restaurant in France.
What's never in your kitchen? Music. It's too distracting, and no one can agree on what to listen to...unless Bobby Stuckey puts on opera.
What's always in your kitchen? At home, and in the restaurant, we always have great, heavy cutting boards, many of which I find on eBay. Some of the simplest accidents can be avoided if the right tools are implemented. We also have a million trivets in the Frasca kitchen and a tricked-out stainless-steel mop sink that we installed when we designed the new kitchen. It's really cool, and it looks more like a cabinet than anything else.
Favorite music to cook by: Wilco, although only in my home kitchen. We don't listen to music at any of our restaurants.
Favorite dish to cook at home: I love grilling fresh veggies, meat or fish; it's a simple, light and flavorful meal.
Favorite dish on your menu: Riso Marinara. A lot of people see this and think that it's "marinara," as in red sauce. In this dish, it refers to "of the sea" -- or seafood risotto. We use clams, mussels, shrimp, scallops and other fresh seafood to create a flavor that's unmistakably Adriatic. I even arranged for my sous chef, Brian Lockwood, to spend four days in Grado, Italy, to learn how to make fresh seafood risotto from the chefs at a small seaside restaurant called Tavernetta all'Androna. He makes it perfectly, and the dish brings me right back to Italy. It's a dish that means so much to us at Frasca.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? Whole roasted fish with lemon juice and olive oil. It's so simple but so delicious. Nonetheless, I think it would get overlooked on our menu because whole roasted fish is so rarely seen on American menus and a lot of people are unfamiliar with it.
Weirdest customer request: We recently had someone order a salad that wasn't on the menu, but we can obviously create a salad, whether it's on the menu or not. We offered the guest a mixed-greens salad with just a simple vinaigrette, thinking that this was what he was looking for. His response? "I don't want a mixed-greens salad. I don't care what kind of salad. Just be creative."
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Fox tartare. A few years ago, Bobby Stuckey and I were traveling in the northern mountains of Friuli with a local who didn't speak much English. While we were driving, he slowed the car down and pointed at a fox running across a high alpine field -- and then he proudly told us that we were going to eat that animal for dinner. We thought he was getting his animals confused. But that night as we sat down for dinner, we were each presented with a plate of fox tartare. It was unavoidable.
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Hardest lesson you've learned: Using the right knife for the job. I cut part of my finger off while training in Paris and had to call my mom to find the best hand doctor to fix it up. It was embarrassing and painful.
What's next for you? It's a secret, but our biggest focus right now is on the wine: We're trying to reintroduce pinot grigio to America.