Larry Frazer: Chef, Husband, Teacher, Friend

By on Thursday, January 17th, 2013

Toque Magazine got its start in Lambertville, NJ, a town near Princeton. I had the good fortune to meet Larry Frazer through his wife, Sharyn Murray, at the Princeton Community Television and Digital Media Center. Sharyn saw me working with Ila Couch to get our “What’s for Dinner, America?” video series going and said I should talk to her husband. “He’s a chef who just left Princeton University to teach culinary arts at Eden,” she said. “It might make a good story for you.”

Larry Frazer and Sharyn Murray met on the Dinky, a very short NJ Transit rail link that runs from Princeton Junction to Princeton. They ended up getting married in one of its cars. (Photo © George Vogel)

Larry was high on his new calling, teaching autistic teens basic (and not so basic) culinary skills as Eden Institute’s newest director. We emailed each other and decided that a diary series of his new adventures would be cool to run in Toque.

And they were. The five articles he wrote about his funny, touching and awe-inspiring adventures with would-be teenage chefs were some of our best read features.

Larry’s last installment (Part 5) shares his excitement about the astonishing progress of his students and a note about Eden’s shiny new location. At the very end, he reveals that he has advanced cancer.

Last April, Larry died. He left a yawning hole in many, many people’s lives. To try and fill that hole we wanted to share some of our memories of this amazing, humble person. A man with incredible gifts who had the courage to sacrifice a secure job to follow his dream. Larry was a talented chef who lived to see the emerging talents in his students who had so many life challenges. It took nine months to pull it together but here we are. We’ll hear from “the two Robs:” Robert Harbison, executive chef at Princeton University, and Rob Kimmel, Eden’s new director for the culinary program. We also speak to Sharyn, his wife, who recalls their memorable wedding eight years ago.

Chef Rob Harbison: “I want to be more like him”

When I was Working at Merrill Lynch as a Sous Chef in the 90s I was under the guidance of a massive culinary figure called “Chef Paul Mack.” We had several young ACF culinary apprentices who participated in culinary competitions. I would see these massive Local Chef figures come in to assist in the training of the students. As they passed my hot line with an intimidating gait they would ask what I was doing and offer up some suggestions.

Rob Harbison demonstrating at a Farmer’s Market. Larry Frazer stands behind, “watching (his) back.”

Larry was one of these guys, wearing a brilliantly crisp white chefs jacket with embroidery that looked like Alphabet soup after his name. Man, I wanted one of those!!

To me he was huge…. his neatly groomed beard and mustache jetting out from a massive white toque moving silently and swiftly across the kitchen, his eyes scanning the prep areas for an opportunity to lend advice. He comes by me and my gut churns hoping he doesn’t see me doing some sort of “shoe maker” move or “seasoning my food at the wrong time.” He passed without comment.

Little did he know that his brush with me in the kitchen spawned in me the desire to be more like him and less like just another cog in the machine.

Some years passed and I landed here at Princeton University as executive chef. It was just me and one other sous chef as the culinary lead. After a year of getting pulled in every direction we began to hire more chefs. One of the first chefs to hire was for our catering Department. Filling this position would allow me to step away from daily cooking events and focus on development of the entire dining program across campus. When I saw Chef Larry Frazer had his resume in the pile I knew my problems were solved. We hired him without reservation.

The chefs of Princeton University. Larry Frazer (far left) was executive catering chef there before leaving to teach at Eden Institute.

The chefs on campus are among some of the most talented level headed non egotistical chefs I have ever had the pleasure to work with and Larry was without a doubt a unique thread in the culinary fabric on campus. History dictates that the restaurant world tends to be Dog eat Dog and I think most chefs in the past have in one time in their career received pleasure in someone else’s failures. Not so with Larry; he has the consummate professional.

Larry and I worked very closely for the first few years, I saw in him the culinary idol I met five years prior. I remember looking across the kitchen during a high stress event and I remember bouncing ideas off each other on how to get through the tough service and he looked up at me peering through the vapors of one of his famous wine reductions and said to me, “You know what Dude? I really like working with you.”

Such a simple statement but so much was said in those few words. I mean, the guy who intimidated me with his looks and struck fear in me was just like me below the toque – just a chef doing what comes naturally, making people happy. Larry never took the easy path. When we hosted an event for 2,000 alumni I saw him in the kitchen with nearly a pallet of Port wine. He yells out “Give me a hand; I gotta get this down to 2 gallons.”

“Jesus Lar,” I said, “you got 40 gallons here–why not just reduce it a little and thicken it later?” I replied.

He peered at me, once again over the mist of the reducing Port, and said “Heck Rob, that’s not how it’s done.” And with those few words again I knew Larry does it only one way… the right way.

Larry treated ingredients like he treated art or his music. He knew there are some basic rules associated with getting chords and notes to go together well but he was not one for rules. He was one of the first chefs in this area to use chocolate goat cheese, black garlic and halibut cheeks.

Leaving Princeton University to take on the challenge of instructing autistic students in the complexities of the culinary world was unfathomable to me. I mean, imagine being a chef and saying to yourself “I’m going to leave the comfort of my kitchen at Princeton University with trained professionals, walk away from the accolades of peers and the applause of dignitaries who dined on this historic campus, to teach people that have little or no cognitive communications skills, in an inherently dangerous environment with knives, flames and all and consider it a good career move.” I thought, my God has he gone mad??

The answer was clear and again a short simple one. He had gone mad, mad with the passion to pass on to others what he has learned. For Larry, it was a challenge he was all too ready to take on.

As I stopped by to visit him periodically I saw firsthand the challenges he faced, and yet the obsessive and bizarre behavior of some of the students to him was no different than the banging of the pots and pans we are too used to in our kitchens. He was able to see past the issues of the students and see the value in their attention to detail.

Teaching them daily, using more hand signals than words he was able to mold the students into viable employees for the foodservice industry. My hat went off to him. While most chefs would depart from the culinary scene opening their own restaurant or doing a TV show, not Chef Lar; he took a truly selfless path to finish out his culinary career.

While most chefs would depart from the culinary scene opening their own restaurant or doing a TV show, not Chef Lar; he took a truly selfless path to finish out his culinary career.

At the time we had no idea how short his culinary carrier was about to become. It was not too long after leaving the university that he was diagnosed with cancer. His attitude was still upbeat but still thinly veiled with the notion that his days on this planet were numbered. We spoke often about his good deeds and his desire to expand on his curriculum for teaching autistic people the culinary craft. In a retirement party of sorts just a few weeks before he passed he shuffled into the dining room, broke bread with all the chefs he had worked with over the years, some of his parting words were simple and short: “Take what you have learned and share with others.”

Words to live by and I do. Before he could write his curriculum for the Eden culinary program he lost his fight with cancer.

Rob Kimmel

I started at Eden just six months after Larry and I worked with him from my first day. I was a Teacher’s Assistant (TA) and all the TAs in the older classrooms brought their students to Larry for Culinary Class to learn the basics of kitchen preparation, peeling, slicing, dicing and hygiene.

Larry was very passionate about the purpose of the Culinary program and the opportunities it afforded students with disabilities. He modeled the program after being lifelong witness to the struggles of his own autistic son, to help children gain these skills and make their lives better. He was a man of conviction, him leaving Princeton to work at Eden signifying to everyone his staunch belief would not be diverted due to pay or convenience.

Larry was much more than just a chef, or a teacher, or a coworker. He had an incredibly broad range of interests and experiences; he constantly surprised me with some of the craziest stories about his travels and people he has worked with or met throughout his life. When I met him the very first time and commented on his treble clef earring, he told stories of the music he creates and plays, the bands, the blues! He was a man with many talents and many gifts, it’s hard to choose what his most defining characteristic is. To me, Larry was a real world sage, showing his wisdom and caring in his stories, his food, his music, and his excellent sense of humor.

He was a man with many talents and many gifts, it’s hard to choose what his most defining characteristic is. To me, Larry was a real world sage.

If soups could sing, that man’s soup was like an opera or musical! His abilities in that realm alone were staggering. Larry was well versed in so many elements of cooking that some of us staff (that watch far too much Food Network at home) could ask him countless questions about mixing flavors and exotic preparations and he would have answers to them all. He never rebuffed any question I had about how he cooked this, or what’s the best way to prepare that, or how would these taste together? In the time we had together, he taught me so much about cooking that I felt confident enough to take it and run with it.

Larry’s gifts were plentiful. He was a smart man who made no compromises in the things that mattered. A fierce fighter and a strong individual in mind and body. He had a quick temper at times, but even so, he was humble enough to apologize for sharp words and show his compassion and dedication to the noble causes he committed himself to. A man with love in his heart for the students we worked with. It’s hard to choose words to encompass a man’s visions, dreams, actions, and life. It’s almost unfair to try to find words to describe his essence because they can never do him the justice he deserves. So I’ll just finish by saying that Larry is, not was but still is, a man I look up to and in my small way I want to continue giving his gift to the students that has been bestowed to me, his visions for the Culinary program at Eden.

Larry did something many do not. He made his ideas a reality. He took his love for his family, his hopes for his son, and channeled it into a greater good. Larry set the foundation of the first cooking program for students with autism in the country! He is an inspiration for anyone in the realm of special education or disability services, that there’s more opportunity for these individuals than what has been tried or explored before. There is still growth if we’re willing to look for it.

And it’s not just in this special needs field you can see how his life has left its mark. The people he has brought together through food and music is staggering. When there is true strength in a person, people are drawn to it like moths to flame. Larry was such a flame, one strong enough to continue on after he has left this world.

I miss sitting with him at lunch, talking about music. I miss asking him a thousand questions about cooking and seeing him chuckle as he answered them. I miss seeing him drinking coffee with Chris Franco in the early morning, and watching coffee turn these two not-morning-people into two of the smartest, funniest people I worked with at Eden.

Larry was an accomplished and passionate musician. He serenaded Sharyn during their wedding ceremony. Photo © George Vogel

I miss seeing him get frustrated about something and end up laughing about it half an hour later. I miss playing pranks on him at work, calling his phone pretending to be a Chinese take-out guy. Mostly, I miss seeing him do what he loved, seeing his vision come to reality.

He and I talked a lot before he left Eden to take care of his health. He wanted to see the program go into good hands and suggested that I apply and carry on the program. I had never considered applying until he suggested it. We discussed his initial reasons, the purpose of the program, where he saw it going, what he wanted to do next, and why.

So I applied for the position and I have the honor of continuing his work. I know Larry is in a better place and I hope he sees how in everything I do at Eden, I’m taking his inspiration and pushing it forward because he showed me how important this work was.

We miss him very much.

Sharyn Murray

It took Sharyn awhile to pick up the pieces after Larry’s death. But she was invaluable in helping us connect with the two Robs and reaching out to others who were close to him. During the process, she shared her extraordinary story of their courtship and wedding that took place in 2005. “It’s the holidays and all of a sudden I feel like I am falling apart,” she said in her email last November.

Larry and I met on the Dinky. I lost my ticket and he was one of two people standing there but since I was a foodie and had just moved to the Princeton area, decided to talk to the person in chef whites.

Larry kisses his bride Sharyn in the Dinky train station. The two were joined in 2005 and enjoyed a truly happy marriage. Photo © George Vogel

After I got my ticket, I asked about the food scene in town. I asked him (yes this is true) where I could get my knives sharpened. We discovered that we had music in common on the 5-minute Dinky ride. I gave him a business card of a restaurant I had just visited in Italy. We exchanged our own business cards before the ride ended.

Our first date was at a friend’s restaurant, Mezzaluna on Witherspoon. (The owner has since changed.) When he proposed it was at the Dinky station and we again had dinner at Mezzaluna and for the wedding of course, NJ Transit supplied the wedding site.

A Big Toque to Fill

Larry, you are missed by many, many more than you would have ever imagined. Thank you for putting your own stamp on Toque in its early days. I miss your cheerful and often astounding updates of what your students accomplished at Eden Institute. Your deep and unpretentious love of cooking, your true-blue New Jersey personality and your utter selflessness have all left a lasting impression on me.

Erika

Written by Erika Kotite

Erika Kotite is an editor, writer and owner of Toque.

1 Comment

  1. Alice Murray says:

    Thank You for a beautiful and true story about our son-in-law Chef Larry. He is sadly missed.

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