Not too many years ago, the biggest thing in the food realm was how small the world had become. Americans were introduced to tastes and techniques from around the globe, and foods like Kobe beef, Thai noodle dishes and Spanish tapas became almost as familiar as burgers and fries. And when the Internet hit full speed a decade ago, it seemed like native cuisine from Greece to Jamaica and Morocco to China’s Hunan province were a few clicks and catalog orders away.While the globalization of the restaurant industry has continued to march on (and brought to Aspen such fine things as Matsuhisa’s yellowtail jalapeño and Mogador’s North African cuisine), it may be that the biggest thing now is the very opposite of the world-connected eatery: the locally focused neighborhood restaurant.From the Friuli-Venezia Giula region of northeast Italy comes the tradition of the Frasca. The Frasca was a small eatery – often a food kiosk as well as a small, sit-down restaurant by the side of the road – attached to a winery. The Frasca would serve the wine made right on premises, of course, and would be a gathering place for the local grape-pickers and winemakers, as well as the professional folks who lived nearby.”It was one of the first examples of a real neighborhood restaurant, a real neighborhood place” said Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, a French-trained, Canadian-born chef who visited the Friuli region in October 2003. “They always say a Frasca is a place where you come in by yourself and would always meet someone you know.”The neighborhood idea extended to the food served. A hodgepodge of different cultures – Slovenia, Austria and Venice, the Dolomite mountains and the Adriatic Sea are all close enough to have a say in the region’s cuisine – the Friulians had much to choose from in creating the menus for the frascas. There would be prosciutto, speck, eggs, cheese, seafood, fruit. And all of it would come from down the road, the next field over, the farm over the hill – from some place the diners knew, from a farmer they knew.
Mackinnon-Patterson, a Toronto native and the son of two surgeons, got his restaurant career started at the Old Warson Country Club in St. Louis. In 1999 he went to France, where he studied at Paris’ Ecole Gregoire-Ferrandi and apprenticed at the two-star Jamin. But his particular path in the industry began in earnest with a job at La Taupiniere, a small one-star restaurant on the coast in Pont Aven, Brittany. There, housed in a tiny apartment 20 minutes from the restaurant and with no car, Mackinnon-Patterson spent his breaks between lunch and dinner picking vegetable in the restaurant’s own garden with owner Guy Guilloux.”I thought, as a young chef, that’s incredible,” said Mackinnon-Patterson. “I had never picked sugar snap peas and then served them that night.”Returning to the States, Mackinnon-Patterson hooked on at the Napa Valley’s celebrated French Laundry, where he met master sommelier Bobby Stuckey. After two years, Mackinnon-Patterson and Stuckey, former sommelier at The Little Nell, moved to Boulder to launch their own restaurant. Taking their cue from the Friulian neighborhood ideal, the two opened Frasca Food and Wine 10 months ago. The Boulder location was chosen partly because of Stuckey’s history in Colorado, and partly because of the local produce, especially lettuce, pork, peaches and cherries. And partly because Boulder’s subalpine terrain approximated that in Friuli. Mackinnon-Patterson disclaims any notion that his goal is to educate his diners. Frasca is intended to provide a dining experience, and it does that well enough that Mackinnon-Patterson will be celebrated as one of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs at the Food & Wine Magazine Classic in Aspen this weekend.
Still, those taking Frasca’s menu in hand should come prepared to do a bit of reading. For many of the items, Mackinnon-Patterson name-checks the growers and makers of the ingredients. The bottom of the menu gives a shout out to those partners: “Frasca proudly works with Colorado’s greatest farmers.” The idea of working as much as possible with local producers, no doubt, is tied in with the origins of the restaurant business. But Mackinnon-Patterson doesn’t hesitate to recognizes Alice Waters, famed and visionary chef-owner of Berkeley, California’s Chez Panisse, for resurrecting the model.”She certainly deserves a tremendous amount of the credit,” said the 29-year-old chef. “I’ve never worked with her and only met her once, but she’s an inspiration to me. You think about what she’s done – working with local producers, the farming program she does with Berkeley school kids – it’s out of control.”Mackinnon-Patterson finds plenty of good reasons to follow the example of using local, seasonal organic ingredients. It’s environmentally sound; using 60 to 70 percent locally produced ingredients means a lower use of fuel in transportation. It builds community: “You support the local farmer; you befriend the local purveyors. And they, in turn, are impressed by what you do,” he noted. “It’s sustainable restaurateuring in some ways.”The best reason is the final product. Mackinnon-Patterson’s menu – which, at the moment, includes Boulder Pine slow-roasted lamb saddle and braised Long Family Farm Pork Belly – benefits from the short distance the ingredients travel from place of origin to plate.
“The best products are those that arrive the quickest,” he said, noting that the emphasis on local ingredients doesn’t prevent him from serving grilled line-caught Hawaiian swordfish. “They taste the best. A lettuce has the most water when it’s first picked, same with cucumbers.”Every restaurant’s dream would be to have a garden in their back yard. But that’s not reality. So chefs who can’t do that make the effort to source vegetables from local growers.”Seasonality also counts for a lot at the 65-seat Frasca. Beyond simple taste, there’s something just right – aligned with the temperature and how the sun moves across the horizon – about eating cherries in the spring, peaches in the summer and apples in the fall.”If it’s hot, it’s not a big roast pork, it’s shaved pork,” said Mackinnon-Patterson. “There’s no doubt that if you make an apple pie in the fall, with seasonal apples, I bet it’s going to have a bigger impact than it would in the spring. That kind of philosophy makes the food taste better.”It also means more work for the chef and his staff. Frasca’s menu changes every four to six weeks. And ordering from numerous local purveyors rather than one giant company means more phone calls, more paperwork, more deliveries. But Mackinnon-Patterson counts himself as one of the many restaurateurs who finds it worth the while.
“You could literally download menus from the 50 or 100 most influential restaurants, and you’d see a reference to local farms on every single one of them,” he said. “It’s an incredibly powerful movement. And in time it’ll be not a movement but a mainstay.”The 23rd annual Food & Wine Magazine Classic at Aspen runs today through Sunday, with cooking demonstrations, wine tastings and the Grand Tasting Tent.Among the chefs in attendance are Mario Batali, Jacques Pépin, Emeril Lagasse, Marcus Samuelsson, Ming Tsai, José Andrés and more. Leading wine tastings will be Kevin Zraly, Joshua Wesson, Rory Callahan and Dan Philips, with Laura Werlin and Andrea Immer teaming for the American Artisanal Cheese event, pairing cheeses with wine.For further information, go to http://www.foodandwine.comStewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org