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Snapshots of Up-and-Coming Boston Chefs Interviews with Gabriel Frasca and Phil Carolan

This week, I have had the privilege of interviewing two of Boston’s most up-and-coming chefs – Gabriel Frasca of Spire (Nine Zero Hotel) and Phil Carolan of Mantra.

Frasca joined Spire as executive chef in November 2003 and was recently named “Best Chef, Up and Coming” by Boston Magazine. Carolan continues to turn heads with his innovative and sensational French-Indian fusion creations after replacing Thomas John at Mantra.

As with all good food and wine, the experience eventually must come to an end. In this, my final HARBUS Food and Wine column, I bid farewell. However, there is no better way to end a very satisfying year of writing about food and wine – both intellectually and gastronomically! – than with the closing words of two of the hottest star chefs in Boston. Cheers!

An Interview with Gabriel Frasca
Frasca began his cooking career while still in college as a second job. He worked in the kitchen of a North Shore restaurant as a summer job while attending college originally focusing on journalism. After taking a semester off in his sophomore year, Frasca found a job at Hamersley’s Bistro (South End) that ultimately began his career as a chef. After stints in Cambridge (Chez Henri) and Nantucket, Frasca formally apprenticed overseas in France and traveled around Europe working as a stagiaire.

In Europe, Frasca met four-star American chef David Bouley who brought him back to America to work in New York. In 2000, Frasca returned to Boston and helped a friend open Aquitaine (Chestnut Hill). From here, he was ‘poached’ by Radius and managed their kitchen to win Gourmet Magazine’s “Top 25 Restaurants in the Country” in 2001. Frasca now resides at Spire where he was awarded “Best Chef, Up and Coming” by Boston Magazine in 2004.

Harbus: “Gabriel, what is the typical day like for a chef?”
GF: “There really isn’t such a thing. It’s a lovely notion to think of cooking as an art, but it probably has more to do with manufacturing than anything. The concept of developing a menu is a once-off activity. The rest is assembly line mechanics. There are so many moving parts: variation on supply and demand, quality, people…”

Harbus: “What are your two most successful skills as a chef?”
GF: “I would say that it is a combination of persistence and A-D-D (attention deficit disorder). The persistence comes from a discipline to keep pushing – it’s almost like a competitiveness that is less-so with my peers and more-so with service. Metaphorically speaking, from an athletic perspective, the service each night is like a game – sometimes you take the lead, sometimes you fall behind…sometimes you get too cocky. But there is always the drive to wine every dish and every table. The A-D-D is incredibly helpful in the kitchen, as you are juggling 13 balls. You need to have focus, but at the same time it is really helpful to listen to every conversation in the kitchen.

Harbus: “What do you think about the Boston palate?”
GF: “When I started 10 or 11 years ago at Hamersley’s, it was one of only four good places in town. You look at how far the scene has come in the last decade…(Bostonians are) so much more worldly; sophisticated. And it’s getting better and better. I believe that Boston is on the cusp of becoming a ‘real’ restaurant city. A city becomes this way when a large number of excellent mid and low-range restaurants exist in the market.”

Harbus: “How do you categorize your style of cooking?”
GF: “Light but intense. I try to stay away from ‘heavy’. Profound subtlety…” (he smiles).

Harbus: “…and what is your favorite restaurant?”
GF: “Well. So many restaurants fuel a different need”…(pause)… “My best meal was at Restaurant Martin Berasategui in San Sebastien (Spain). I didn’t know food could be this good”. (The restaurant serves traditional Basque cuisine and has achieved a 3 Michelin Star rating since 2002, considered the “pinnacle of top cuisine” in the world).

Harbus: “Do you have any other parting words for our readership?”
GF: “I do this now because almost everything else would be boring. I get to play every day – this rarely feels like work.”

An Interview with Phil Carolan
Carolan began his cooking career at the age of 9, when he found a job as a dishwasher after selling himself as a 12-year old looking for summer employment. A young man of many talents, Carolan had reached semi-professional martial arts standing by the time he was 14, but came to realize that working part-time at a restaurant offered an excellent way to make money. Skills learned at a technical vocational school helped him learn the basics of being a chef, but it was Carolan’s strong personality that convinced prospective employers to “put a little faith in (him)” and consequently accelerated his success into chefdom. By the time he was 16 years old, he was already named a sous-chef. Shortly thereafter, Carolan moved to Boston to pursue an Executive Sous-Chef position at a corporate catering firm. It was in Boston that he met Paul Yates who offered him an Executive Chef position in Revere for three years. After working with Yates, Carolan also spent time overseas training in Italy. Three years ago, Carolan and Yates opened Boru, a bistro in Dorchester, before Carolan joined Mantra to help run the kitchen alongside Ernie Quinones.

Harbus: “Phil – what do you consider to be your two most successful skills as a chef?”
PC: “Temperament and multitasking. Temperament – because a lot of people lose control under pressure when the curve ball is thrown at them. The second you lose your temper, you’ve lost the game… Multi-tasking – because there are always 7 or 8 things going on at the same time. Things are constantly churning in my head, and I have to be able to manage all of these things. I think that multi-tasking is a learned behavior. It’s all about trial and error, and you are only successful if you make mistakes and learn from them. A good interpretation is when I change my menu. I have the entire menu going on at the same time – 16 menu items being created within only 3 hours of preparation time.”

Harbus: “What are your working hours like as a chef?”
PC: “I work a lot. I am at the restaurant six days a week, with Sunday off, and I work 10 – 12 hour days. It’s a very tough industry, and definitely not one for older people.”

Harbus: “What do you think about the Boston restaurant scene?”
PC: “Boston is a strange place. It’s conservative. It’s traditional New England – there is always some hesitation to try things. However, it has been changing. There has been an influx of new chefs, five or six years ago – like Thomas John who brought the city fusion cooking. Bostonians love to jump on the bandwagon. It’s up to restaurateurs to maintain consistency to ensure that customers become regulars and keep coming back”.

Harbus: “What is your perspective on food and wine pairing?”
PC: “Wines should always complement the dish. Certain wines bring out flavors in dishes, and certain wines don’t. You can’t have too many fighting flavors because the palate will become confused…”

Harbus: “What is your favorite wine?”
PC: “For red wines, I like the 1999 Chateauneuf du Pape (Patrick LeSec, Aurore, Rhone, France). For whites, I like the 2002 Conundrum (Caymus, Napa Valley). It pairs excellently with our trout.” (“Conundrum” was first bottled as a 1989 vintage, with the goal of capturing the scent of Muscat to create a new flavor of wine. The blend consists of as many as sixty distinctive lots of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, S‚millon, Viognier and Muscat.)

Harbus: “Who do you consider to be your mentor?”
PC: “I don’t have one specific mentor – I learn from everyone, even the dishwashers. You should be able to learn from the bottom up…and it’s always a learning experience. When it isn’t a learning experience, there i
s really no point in coming into work. You should never think you know everything.”

Editor’s Note: Check out Frasca at the 22nd Annual Taste of Boston – Sept 17/18, 2005.
Read more about Carolan at www.fivestarreviews.com/restaurants/mantra.asp.

May 9, 2005
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