Gabriel Frasca: Top Chef
The career of award-winning chef and restaurateur Gabriel Frasca began with a scoop of ice cream. Well, maybe several scoops. His first foray into the food business was an after school job in middle school at The Junction ice cream stand in Essex near his boyhood home. Next came a stint at Creed Catering in Beverly Farms, first in service and then moving to food preparation. The die wasn’t cast yet, though, as Frasca finished high school in Hamilton and studied journalism for two years at Kenyon College in Ohio.
Taking some time off from college to consider a transfer to another school, he first found a summer job at a restaurant in Gloucester where the employees had all come from the renowned Biba restaurant in Boston. “They took me on as a prep guy, then as a garde manger [salad chef],” he says. “It was intoxicating.” Now he was hooked. Next, he “talked myself into a job at Hamersley Bistro,” where he started to learn the fine art of French cooking from James Beard award winner Gordon Hamersley at the ripe old age of 20.
The trajectory was straight up from there: Chez Henri in Cambridge where he met chef Amanda Lydon, who became his partner and wife; L’abbaye de Saint Croix in Provence, France; Dolomites and St. Hubertus in Italy where he received his first Michelin star; Bouley Bakery in New York which earned a four-star rating from the New York Times; and Danube restaurant in New York which he helped open and earned three stars from NYT.
He returned to Boston to take his first chef position in 2000. In 2001, he worked at Aquitaine Bistro and then Radius restaurant and was recognized as Boston’s Rising Star by The Improper Bostonian. That year, Radius also won the Best Overall Restaurant Award from Boston Magazine and was named one of the top 25 restaurants by Gourmet magazine. In 2003, Frasca took over Spire restaurant, and in 2005 was named Best Chef, Up and Coming by Boston Magazine and awarded three stars by the Boston Globe. In 2006, he and Lydon took over the Straight Wharf Restaurant in Nantucket, Massachusetts, where he is still Executive Chef and Managing Partner.
The menu at Straight Wharf boasts “elevated seafood dishes paired with wine in rustic-chic environs or on the waterfront porch.” Housed in a Nantucket weathered shingle building, the restaurant provides an atmosphere of comfort and style. Menus change nightly depending on the season and the local ingredients available, but a sample dinner menu might include lobster chowder with crispy potatoes, sweet onions and carrots, smokey bacon, garden herbs, and lobster knuckles and pan-roasted Scottish salmon with beets and cauliflower, tahini green goddess, pomegranate, and arugula.
Frasca is committed to sourcing as much food as possible locally. “It’s one of the things I spend the most time on,” he explains. He tries first to source from Nantucket, then turns to Cape Cod, and then to southeastern Massachusetts. The restaurant is the largest customer of Bartlett’s Farm on the island and the farmers grow some crops just for Frasca. He depends on the fishermen on the island to get all the bluefish, scallops, and lobster the restaurant serves, as well as other fish; a local coffee roaster; a local woman who blends spices for them; local blueberry growers; and countless others. “Anything we can get from the island, we are,” Frasca emphasizes. “It’s a lot of work but well worth it.”
Does he see any new trends in restaurants and the food they offer? “It’s such a cyclical business,” Frasca says. “There is a pivot back to simplicity - simple, elemental, stark but wonderful cooking.” He sees more dishes with just three ingredients and “a pivot back to French cooking,” a move he embraces.
Straight Wharf is open from May through October. The off-months are spent closing up the facilities and settling up accounts in the fall and doing renovations, readying the facilities, hiring staff, and sourcing food in the spring. Sometimes they also host private events. The work in the off-months is time-consuming, but it is not full time, Frasca says. Luckily, it gives him more opportunity to be with his wife and two children, Marin (11) and Henry (9), at their home in Sudbury, MA. In the summer, they all move to Nantucket to be together for the busy restaurant season.
Frasca attended GUS for grades 3 through 6 in the mid-1980s. He looks back on the years spent on campus with appreciation.
“I think that there’s an artistic sensibility to the school that plays into what I do now. This business is less of an art than many people imagine, but I’m fortunate there are some strong artistic veins running through it that I can tap into. Also, GUS did such a good job fostering a sense of community, and restaurants are nothing if not community spaces.”