Life is good, and busy, for Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson. Frasca Food and Wine, which he co-founded with Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey in 2004, earned its umpteenth nomination and third James Beard Foundation Award (JBFA) last year for Outstanding Service. His wine label, Scarpetta, and Neapolitan pizza spot, Pizzeria Locale, are growing. And a part-cookbook, part-guidebook on cuisine, wine and life in Friuli, Italy — on which the menu of Frasca is based — that he co-wrote with the Frasca team and author Meredith Erickson will be published this spring.
But there’s even more on the horizon for the globally trained, JBFA Best Chef, Top Chef Masters participant and The French Laundry alum Mackinnon-Patterson. He’ll serve as the executive chef at the forthcoming Centurion Lounge (for American Express Platinum Card and Centurion members) at the Denver International Airport.
We chatted with Mackinnon-Patterson recently about maintaining quality in a growing food empire, building a high-end menu for the airport crowd and just what might happen if Donald Trump’s proposed 100% tariff on imports from the European Union come to pass. About that…
Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson: It’s challenging obviously. We don’t know the outcome. If the tariffs are expanded to 100%, it’ll be a devastating outcome across many channels.
The obvious, of course, is restaurants glean a lot of survival and success from constructing a wine by the glass program. When you lose that sort of anchor to perhaps raising costs by 2x there’s only so much [cost] you can pass on. So that leverage is gone and that sucks, but there are so many other things that are hard to pass along. Whether it’s things like parmesan or prosciutto, the more blended costs, it’s hard to isolate paying [double] for that. And then beyond that, even costs like crystal. Frasca invests a lot of money in ensuring guests [have] beautiful stemware, which are already big costs — 30- 40-odd dollars for [each glass]. I don’t know what that would look like if stemware were $80 a glass.
As we’ve seen for the most part, the consumer awareness of what’s going on is really low. There are just so many factors that are all woven together to create a really fucked-up situation, but hopefully it won’t come to that. I don’t think anyone wants that.
[The Office of the U.S.Trade Representative received over 23,000 comments in the last few weeks and will make a decision on the tariffs in the near future.]
Boulder Weekly: You work with producers in Italy and around Europe — is this going to hurt them as much as it seems like it might hurt U.S. businesses?
LMP: That’s been the biggest argument on the wine side of this, unlike the other channels. The beverage system in the U.S. is a three-tiered system. You have so many tiers and the wine gets spun through those things — first through an importer who then has to absorb the cost of the taxes and any duties or tariffs, customs, and then they mark it up to a distributor and then the distributor marks it up to a retailer or restaurant, which marks it up. If you had a 100% tariff, the bulk of the damage is on the U.S. company side.
BW: Putting that aside and looking forward to the Centurion Lounge, it seems like with your stature in the industry you can pick and choose what projects you want to take on. What do you look for in new opportunities?
LMP: We look at this is a collaboration of sorts. Any time we look at collaborating with someone, we try to find a like-minded brand to partner with, and we do turn down a lot of opportunities. But in this case AMEX is a very strong brand, and not only that, they believe in investing in quality and so that’s something that really resonates for us. … Additionally, Bobby and I have a book coming out spring 2020; they (AMEX) have a great magazine. It’s an important part of travel, and we feel like their customers and our customers care about food and wine and traveling. They know the importance of quality and the importance of what it costs to make something nice.
BW: The menu will borrow from your existing Friuli-inspired and pizzeria menus, but obviously it will be a different experience. What’s gone into developing the Centurion Lounge menu?
LMP: Part of the process is bringing in someone from our team on the culinary side to assist in us pulling the right kinds of ideas out of the right restaurants within our group. The menu will have things that you might see at, say, Frasca all the way down to the quick service of Pizzeria Locale in Denver. We don’t quite know what the menu is right now, but that’ll be something we’ll collaborate on. The chef for the lounge will have to execute the menu to our standards every day. It’s not a place where I’ll be onsite cooking, and so the most important part over the course of the next six or nine months or so is that we get it right and they feel confident in their ability to execute.
BW: The James Beard and other awards, as well as the experience of dining at your restaurants or buying a bottle of Scarpetta wine is enough to know the quality of your enterprises hasn’t gone down, but how do you ensure that quality persists even as you take on larger roles in the company? And do you miss being in the kitchen every day?
LMP: Our roles have changed over the years. One of the things we’ve noticed is to build a great company, you have to build a great company beyond yourself. Being able to provide the platform for so many other really talented people within our company is really the most exciting thing to me. I do at times miss the old times, no question There’s something really exhilarating about that and we reminisce a lot, but ultimately this is a decision we made to grow our team and grow our business.
It’s all about the people and it’s about reevaluating every year if you have the right people in the right places, or do you have enough of them? There isn’t six months that pass that we don’t evaluate if the company is equipped to perform to our standards. … The minute we realize we’re under-managed, we do the very best to fix the situation right away.
BW: That must mean you are somewhat unique in the restaurant industry in that you likely keep people around for longer?
LMP: I think so. In terms of wages we pay more often than others. We are also very creative in creating positions that aren’t customary in the industry for those who are engaged, or we modify a current position so it works. I can think of many examples where we’re very collaborative with our team where they feel like they’re heard and it makes a big difference. People want to be a part of a successful and growing business.
BW: Part of that growth includes the forthcoming book; tell me about it.
LMP: The book we’ve worked on for quite a while. It took a while to find the right publisher. Bobby and I wanted to write a book not so much about Frasca but about Friuli and travel and wine. So it’s more than a cookbook. There hadn’t been a book written on Friuli in quite some time, and there hasn’t been a book that wove those three things together. … It’s separated into a big wine chapter, a chapter on the mountains, a chapter on the sea, a chapter on the land. Woven in that is how to experience Friuli like we would.
BW: Could you have imagined when you set off for Boulder 15-some years ago to launch Frasca that it would turn into all this?
LMP: No I’d probably be lying if I said I did. Bobby and I didn’t make any moves for the first quite awhile, and I think it took us some time to feel good about the position we were in and feel good about the team that we had. Long before we opened Locale next door to Frasca, we didn’t do much but try to execute and build a great team, and we turned down a lot of things between ’04 and ’11.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity.