Restaurateur Bobby Stuckey of Frasca Food & Wine and Tavernetta
Our series CULTURED features tastemakers who are shaping the cultural and social landscape of the city. In this issue, Culture & Style Editor ANNIE BLOJ interviews Restaurateur Bobby Stuckey at one of his restaurants, Tavernetta.
PHOTOGRAPHED BY ESTHER LEE LEACH // LOCATION: TAVERNETTA
Annie Bloj: I have had the good fortune to develop a friendship with your remarkable wife Danette since we met over Instagram. I follow both of you and I am always so impressed with your seemingly unending energy and humility, even as you rack up awards and accolades and start new exciting projects. I can’t wait to get to know you better and hear about what you are working on.
Congratulations on winning the 2019 James Beard Award for Outstanding Service at Frasca Food & Wine. You and your team have been nominated and have won several times, what set this achievement apart?
Bobby Stuckey: We've been nominated for other categories before, we’ve been nominated for Outstanding Restaurant a few times and were honored to be nominated for Wine Service for a few years and won that award. Chef Lachlan (Mackinnon-Patterson) won for Best Chef Southwest in 2008, so we are familiar with what an honor the process is. It was the first time for us to be nominated for service. It was something that the whole team, from the dishwasher through to General Manager Rose Votta, contributed to and was responsible for. It was different because we just didn't think we would be the people that would end up winning, so it was a magical day for sure.
AB: You are internationally recognized for your success at Little Nell in Aspen, The French Laundry in Napa, opening Frasca Food & Wine in Boulder, Tavernetta in Denver, your wine label Scarpetta, being named the wine director for American Airlines and now opening a wine bar in downtown Denver called Sunday Vinyl. What got you started on your culinary journey?
BS: I was a very challenged student growing up. If I had an average semester, that would be a big deal for me. I just didn't have much success academically. I got a job busing tables and what was difficult for other people seemed to click for me. I just love taking care of people. I loved bussing tables and I remember in high school working Mother's Day brunch at the restaurant, so I was late getting to my grandparents’ house for Mothers’ day, which was a big deal. My parents asked, “Do you really like this?”. I loved it! I still love it as much as I did when I was a 15-year-old punk rocker.
AB: How did you transition into the wine business?
BS: It was a much different landscape 25, almost 30 years ago. We didn't really understand what was in the western United States. If you weren't in a major city like San Francisco or New York, it didn’t exist. Charlie Trotter (editor’s note: Chef, Restaurateur, TV Host and owner of Charlie Trotter’s) was a real Trailblazer in Chicago, in that he believed in wine professional positions, but I was working in Arizona. I was a waiter in 1992 in Flagstaff Arizona at a restaurant called Bricks and we had this wine class on Wednesdays, taught by a guy named Robert Fusco. He liked people to learn and I just loved his wine class and I thought well gosh if I’m going to take care of people, I’d better know our wine list inside and out because it's a better way to take care of people. So it wasn't like I had a glass of ‘61 La Tour and the Angels sang. I loved that wine was another way to better take care of people.
So there were three or four of us waiters at Bricks who were interested, and Robert Fusco got a brochure about the Court of Master Sommelier exam and said maybe next year you could take this exam. We started studying for it and the next exam was in 1994. So we studied and then went out to San Francisco for the exam. All three of us stayed in a hotel room together because that’s what we could afford. It was incredible just being around all these other people that were there doing the same thing. People of all different age groups, mostly older. I thought that this could help me become a better professional in the food hospitality business. That time in the early nineties was before the sexiness of all of it, before the Food Network. Most of us in the restaurant business were there because you needed a second chance. You had a disaster somewhere else in your career, you were new to the country, or you couldn't do anything else. Versus now, the industry has changed so much that we'll get a call and it'll be someone who's like “Hi, I've been dining with you since I was 15 years old and I'm getting ready to graduate from Harvard next year. I would love to know about the restaurant business”. No one did that back then. There was suddenly this glamorization and now you have parents encouraging their kids to do this. It brings a lot more eyeballs onto our industry but the bad thing about it is that our industry is still not for everybody, so you get some bright people who are surprised about the reality of the industry. The Court of Master Sommeliers gave me something to work for and have validation in an industry that didn't have a lot of that at the time.
AB: What prompted you to work towards the Master Sommelier?
BS: You know it’s so funny, nowadays, you hear about “getting the pin”, the Court of Master Sommelier pin. I’ve never worn it on the floor of our restaurant because I don’t think it’s about the pin, it’s about the journey. I did it because I thought that if it helps me be better at serving the guests, then I’ve got to do it. It was ten years of a lot of failures, it’s a humbling experience because no one is going to fly through it. Everyone is going to have some failure on a major stage.
AB: How do you tailor the ever-growing and ever-changing world of wine to the palette of the guests of your restaurants and various projects?
BS: Obviously, I can’t connect with every guest but our idea is that this place is about the work. If we work really hard in preparation, we can be more comfortable to take care of the guests. Especially here at Tavernetta, the wine list is all Italian, except for Champagne. There’s a lot of guests that are experienced wine drinkers but they don’t have a bandwidth with Italy. Italy is a feel of a wine that's different. Like if you're a Burgundy fan, you can understand Oregon Pinot Noir. If you're a fan of California Pinot Noir, you can understand Burgundy. If you love Old Vine Zin, the mouthfeel of Chateauneuf du Pape from France is A-Okay. Italy is out of sync with the rest of the world in a positive way. The flavor profiles are 100% Italian. So we have to get our staff really well-versed not just with Italian wine but they need to be able to listen to the guest and find out what the guest likes.
AB: You recently celebrated the 15th anniversary of the opening of Frasca Food & Wine in Boulder. What an incredible achievement in a very high-risk industry. What motivates you to start new projects?
BS: What's funny is that I was the last person in the organization to ever want to do new projects. If I would have had my druthers we would have never opened up Pizzeria Locale or anything else. However, I was informed about how selfish I was because we have these employees who have been with us for a long time and they want to have growth. So if I only have one restaurant, there’s a cap on growth. It would not have been fair had we not expanded. So you take someone like Rose Votta who is the GM of Frasca, she’s been with us since 1996. It would not have been fair because she would have never gotten a chance to be the GM. Carlin (Karr) wouldn't have been able to be a wine director of the company or Jody wouldn't have been able to move into Human Resources. All these things needed to happen for these great people to grow. So that's what motivates me to look at projects when our team is ready.
AB: To switch gears a bit, since this is Cherry Creek Fashion, you are known for always looking sharp in life and business. Does putting on a well-tailored suit help you prepare for service each day?
BS: I’ve worn a jacket and tie on the dining room floor since 1995, so for 25 years. There was a brief moment after the French Laundry before I opened Frasca, where I was helping another restaurant and I did not wear a jacket and tie. When I opened Frasca 15 years ago in Boulder, where no one wears a jacket and tie, I decided that I would. It set the tone, and some very prominent guests from Boulder said that I was going to be out of business in 90 days for doing that. Fashion is not what you wear, but how you wear it. So I can walk into Pizzeria Locale in a suit because it's right next door to Frasca and still have the guests feel totally taken care of and they aren’t going to feel intimidated. At the same time, I feel you should dress so that the guests that are celebrating with you feel comfortable.
AB: You are one of those rare professionals in the food industry that seems to maintain a healthy balance and has avoided burn out. Do you attribute staying active and setting goals for yourself a part of this?
BS: You know, I’ve been preaching about this before I worked at the Little Nell. I came from a background in endurance sports. I soon realized in my mid-20s that I love this industry and I want to do it forever, but I saw a lot of unhealthy things. I decided to really try to treat this industry as well as possible and if I treat the industry well, I should be treating myself well. So since my mid-20s, I have really tried to add that as part of my preparation for taking care of the guests. I think that taking care of yourself has to be a priority so that you can take care of other people.
AB: Bobby, thank you so much again for working with us. We love your food, your wine and following along on all of the behind the scene action on your social media. I can’t wait to see how your upcoming projects unfold here in Colorado and around the world!