During the filming of MasterChef season 2, Jennie Kelley and I had become very close. During one pressure test challenge, our team was safe and we were watching the opposing team battle it out from the safety of the balcony above. Jennie and I were distraught, watching our friends cooking at the very limit of their skills, trying to avoid elimination, and we had our arms wrapped around each other, in a vain attempt to comfort each other. (Watching a pressure test is way more stressful than cooking in one.)
At one point, Gordon Ramsay looked up to the balcony and saw Jennie and I locked in embrace, and said, “What is this, you two? You gonna have the first MasterChef love child?”
Normally I wouldn’t consider Ramsay much of a prophet (though he is a great guy and a fabulous chef), but in this instance, he predicted right. Jennie and I did give birth to the first MasterChef love child. Its name is FRANK.
We just passed FRANK’s 1 year anniversary, and what a year it has been! If you don’t know much about FRANK, first check out my blog on what FRANK is, and my blog on our epic foraged Easter dinner, to get a better idea of what’s been going on.
Several months ago, we received an email from a TV producer in Canada about a new show called The Illegal Eater where the host travels North America exploring the underground food scene, whether it’s a famous chef doing a popup in the basement of a dive bar, rogue food trucks and carts serving up unlicensed but delicious treats, and, of course, underground restaurants. Which can be remarkably hard to find. But they had found us…they wanted to film FRANK.
We weren’t sure. FRANK is a well-oiled machine that balances precariously on the end of a needle. Working out of a TINY home kitchen, serving 5+ courses to 18 people at once is an incredible challenge without camera guys all around, and a host poking about, asking questions. We didn’t want to compromise the FRANK experience for our diners at all. And we also weren’t willing to “stage” a FRANK just for filming, because if the experience is to be immortalized on TV, we wanted it to be authentic.
So what we decided to do was choose a theme we had done before (but with an all-new menu, of course), to give ourselves and our staff a bit of familiarity, and make sure the film crew came to the SECOND seating, so we’d have run through it all before and know in which spots we had extra time for interviews and such.
Picking the theme to repeat was a no-brainer. Our most popular theme last year was Brunch After Dark. For some reason, people just love eating brunch at night, and folks have been begging us to do it again. (We were fairly certain, the first time around, that it would be an annual affair.) But the menu had to be complete perfection, so we started conceptualizing it a bit earlier than normal. And this is what we came up with:
It’s spring, and that means morels. (Check out my blog about foraging for golden morels on the Buffalo River in Arkansas in early May!) While morels are still popping up in the north, all ours down here are played out, so we sourced gray morels from our amazing supplier Tom Spicer at Spiceman’s FM 1410. Tom is the brother of a very famous New Orleans chef, and he supplies all of Dallas’s finest restaurants with foraged ingredients and fresh herbs and greens. Go by his place sometime if you’ve never been…it’s pretty amazing. Morels are found exclusively in the wild, so they are expensive and highly sought after:
We halved the morels, sauteed them in butter, and stuffed each half with soft-scrambled farm eggs from our favorite farmer, William Hurst at Grandma’s Farm in McKinney. William has been providing pastured eggs and chickens to us since our epic Bastille Day feast on my birthday last summer, when folks all around the world got up-in-arms about a picture I posted of a beautiful rooster I was about to harvest at William’s farm, to celebrate its free-range life, living as a chicken should, completely free of cage or pen, before fulfilling its place on the food chain as a magnificent coq au vin at FRANK’s table. This sparked a fabulous conversation amongst my fans on the ethics of eating meat, and if you haven’t read those blogs, you definitely should…especially the comments at the bottom of them. They are located here, with a follow up blog here. We love William, and incorporated 11 dozen of his eggs and 10 of his pastured chickens into the menu this time. (He DOES sell to the public, so drop him an email from his website to see what he’s got.) Here’s me trying to decide which greens to pick for the menu:
Soft scrambling is the only way to scramble an egg. It doesn’t necessarily mean a runny finished product, it refers to the speed at which the eggs are cooked. For the perfect scramble, place your beaten eggs in a heavy glass bowl set over a bath of barely simmering water, and gently fold the eggs every few minutes with a spatula. You can cook them as dry as you like, just be very careful not to break up the large, delicate curds that are forming as they cook from the gentle heat. Take 30 minutes or longer to do this, and the texture of the scramble will make you think you’ve died and gone to heaven! We finished the egg-stuffed morels with a bit of truffle salt to accent the earthy flavor of the morel. A perfect bite. All the first courses were served with a blood orange mimosa, made with our very own homemade dry-as-a-bone sparkling apple pomegranate wine, which we’ve served to rave reviews at FRANK before.
Our next course was a salad. At the first Brunch After Dark, we featured a Bloody Mary-inspired soup, so this time around we did a Bloody Mary-inspired salad, with classic ingredients for a Bloody Mary on the plate. First was confit tomatoes, which are, in my opinion, the ONLY way to make a store-bought tomato edible. Confit, pronounced “cone-FEE,” is a French technique of preserving something in fat…in this case, tomatoes in olive oil. To make them, slice tomatoes in half and place them, cut side up, on a baking sheet. Salt and pepper them lightly, generously drizzle them with olive oil, and for funzies, toss on a few fresh thyme sprigs if you have them. Then bake them in your oven at 170 degrees for 8-12 hours until they have shrunk and concentrated and look like this:
You absolutely cannot imagine what this does to an otherwise mealy, bland, under-ripe tomato from the grocery store. It’s like someone slapped you across the head with a 50 pound sack of tomatoes. Sweet (but not sugary like a sundried tomato), juicy, tangy, and intense. Just like a Bloody Mary. Along with the confit tomatoes we had a spicy homemade Worcestershire sauce, spicy arugula from my garden, and spicy homemade pickled asparagus from the garden…okay, are you getting yet that the salad was spicy? We dressed it with a celery bitters vinaigrette and served it with butter poached jumbo shrimp, and passed hot popovers, fresh from the oven:
There was homemade butter blended with honey for the popovers, and a few homemade jams for the sweet tooth. ‘Twas a fairly complex salad, and more than one of our diners said, “You know, it sounded good on the menu, but everything else sounded so amazing that the salad wasn’t the course I was most excited about. But it ended up being my favorite course of all!” Salad is that menu item that we always look at, but hardly ever order because it can be challenging to make a truly stunning salad.
Next course was…what else? Chicken and waffles. I first had chicken and waffles together a decade ago in San Diego, of all places, at an incredible restaurant called Hash House A Go Go: Twisted Farm Food. What a restaurant! I was nervous about the whole sweet/savory thing (which, I admit, I’m still not very comfortable with), and their rendition should have been challenging. Pungent rosemary fried chicken on top of whole grain waffles, and everything slathered in maple syrup. But it was DIVINE. We used that memory for inspiration, and took the incredible pastured chicken from William Hurst, brined it overnight in a buttermilk brine, and then breaded it using our super secret technique that results in the crispiest and most delicious chicken you can possibly imagine. We served boneless white and dark meat on the plate, and more than 1 person each night said it was easily the best fried chicken they had ever tasted. It perched atop a buckwheat waffle studded with foraged black walnut.
Black walnut is not “normal” walnut, or English walnut…the kind you see in the grocery store around Christmas that you can crack open with a nutcracker, just like a pecan, and remove both halves of the seed. Black walnut is a native American tree whose nuts are hard as rocks and have to be split open with a hammer and the tiny bits of nut meat picked carefully out of labyrinthine pores inside the shell. 4 hours of work yielded only 3/4 cup of nuts. Black walnut tastes completely different than English walnut, and nutritionally it’s a lot more desirable: higher in protein, lower in carbs. But because it’s almost impossible to shell, it’s also almost impossible to find shelled black walnut commercially. You gotta pay the piper with broken thumbs and sore knees from being down on the ground with the hammer. But that’s how we do things at FRANK. As Julia Child said, “Nothing is too much trouble if it turns out the way it should.”
On top of the chicken and waffles we drizzled the “Dandelion Honey” that my amazing Slovenian fan Katja Turk introduced me to…click HERE for the story and recipe for this very unique syrup which has become a staple at FRANK, and that our diners are going mad for.
Next up was a palate cleanser, ginger passion fruit sorbet…crisp, light, refreshing, and very tangy, topped with passion fruit pulp including those magical crispy little seeds I love so much about this…my favorite fruit. This sorbet was made in the blender rather than the ice cream freezer! A concentrated base of boiled ginger, sugar, and passion fruit was poured over ice in the Vitamix and processed until smooth. If you have a blender capable of that kinda power, sorbets can be incredibly quick affairs!
And then the main attraction: a pork belly Benedict. I don’t think Jennie and I quite understood how amazing this dish was going to taste when we conceptualized it, pulling inspiration from Southern pork and greens. Since we’d had so much bread on the menu thus far, we omitted the English muffin altogether and based the Benedict on a mound of mild turnip greens and spinach from William Hurst, braised in homemade apple cider vinegar and pork belly fat which rendered from the most stunning protein we’ve ever served at FRANK…and that’s saying something. Thanks to Clark at Arrowhead Specialty Meats, we were able to source 2 whole pork bellies from Compart Family Farms, the producer of what is indisputably the finest heritage pork in the country. They raise all the feed for their pigs right there on the farm, and they only raise Durocs, a Spanish breed (which I used to raise as a kid!) known for superior meat that is almost red, rather than the pale, sallow pork you see in the grocery store:
Here you are looking at the uncured cut of raw meat. Your grocery store bacon may look like this, but it’s because it’s been cured with “pink salt” nitrites to tinge the meat pink and keep it that way, even after cooking. Normal raw pork does not look like this. It was such an honor to work with these pork bellies, they are among the finest pieces of meat I’ve ever used.
First we did a wet cure on the bellies by brining them with a super-secret pickle of homemade apple cider vinegar, bay leaves, paprika, garlic, onion, and foraged wild black mustard seeds, which are all over the place right now:
After the curing process was complete, the bellies were dried in the fridge for several days to form the “pellicle” or dry, tacky outer surface that grabs a’hold of the smoke during the next prep phase: hot smoking. We smoked those babies over wild grape wood foraged in the park behind my house, nice and slow for about 6 hours, until they were fully cooked. Then they were chilled to set them up, and then portioned out into what were basically “bacon steaks,” then seared to a crisp before serving:
Pork belly is super trendy right now, it’s on the menu of every cool, hip restaurant. So you can imagine that our diners had sky-high expectations, and it was, without a doubt, the highlight of the evening. One diner who proclaims himself a connoisseur of pork belly said it was the single best he had ever tasted. Steven, the host of the show that was filming, said that pork belly had been served to them at almost EVERY joint they had patronized on their continental tour in search of the country’s best underground food, and that ours was unequivocally the best. So…as you can imagine, we were pretty darn proud of our pork, but always keeping in mind that it was the Compart family that did most of the work, carefully raising the best pork in the world.
A soft poached, pastured egg sat on top of the pork belly, with hollandaise made from pastured eggs draped on top. Have we talked about pastured eggs, yet? Some of our diners were mis-quoting it as “pasteurized eggs” which is a totally different thing. A pastured egg comes from a chicken that has no cage or pen. When you see “free range eggs” or “cage free eggs” in the grocery store, that does NOT mean the chicken doesn’t live in a cage. ALL commercially raised eggs are from hens kept in cages. Period. Free range chickens just live in BIG cages, with thousands of other chickens, where they have access to the “outside” (ie, a caged area adjacent to the big covered cage where they spend most of the day). Pastured chickens, otherwise known as farm chickens, live the way a chicken naturally does…with its only cage as the farm’s boundary fence. It roams as far as it likes during the day, seeking out its entire diet of grass, weeds, seeds, and bugs. The yolks from pastured eggs are dark orange and unspeakably rich, which made our Hollandaise a shocking deep yellow. (Some diners thought we’d added food coloring!)
But that’s not all, my friends! To take the Benedict to a level of utter insanity, we added roasted ramps to the plate! Ramps are wild leeks that can be foraged in the forests of the midwest and Eastern seaboard during the spring, and they are the most delicious of ALL the alliums. Shaped like a green onion but with paddle-like leaves, it has a puzzling combination of oniony heat, garlicky depth, and sugary sweetness. There is nothing in all the world like the flavor of a ramp. And the way those flavors melded…the rich, smoky pork, the tangy braised greens, the luxurious flowing egg yolk and hollandaise, and the crisp, pungent, sweet ramps…I’m just telling you, dear reader, it may have been the best thing I’ve ever tasted. People were licking their plates and moaning. It was indulgent in the most potent sense of the word.
But we can’t stop there, for there is no FRANK without dessert. To start with, we made challah…a traditional Jewish egg bread made on the Sabbath with all the extra eggs from the hen house. Some fans noted on my Facebook that this doesn’t look like traditional challah…but as with any deeply-engrained food tradition, there are a million right ways and only yours is the best one. Some have another smaller braid going down the center. Some are brushed with egg white and sprinkled with sesame or poppy seeds. But ours was destined for something entirely different…bourbon-soaked French toast, drenched in reduced bourbon and maple syrup, dusted with homemade granola, and served with a coffee gelato so intense we actually churned finely ground coffee right into the ice cream:
And our diners were stuffed. But that’s just the menu…lest we forget, FRANK was being filmed for posterity! The host of The Illegal Eater, Steven Page, is most famous for being the former lead singer of the band The Barenaked Ladies. (You remember their biggest hit… “Chickity China the Chinese chicken, you have a drumstick and your brain stops tickin…”) Loath to be defined entirely by his past, Steven’s new project is touring the country with a new band, and their stuff is downright delightful, so check out his tour dates on his website under the link marked LIVE and check him out when he comes your way! Before he became an unwitting rockstar, though, Steven went to culinary school, and hearing him tell stories of his culinary awakening during his touring era was striking. Steven and the crew came to my house on Saturday to film some of the elements here that go into FRANK, namely the FRANK garden, the processes by which we make our wine, beer, cheese, and charcuterie, and, most importantly, the lovely ladies of the FRANK flock:
What I DIDN’T know is that Steven and I are long lost brothers-from-another-mother. This guy is like me. Or I’m like him. His backyard is full of chickens and a garden. We gabbed about how to rig up plumbing between rain barrels to directly feed the irrigation system in our gardens. Were Steven living in Dallas rather than upstate New York, I have NO doubt we’d be at each others’ dinner parties weekly. He was as refreshing as a celebrity can be…genuine, self deprecating, straightforward, unashamedly sentimental for the “good old days” but fully realizing that the life we live now is infinitely better than the days when we were “famous.” Unlike most celebs I’ve worked with, Steven is the exact same person when the camera turns on that he is when there’s no camera around. (Rachael Ray is another.)
He was a bit dumbfounded by all the work that goes into FRANK. This isn’t an ordinary restaurant. He simply refused to believe that we make our own cheese and wine, and both he and the crew were very eager to experience FRANK after their rainy Saturday afternoon at my house. (I made them bacon white chocolate chip cookies and served them with raw milk from Lucky Layla, and they all seemed to enjoy that nostalgia.)
Any time you combine food with television, things get tricky. Because television takes time to make, and food waits for nobody. When you watch MasterChef, marvel at the fact that the judges are tasting dishes that have been sitting out at room temperature for several hours after they were cooked. But we didn’t have that luxury…we had to make sure our 18 guests (Steven among them) had a true FRANK experience, and that means the best food possible. And once we finally got our guests seated at the table, the food began flowing. Despite a bit of extra heat from studio lights, and the fact that we couldn’t spin our classic vinyl as loud as normal (any background songs have to be licensed and royalties paid if appearing on TV), FRANK went off without a hitch.
And while we were busy cooking, serving, and making television, our diners were having a genuine FRANK experience, as described by Shirley, a gal who flew in from Virginia to visit FRANK for her birthday: “Hi, Ben. I’ve had time to get back to Virginia and reflect on the most unusual birthday celebration of my life. I absolutely loved flying down to Dallas to attend FRANK on my birthday day. This experience was one I had only dreamed of doing and it actually happened. The entire “Brunch After Dark” on 5/24/13 was delicious and it was fun to hear all the ways you foraged for and prepared each dish. And just so you know, I did not waste an single black walnut chip. :o) I also ate my first “flower” and it was good! Thank you so much for your hospitality and for being such a delight to be around. Jennie was also so gracious to have us in her loft and to cook some great surprises for us. It was delightful to be in your presence and to eat and fellowship with many others. Still basking in the afterglow of dinner at FRANK. You’re just so fun! Hug! Keep that great personality!”
Shirley attended with a couple of FRANK regulars, Frank and Lil Eastman, who are noteworthy poets! They wrote this lovely little poem about the FRANK experience:
A loud beep announces “you’ve got mail,”
With mouse’s help, to it I sail.
Another FRANK event, Ben and Jen hail,
I’ll send my reply quickly, without fail.
We always look forward to FRANK.
A lottery draw picks those to dine,
A repast that is deliciously fine.
Freshest ingredients, seasoned simply sublime.
(Oh geez, oh please, I hope they pick mine)
We always look forward to FRANK.
An industrial loft is the place where we all meet,
Near downtown Dallas, the address is discreet.
Eighteen guests, the chefs cordially greet,
Amuse-bouche done, now please take a seat.
We always look forward to FRANK.
We’re all seated at a long, looong table,
Reclaimed oak flooring; No, it’s not maple.
Ben made it: Yes, he is quite able,
With all those plates, I sure hope it’s stable.
We always look forward to FRANK.
The courses are served with clocklike precision,
Their content the two Masterchefs’ decision.
Fanciful plating is an artistic vision,
Broiled white bass? Did Ben just go fishin’?
We always look forward to FRANK.
The guests are stuffed, the dinner complete,
Jen and Ben, this was surely a treat!
Now, if I can just lift off this seat,
You will see a miraculous feat!
I always eat too much at FRANK!
It’s time to leave; say our goodbyes,
We’ve all enjoyed gastronomic highs.
I’ll waffle on out on my fried chicken thighs,
To wait ‘til next time, with hungry sighs.
We always have a great time at FRANK.
Our guests were drifting off home, and the film crew began to pack as if they were leaving. But Jennie and I scrambled to set out a buffet for them, because they had been watching course after course of delicious FRANK food parading beneath their noses all night, and we knew that they had to be starving. They looked at us a little strangely at first.
“No one on our entire tour has set out food for us before,” they said.
“Welcome to FRANK!” we beamed, and handed them plates.
An hour later, our communal table was again, for the second time in one night, filled with happy, sated diners. The homemade wine was flowing, and the director turned to us, with what might have just been a little mist in his eyes, and said, “This night was really special. We haven’t experienced ANYTHING like this. Thank you.”
Steven Page, rockstar that he is, sat there at the table, sipping our Scotch, and chatting casually with Jennie about which are the best music venues in the country, and chatting about the various benefits and drawbacks of different chicken breeds with me, as if we were old friends, sitting on a back porch in the countryside, sharing a jug of moonshine. It’s rare enough finding anyone in this world who is truly genuine, much less someone who has survived the ravages of celebrity and remained so.
As always, a big thanks to our diners, without whom FRANK has no purpose. Thanks to Steven for grokking FRANK and your overly-generous praise for what we do. Thanks to the film crew for being the most flexible and cool crew we’ve ever worked with. Thanks to our AMAZING staff, our servers Chris and Marie, our sous chef Natalie, and our workhorse Evan, who was finally able to dine at the table he has slaved over on many occasions. But most of all, thanks to Jennie Kelley, who boldly shared with me her secret dream of an underground restaurant called FRANK. In a few months, millions of people will be virtually sitting at our table, experiencing FRANK through Steven’s eyes. Maybe they will wonder, if only for a brief moment, where their food comes from. Maybe they will remember, far back in the dim past, gathering around a table with family for an evening meal, without television or cell phones or internet, sharing a dinner prepared entirely from scratch, and the power that has to bring people together. Because that is what FRANK is about.
We will keep you posted on airing dates for the Illegal Eater here in the US, so subscribe to my blog near the upper right corner of this page for future updates! Feel free to comment below, and like FRANK on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for larger-than-life tales of wonderful, homespun yummies and dinner parties so epic, they attract Hollywood’s attention!
To read more about FRANK, click here for a list of blog posts about our more interesting menus!