Thursday, June 6, 2019

A Chef’s Path to Passion

Sitting inside the posh Washington School House Hotel, where Ryan Frye is now the executive chef, you notice the pained expressions on his face as he traces the sometimes meandering, deeply shadowed path that led him here, where skills he picked up at Salt Lake Community College’s Culinary Institute now serve the tony clientele of this exclusive Park City locale.

You can see the goosebumps appear on Frye’s inked arm as he recalls the renown Chef Sean Brock’s influence on his life. They both share a passion for cooking. Only the subject of soccer stimulates his hypothalamus as much, causing the hair on his skin to stand up.

Soccer was once his only passion. Frye lived, breathed – ate – soccer growing up in Memphis. He earned a soccer scholarship to the Disneyesque, resort-like Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida. Navigating the sun-soaked, palm-lined walkways of Flagler, the A/B high school student appeared poised for success on and off the pitch. But a lot of those sidewalks led to parties – too many. By his second year in, he clashed with the coach. Grades plummeted. He lost his scholarship. Frye dropped out.

“It was really hard for me not to play soccer,” Frye says. “I was longing for a passion, to feel excited about something. I think I was upset and lost, having a sense of almost being disappointed in myself, asking, ‘What am I going to do?’ Nothing else brings me joy. I really don’t want to sit in an office.”

After Flagler, Frye floundered. First home and a “waste of time” working one ski season on the mountain at a Park City resort. Then back to Florida. Community college. Partied. Dropped out, again. Out of work. Picked up odd jobs. More partying – a lot more. Then rock bottom. He had lost a lot of weight – wasn’t eating. Drank – a lot. No focus. His brother, Sean, worried, called their parents, who wanted Frye to make it on his own, to take his lumps. But this was bad. At 21, Frye moved back home to Memphis.

He found a job as a server in a restaurant called Firebirds. He got a dog – a St. Bernard he named Memphis, who is also a tattoo on his left arm. Memphis, the dog, brought Frye out of a funk, gave him a focus other than himself. He was also lonely at the time. He enrolled in community college again, this time to learn how to be a paramedic. He graduated, was good at his job, but was “miserable.” It was back to the same restaurant, where he’d meet his future wife, Jessie.

Two critical things happened to Frye up to this point. Through all the partying, the barbeques he hosted for friends, he relished the role of making people happy. He found a similar joy mixing cocktails in his second incarnation at Firebirds. A fire flickered to life in Frye. Restless, ambitious, hopeful for something more out of life, Frye and his girlfriend took his aunt up on an offer of cheap rent at her home in Park City.

They found work in restaurants. But Frye tired of that scene and opted to work as a tech for a ski delivery business in Park City for the next two-plus years. As they quickly made friends, the barbecues started up again. Food. Fun. They were living the “ski bum” life. But the pair, now in their mid 20s, began to talk more about their future. They fantasized about starting up a restaurant, an extension of that back-yard barbecue vibe they enjoyed. He needed a better path.

Frye finally landed at SLCC’s Culinary Institute. They moved to the Salt Lake Valley. He found a job at the Avenues Proper restaurant, working full time and going to school full time. School. Work. Home. Repeat. Any spare time he had, he honed his culinary chops.

“Turns out, I was good at cooking,” Frye says. “I really was interested. I was super intrigued with all aspects of cooking, cuts of animal, every aspect was thrilling to me. There was this whole untouched world of things I didn’t know about that I felt was evolving. And it’s still evolving.”

He worked his butt off. Never complained. Met people who became mentors, like Justin Soelberg, now executive chef and owner of Nomad Eatery in Salt Lake City. “He was nice to me because I worked hard and learned quickly,” Frye says. “He knows his (stuff), and he’s super intelligent when it comes to making things from scratch, fermenting, pickling, things I wouldn’t have thought of pairing. He’d make it, and I would be like, ‘Wow. That’s amazing.’ He turned me on to exploring new ingredients and color combinations.”

Frye’s skills and creativity soared at SLCC. He’d read a recipe, “get it,” and then put his own twist on it. His curiosity piqued with the science of cooking. He lived, breathed – ate – culinary arts. If he wasn’t cooking at home, he would watch Sean Brock buck trends and create new ones on the PBS show The Mind of a Chef. Goosebumps just talking about it.

At Avenues Proper, where he met Soelberg, Frye rose from fry cook, grill, lead line and then to an offer of sous chef, which he turned down. Instead, he pitched to his bosses the idea of making him the restaurant’s first in-house pastry chef. It would be a chance for him to exercise knowledge he picked up and ran with at the Culinary Institute. The owners bit, and it paid off for both sides of the deal.

SLCC assistant professor Cynthia Alberts saw talent and ambition in Frye and pushed him hard to excel. “She would really challenge me,” he says. When people working in the restaurant industry suggested that Frye drop out of school, that he’d learn and earn more and progress faster away from the classroom, assistant professor Franco Aloia encouraged him to see it through to a degree. “I respected him a ton,” Frye says. Aloia told him to learn “restraint,” to know that a dish can be “elegant” while still be “simple.” In his final year at SLCC Frye received the Most Outstanding Student award.

Frye found his passion, again. He gained a stellar reputation with Avenues Proper and its cousin Proper Burger Company. He was about to help spearhead the opening of the owners’ third Proper venture with Stratford Proper when the executive chef opportunity popped up in Park City at the historic Washington School House. He donned his chef whites and made a bunch of yummy dishes from scratch that impressed. “They said, ‘We thought it was incredible.’ I was like, (makes a sound of an explosion), through the roof.’”

Frye loves locally sourced ingredients whenever and wherever possible. His avocado toast, homemade pasta and local oyster mushroom creations that he whips up in the blink of an eye for photos are no less than works of art, set against the backdrop of a beautiful dining area awash in sunlight overlooking Park City’s downtown.

The dream of owning his own restaurant is very much alive. “I still think I have plenty to learn,” he admits. Humble. He can look back on that shadowy path now and breathe a little easier. The path ahead is wider and brighter. Work hard, he advises aspiring chefs. “You have to have the passion and want to learn about it,” Frye says. “Working every day hasn’t changed my passion – it has only made it stronger.”