The Truffle's Rob Lawler on Spam musubi, brains, glutards and his favorite cheese
When you actually want someone to cut the cheese, Rob Lawler, who owns the Truffle with his wife, Karin, does it better than anyone. And Lawler, who took over Denver's stinky (in all the good ways) cheese emporium in early 2007, is particularly fond of one specific cow's-milk cheese from Switzerland: hoch ybrig. "It's just fantastic -- nutty, complex and earthy, with a really long finish," he says. Then again, muses Lawler, "talking about food and cheese is like dancing about architecture. It's all very subjective, but you really just have to try this stuff and experience it for yourself."
Long before Lawler became a bona fide cheese head, he was a chef -- and a vegetarian, although not simultaneously. "When I was sixteen, I was a dating a girl who was a vegetarian, and I got a couple of cookbooks and just started cooking, and that led me to consider cooking as a career, but once I started cooking professionally, I realized that being a chef and a vegetarian were incompatible," he says, noting that the year was 1992, when vegetarian cuisine wasn't exactly popular -- even in Boulder, where Lawler was living. "It would be different now, especially there," he concedes, "but I've always thought about where my food comes from, and I still don't drink milk or eat beef from feedlots."
When he began eating flesh again, he also found himself employed as a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant. He quickly moved on, landing a line-cook gig at the long-gone Mataam Fez in Boulder, where he cooked Moroccan food for nearly three years, and by the time he left, he knew that cooking was his calling. Lawler packed up his knives and made a beeline for San Francisco to attend culinary school, a move that also provided him with access to several of the country's best kitchens. "It was a fantastic experience; I worked at some amazing restaurants, and I just soaked it all in," he remembers.
He met Karin in San Francisco, too, and since they both had the travel bug, they jetted off to Europe for six months, stuffing their gullets in city after city after city before eventually returning to Boulder, where Lawler did time in the kitchens of several restaurants, including Q's and the Chautauqua Dining Hall. In 2002, he and Karin, now married to each other, moved to Denver, and Lawler secured a position at Sushi Den as the "tempura boy." "We went through no less than ten gallons of tempura batter a night, and that station was so fucking busy -- it was rough," he admits, which made leaving six months later an easy decision, plus Frank Bonanno was hiring kitchen staff for a new restaurant: Luca d'Italia. "He offered me a job as the pasta guy, and when lots of people left, I was eventually promoted to chef de cuisine," he remembers, working alongside an "all-star cast" that included Sean Cubberley, now the executive chef of Elway's in Vail.