Tag Archives: Jennie Kelley

All About FRANK

“Just who is this FRANK character and why does Ben Starr spend so much time with him?”  That’s a rough translation of an email I got from a delightful Italian fan last week.  Then I realized, many of you are intrigued with this FRANK thing I’ve got going on with my bestie from MasterChef Jennie Kelley.  And since most of you live so far from Dallas that you’ll never be able to experience FRANK, it’s high time I give you an inside peek at one of the most fascinating endeavors I’ve ever undertaken.

About a month after MasterChef finished filming, I was back in Dallas…after a quick trip to Thailand which was planned long before I auditioned for MasterChef, and turned out to be a much-needed decompression.  I immediately went to visit precious, darling Jennie Kelley, one of my top-18 “rivals” on the show.  In reality, Jennie and I were fast friends from the moment we met in a casting van with 10 other strangers.  I offered her some of the chicken wings I’d gotten at the grocery store (you basically STARVE during MasterChef, ironically), and the rest was history.

Jennie and I have a very similar connection with food, and we discovered this early on.  Some people are attracted to the ACTUAL process of cooking.  Combining flavors and techniques to produce something entirely new and creative.  These people make up the greatest chefs in history.  They are the people who look at ingredients and see art.  I am not one of those people.  And those people, like most artists, care very little what the public at large thinks of their work.  They know, in their educated and inspired hearts and minds, that their work approaches perfection.  And if the public balks, they may not care, or they may buckle into depression.  But they don’t create their art for the public.  They create because they are driven to.

Jennie and I are passionate about cooking for a different reason…because of what cooking means to people.  To our friends and family.  To our culture.  We are drawn to the kitchen because of the human aspect.  Because of what happens to people when they gather around a table, whether they are life-long friends, or complete strangers.  We would be more appropriately termed “Food Anthropologists” or “Kitchen Sociologists” than chefs.

So when the stinky stuff started to hit the proverbial fan behind-the-scenes at MasterChef…and people started fighting and arguing, insulting each other, and being hostile…we broke down.  Because, to us, cooking is about bringing people together.  And here was our top-18 group, throwing cookbooks at each other and screaming at the top of their lungs over such petty matters.  And Jennie and I both knew that we had to stop it, or hit the highway home.  So we basically forced everyone to sit down, and we said, “Guys…we’re stuck here for 2 months.  We can’t contact the people in our lives that we love while we’re here.  The only people we have to lean on right now are each other.  And we’re all here because we love cooking.  So let’s stop fighting and being negative.  Let’s support each other and love each other, because we share SO MUCH MORE with each other than what differences we may have.  We will all be better cooks if we love each other rather than hate each other.”  And from that moment on, our MasterChef experience was different.  Perhaps not as drama-filled and back-stabby as the producers would have liked.  But, judging from the responses I’ve heard from all you wonderful people, unique in reality television and as a result…special.

But I digress.  There I am, sitting on Jennie’s couch.  The last time I was in Dallas, almost 3 months before, I didn’t know she existed…though I had walked past her apartment building a dozen times.  Now we felt like we’d known each other all our lives, a scant 10 weeks later.

“What now?” I asked Jennie.  “What’s next?”

“I dunno.  Do you wanna be a chef?” she asked.

“HECK no.  I love cooking WAY too much to be a chef.  I have to sit down with the people I cook for.  They are the only reason I cook.  I have NO desire to sit in the back of a commercial kitchen and churn out plate after plate of Xerox-copy food for people I’ll never meet.  What about you?  Do you wanna be a chef?”

And, as always between me and Jennie, she didn’t even need to respond.  We felt exactly the same.

“I have been thinking about this one idea, though, for years and years and years,” she said.  “I really wanna do an underground restaurant.”

Any mention of “underground” automatically triggers the primal instincts that led me to start exploring caves when I was barely 10 years old.  Cave exploring is my hobby.

“Well, we don’t have very many caves in North Texas, Jennie.  And I’m not entirely sure a cave is a great environment for a restaurant.”

She looked at me with that look I’ve seen a million times since, indicating, “I can’t believe you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re too cool not to know.”

Several days later, an unexpected package arrived from Amazon for me, and I tore it open to discover the book Secret Suppers: Rogue Chefs and Underground Restaurants in Warehouses, Townhouses, Open Fields, and Everywhere In Between by Jenn Garbee.  And if that’s not an intriguing title, I don’t know what is.  I drew myself a hot bath.  I poured myself a big glass of red.  And I opened the cover.

2 hours later the bath water was ice cold and I turned the last page.  Shivering, I jumped out of the tub and called Jennie.

“I’m in.  Let’s do this.”

Underground restaurants are their own unique thing.  Some people, when I explain it to them, say, “Oh, you mean a pop up!”  A pop-up restaurant is when a chef takes over an existing restaurant for a night, and does their own menu.  An underground restaurant is completely different.  An underground restaurant is a restaurant that doesn’t exist.  No one knows where it’s at.  It usually changes locations every time.  And it’s NEVER in a restaurant.  It’s in a house.  A field.  A barn.  (A cave?)  And almost always, the guests sit together, family-style, though they don’t know each other.  And instead of the chefs being stuck in the back, they are out there, mingling with guests, talking about the food, telling stories…  It’s the antithesis of a restaurant.  And nothing like a pop-up.

Strangely enough, I’ve been hosting underground restaurants for almost a decade and never even realized it.  They often took place in my front yard:

So it didn’t even require a second of thought to decide that Jennie and I, after joining forces, could create one of the coolest Underground Restaurants in existence.

“I wanna call it Frank,” she said.

“Frank?  Who’s that?”

“No…not Frank.  frank.  FRANK.  Like…straightforward.  You know…food, to the point.”

Bingo.  I got it.  No foams.  No scented airs.  No carrot juice caviar.  No duck liver spun into cotton candy.  No whimsically bizarre things that people would NEVER imagine themselves eating anywhere else.  REAL food.  The foods people know.  The foods that have been celebrated for centuries in cultures around the world.  REAL food.  Food that looks like itself.  Food that has a story that stretches beyond the calcined walls of the Modernist chef’s skull.  Food that was already a legend a century before the chef was born.  The kind of food that people cook for each other when it comes time to celebrate.  The Food of the People.

I, ever the spontanaetist (is that a word?), immediately said, “When are we gonna do it?  Next week?”

Jennie, ever the precautionary perfectionist, replied, “GOD no!  It’s gonna take months.  Everything has to be perfect.  We don’t even have a table.  We have to have a table.  The perfect table.  THE table.  The table everyone sits around.”

Well, of course, if we had to search the continent for the perfect FRANK table, it would take forever.  The clear choice, then, was to BUILD the table.  We had already discussed that everything at FRANK was to be handcrafted, right down to the butter on the table.  Why not the table, itself?

“Do you know how to woodwork?” Jennie asked.

“Nah.  But how hard can it be?  I’m always up for a new hobby.”  I could hear her curious skepticism in the silence on the line.  My statement was not without precedent, though.  Before MasterChef, I did appear on HGTV’s All American Handyman.  I may not be a woodworker, but I can build a house.

So, ever the thrifty person I am, and fueled with a fire to create a table that embodied all the character and history of the foods we intended to celebrate at FRANK, I found a century-old home in Ft. Worth that was being demolished, and they wanted someone to take the red oak flooring and give it a new life, rather than it ending up in a landfill.  Two weeks later, the floor from a home that saw generations of families grow up had been re-milled into the table that would become the very heart of FRANK:

 

Crude, to be sure.  Or, as I prefer to call it: “rustic.”  But full of character, with a story reaching back through the years…just as we wanted.

Now, table provided, Jennie had no excuse for delay.  It was time to make FRANK happen.  And on April 12, 2012, it did.

Fast-forward nearly a year, and if you type “Top Restaurants” into Yelp for Dallas, Texas…more often than not, you’ll see FRANK in the top 10.  (It rotates constantly based on current reviews for each restaurant.)  We’re always puzzled when we see ourselves on that list.  We’re only open once or twice a month.  Yes, the crowds originally came because they learned about me and Jennie by watching MasterChef.  But gradually, the crowd shifted to people who had no clue who Jennie and I were…they were at the FRANK table because they had heard about the food.  About the experience.  And that’s exactly how we like it.

So, once or twice a month, a crowd of 18 strangers assembles around the FRANK table, and for 3 hours, they eat.  Four, five…sometimes six courses.  Of food that’s crafted entirely by hand.  From the bread to the cheese.  And sometimes…to the wine or beer.  So, without further ado, I’ll tell the story of one FRANK.  Valentine’s FRANK.

The last week of January, Jennie and I confirmed that we would host FRANK the weekend before Valentine’s, February 8 and 10.  A Friday and a Sunday, a pattern we’ve discovered we like.  It gives us a day between seatings to recover and recook.  And it allows folks in the industry to attend, as many restaurants and bars close or have alternate staff on Sunday night.  And I push for a third seating on February 14, because that’s one of the biggest “date nights” of the year.  We’ve never done 3 FRANKs in a row.  But we’re almost a year old.  We can handle it.

Scheduling a FRANK can be daunting, because Jennie and I each juggle 2 full time careers outside of FRANK.  I do tech support and website management for a series of health-related websites, and I help translate recipes from the country’s greatest chefs and restaurants onto a home-cook level for the iPad app Nimble Chef.  Jennie is a food stylist (meaning she cooks and presents the food that appears in photos for magazines, cookbooks, even music videos), and she’s a founding member of the legendary band The Polyphonic Spree which, for the past 13 years, has toured the world, spreading their one-of-a-kind sound that infiltrates the human heart and voicebox and infects both with naught but peace, love, and an overabundance of explosive and highly-contagious joy.  So…it can be quite challenging to find a weekend each month when we’re both in town and have the ability to carve out the week before to execute FRANK.  Because it takes a full week.

So on Sunday, February 3, an invitation email is sent out to over 2,000 people around the country who want to dine at FRANK, announcing our Friday, Sunday, and Valentine’s Thursday seatings.  Guests have until Monday at 5pm to email us back, indicating their party size (up to 4 people), and the night(s) they are interested in dining.  Monday night, Jennie and I are faced with the daunting task of executing the lottery that decides the guest list.

There’s probably software that would simplify this task.  But we’ve got HUNDREDS of RSVP emails…some of which say, “We can come ANY of the 3 nights, but if it’s Friday, it will be 3 of us.  If it’s Sunday, it will be 2 of us.  If it’s Valentine’s Day, it will be 4 of us.”  For any given FRANK, we have 200-300 seating requests for only 18 seats.  And since we’re so passionate about a hand-crafted experience, even the lottery is hand crafted.  In a spiral notebook, we write down every party that wants seats for every night.  And then the random lottery takes place and the guest list is assembled.  And on Tuesday, we email the lucky winners with the good news that they’ll be dining a FRANK.  But they still don’t know WHERE frank. is.  Or what they’ll be eating.  They won’t find out until the night before they sit down at our table.

Monday night we start discussing the menu, because at this point, all we’ve decided is our theme: Chocolate.  Naturally.  Because it’s Valentine’s Day, and no food is more synonymous with romance than chocolate.  And this is a particularly challenging theme.  Usually, we pick a broader theme, like “FRENCH FOOD.”  Or “BRUNCH AFTER DARK.”  This menu, however, will feature chocolate in every course, and few of us are accustomed to eating chocolate in any course other than dessert.  We hash out a menu, which is entirely likely to change a dozen times before we start cooking, based on inspiration, research, and what we find when sourcing.

Tuesday we begin sourcing.  We have 18 guests, plus staff, to feed on 3 separate nights.  Friday and Sunday can be sourced at the same time.  But the following Thursday seating will require sourcing the next week.  We have a trove of local artisans and purveyors that help supply the freshest local ingredients for each FRANK dinner.  Some come from our favorite corner ethnic food markets.  Some come from legendary purveyors like Tom Spicer at Spiceman’s 1401, who supplies fresh herbs, greens, foraged mushrooms, and such to Dallas’s finest restaurants; or Paula Lambert at the Dallas Mozzarella Company, lauded around the world as one of the finest cheesemakers alive.  Some come from the Dallas Farmer’s Market.  Some come from my own garden, in my backyard in Lewisville:

This is one of the primary differences between FRANK and a restaurant.  The large portion of a restaurant’s ingredients arrive weekly from a commercial food supply company, like Ben E. Keith or Sysco.  Yes…the better restaurants may source the protein for their special from a local farm here and there.  But virtually all their ingredients arrive in massive boxes and jugs from mass-produced sources.  Because they are serving 600 people a night, 6 or 7 nights a week.  At FRANK, because we serve 18 people, 2 or 3 times a month, we can source the finest local meats and veggies, like pastured rooster from Farmer William at Grandma’s Farm in McKinney, free range eggs from Shepherd/Farmer Cindy at Jacob’s Reward in Parker, or raw milk from Farmer Todd at Lucky Layla in Plano.

By Thursday morning, everything is sourced, and the menu is finalized:


This is not a typical FRANK menu.  Normally, you would recognize way more items on the menu.  But our theme is chocolate…one of the most complex and challenging ingredients known to man.  For this menu, we’re going out on a limb to introduce our diners to pairings they’re probably unfamiliar with.  Like bleu cheese and chocolate.  If you’ve never tried it, you haven’t lived.  Get a nice dark bittersweet chocolate, some Gorgonzola or Roquefort, and a crisp cracker like Melba toast, and eat them together.  Your life will change.

We have over 22 components to prepare for the six-course menu.  Some take 15 minutes to prep.  Some take more than 12 hours:

  • Chocolate puff pastry (not sweet, just savory)
  • Seared cocoa- and paprika- rubbed flank steak
  • Chocolate hazelnut soup
  • Toasted crostini with gorgonzola cheese
  • Handmade chocolate spaghetti (earthy and bitter, not sweet at all)
  • A light citrus cream sauce for the pasta
  • Scallops crusted in raw cacao nibs, seared in cocoa butter
  • Sorbet of reduced Cabernet Sauvignon with candied shallots
  • Dark chocolate covered Champagne grapes
  • A Oaxacan-style mole sauce with over 50 ingredients, from avocado leaf to baby banana to 3 different types of chocolate
  • Chicken thigh meat braised in the mole
  • Crispy polenta cakes made with masa and cotija, a Mexican cheese with vaguely similar characteristics to Romano
  • Fried quail eggs
  • Cocoa and cinnamon toasted cauliflower
  • Crusty, old-world-style rosemary sourdough bread
  • Sweet-cream butter with fleur de sel (course sea salt)
  • Flourless chocolate cake
  • Goat cheese ice cream
  • Salted caramel sauce made with raw cocoa butter
  • Dark chocolate-dipped potato chips
  • Hot chocolate with 6 types of chiles, cinnamon, vanilla bean, and coffee bean
  • Dark chocolate truffles infused with espresso, coated with pink peppercorn and coarse Maldon sea salt

And here is yet another thing that separates FRANK from a restaurant.  At a restaurant, a team of prep cooks would arrive in the early morning to start on the sauces and the components that take longer.  The bread and butter, and many other menu items, would be picked up or delivered from outside sources.  Those prep cooks finish their shifts before dinner service begins, and the line cooks arrive and take the components readied by the prep cooks, and toss them together as they are ordered by diners, according to the executive chef’s recipes.  At FRANK, your prep cooks, line cooks, and executive chefs are ME and JENNIE.  We do everything.  By hand.  And then we put it on the table in front of you.

Occasionally, we have a “sous chef” who gets in the kitchen with us on Thursday to help cook.  This week it happens to be Michael Chen, from MasterChef season 3, who is recently back in Texas from a stint as executive chef at a restaurant in Rimouski, Canada on the banks of Quebec’s mighty St. Lawrence River.  Michael, as always, readily accepts mundane tasks and executes them with flawless diligence.  (“Michael, I need to you to melt this chocolate to exactly 98 degrees over 75 minutes, stirring every 30 seconds.”)  For those who don’t know, in order for chocolate to “melt in your mouth, not in your hand” it must be carefully melted to exacting temperatures very slowly.  This is called “tempering” and it can be incredibly challenging.  2 or 3 degrees too much, and your chocolate will not set at room temp and will be a runny mess.

For our menu, we are using several different types of chocolate.  Two are legendary in the pastry chef’s world, but may be unfamiliar to you: Valrhona from France and Callebaut from Belgium.  These are the two dominant names in the gourmet chocolate world.  They produce what are commonly respected as the finest chocolates in the world.  You can’t go to the store and buy a bar of Valrhona or Callebaut chocolate.  But if you buy a ruinously-expensive artisan chocolate bar with Madagascar orange peel and Himalayan sea salt…chances are the chocolate in the bar was sourced from Valrhona or Callebaut.  In addition, we’re prominently featuring a chocolate we fell in love with while sourcing…Agostoni from Italy.  To us, it put Valrhona and Callebaut to shame with its complexity, depth, and spiciness.  We’re also using El Rey, a chocolate company owned by a Venezuelan family, as well as “Mexican chocolate” which is blended with coarse sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon and commonly melted into boiling milk or water to make hot chocolate.

Wednesday night, Michael and I stay up all night making dark chocolate truffles infused with espresso and coated with Maldon sea salt (a famous salt among chefs, with large, crunchy, delicate crystals, that is produced in England) and pink peppercorns that I picked from a tree in Hawaii on a recent trip with Christian Collins and Adrien Nieto from MasterChef.  Thursday we “load in” to the historic building where FRANK will happen, and start cooking in earnest.  One of the biggest projects is the mole, which takes well over 12 hours to prep BEFORE the chicken is cooked in it.  Thursday night we send out a secret email to the diners to notify them of the location and menu, and we finally collapse in bed around 4am for a few hours of desperate sleep before an early rise on Friday…the day we serve.

Not only do we have to cook on Friday.  We have to transform the space into a restaurant by setting up the 18 foot communal table (which weighs about 200 pounds) and 18 chairs.

We also have to select a quote for our chalkboard to represent the evening:

Our servers arrive around 6pm and we brief them on the menu, and on any special diners who may not be drinking, or who may be allergic to shellfish or gluten and who will receive special plates.  We go over each course with them, so they know what they are serving, which wine to pair with it, when to pass the homemade bread, and who is celebrating anniversaries or birthdays.  Like everything with FRANK, our servers are not strangers.  Chris and Marie are our normal servers.  I’ve known Chris since he was 17.  Jennie has known Marie since she was the same age.  They are two of our dearest friends, and they make our life so much easier by letting us focus entirely on the food.

Chris and Marie, our go-to servers at FRANK. Image by Lauren Logan

At 8pm, the guests begin to arrive.  At first, they’re not sure what to expect.  They’re arriving at someone’s private home that they’ve never met.  They don’t know anyone in the room but who they came with.  We place Champagne into one hand, and an amuse-bouche (a fancy term for a small-bite appetizer) into the other, and introduce them to the other guests.  Chris puts some vinyl on the record player, and the crowd begins to grow as the Champagne flows.

At 830pm we tell everyone to rush the table.  Grab a seat.  Any seat.  As long as you’re sitting next to someone you came with, and next to a stranger.  Some of our diners get a little nervous about this game of musical chairs.  Some get incredibly brave and sit at the complete opposite end of the table from the person they came with.  Jennie and I give a quick history of FRANK and explain that they are about to take a 3-hour journey that will be completely different from any restaurant they’ve ever experienced, and the reason isn’t just the food…it’s the strangers sitting at the table with them.  Because, even when you go to dine at a truly exceptional restaurant, the only people you share that experience with is the people you came with.  At FRANK, everyone in the restaurant dines together.  And everyone is at the table because they are passionate foodies.  So whether a doctor is sitting next to a mechanic, or a 70 year old is sitting next to a 20 year old, they automatically have a connection that sparks conversation.  And they’re going to tell stories about other exceptional meals they’ve enjoyed.  And they’re going to excitedly discuss each course after they’ve tasted it.  And by the end of the evening, everyone is Facebook friends and making plans to dine together the following week.  (At one FRANK, one of the guests set up a special Facebook page JUST for the diners that night, so they could share photos and keep in touch with each other.)

Jennie then hurries back into the kitchen to get the first course ready, and I begin to discuss the evening’s theme and the food everyone is about to eat.  Since chocolate is our ingredient for the night, I pass around some raw whole cacao nibs and explain how chocolate goes from a pulpy pod filled with bitter, almond-sized seeds, to the confections they are familiar with.  I also pass around some chunks of raw cocoa butter and explain how this remarkable fat, that is rock hard at room temperature, but melts smoothly and sensually at body temperature, plays its own unique role as a cooking fat in this evening’s menu.  (Restaurants could never use cocoa butter as a cooking fat, despite its FABULOUSLY high smoke point, and luxurious flavor and mouth feel, because it is also fabulously expensive and just can’t be sourced in quantities large enough for commercial cooking.)  This is another unique aspect about FRANK…your chefs give you a thorough education about the food you’re going to eat.  We tell you about where it came from.  (Because we actually know.)  We explain why we chose the cooking methods we did, and the chemistry and physics behind the procedures for the meal.  And our diners just love it.

Image by Christian Eggers

The courses begin coming out.  First is a soup inspired by a classic Italian combination: hazelnuts and chocolate.  Ever had Nutella?  Well, this is the savory version of that.  It’s not sweet at all.  POUNDS of hazelnuts get simmered in vegetable broth with shallots and then pureed into a thick base that gets flavored with a bit of cinnamon, and then enriched with bittersweet chocolate and some cream.  On top are toasted hazelnuts and basil chiffonade, and the thing that brings it all together is the intense raw-milk gorgonzola on the crostini.  As I mentioned before, if you’ve never had chocolate and bleu cheese together, you’re in for the surprise of your life.  People were literally screaming at the combination…it’s that good.  And that surprising.

Image by Christian Eggers

Next comes the pasta course.  That giant sea scallop is seared at very high temperature in cocoa butter to get a nice crust, then it is rolled in cacao nibs that were also toasted in cocoa butter for a great earthy crunch to balance the scallop’s sweetness.  It’s sitting on a bed of chocolate spaghetti…dark, earthy, and bitter, which was tossed in a VERY light citrus cream sauce to brighten the dark flavors with acid and echo the sweetness of the scallop.  This was a favorite course among many diners.  And we passed around our homemade rosemary sourdough bread, made with whey leftover from the cheese we’re making for a future FRANK.  (Rosemary and chocolate is another fabulous pairing.)  Our diners spread homemade sweet cream butter onto the bread, and many of them tell us that the bread is so good they’d eat it exclusively for a meal if they could.

Image by Christian Eggers

Then it’s time for a sorbet palate cleanser before the bold flavors of the main course take over.  Our sorbet tonight is cabernet shallot…a nice young cab reduced and sweetened, with candied shallots dotted throughout.  There’s definitely an unmistakeable onion flavor to the sorbet, but the acidity and boldness of the wine (also customarily a savory flavor) contrasts with the sweetness to make a very complex and refreshing bite or two, helping the palate relax after several courses of dark, bitter chocolate.  We served it with a frozen chocolate covered Champagne grape.  A couple of our diners across 3 evenings told us, “It’s interesting, but I wouldn’t want to eat a whole bowl of it.”  (Luckily, we only gave them 3 bites.)  However, just as many told us it was their FAVORITE course of the entire night, and some actually wanted to eat a whole bowl!

Image by Christian Eggers

Now comes the main attraction…a play on a main course we’ve served in several unique incarnations at previous FRANKs: a crispy polenta cake topped with some type of braised meat.  Sometimes it’s short rib braised in coffee and cocoa.  Sometimes it’s chicken breast braised in red wine and rosemary.  But tonight, it’s chicken thigh braised in a dark Oaxacan mole sauce.  If you’ve never had mole, you haven’t lived.  If you’ve had mole and didn’t like it, it wasn’t prepared properly.  Mole is one of the most complex and delicious sauces of any culture on the planet.  This mole has avocado leaves, baby bananas, tortillas, raisins, coffee, wine, 3 types of chocolate, 6 types of chilies…the ingredients list adds up to more than 50.  Poor Michael Chen spent 12 hours straight just working on the mole to get it ready for the thigh meat to be braised, ever so slowly, at 200 degrees overnight, resulting in succulent perfection.  The mole is dark, rich, with a satisfying heat, and a depth of complex flavor you’d be hard pressed to find in any other culture’s food spectrum.  The chicken is nestled on top of a crispy polenta cake…decidedly NOT Mexican…but we finished the polenta with cotija, a dry Mexican cheese with a flavor similar to Romano.  And a sunny side quail egg rests on top of it all.  Accompanying the main course is cauliflower toasted in the oven with cocoa, cinnamon, and paprika.  And people go nuts.  One young lady, born in Mexico, called me over and said, embarassingly, “I’ve hated mole my whole life.  I can’t stand it.  Not even my mother’s or my grandmother’s.  When I saw it on the menu, I got really nervous, but my husband made me promise to try one bite.  I ate it all.  Is there any more?”

Image by Christian Eggers

Our guests have been eating for 2 and a half hours, but they’re not done.  Dessert is always a favorite course at FRANK, and this one will be no different.  It’s a flourless chocolate cake made with that unbelievably good Agostoni chocolate from Italy, served with a scoop of goat cheese ice cream.  It tastes like frozen cheesecake…a wee bit salty from the goat cheese, but incredibly rich and silky.  Draped across everything is a warm salted caramel sauce, traditionally made with butter, but we’ve made it with cocoa butter, which gives it a white-chocolate flavor.  And on top of the ice cream is a Ruffles potato chip (the only commercial ingredient of the night) dipped in Valrhona chocolate.  The interplay between sweet and salty, rich and bitter, is the perfect ending.  But it’s not alone.

Image by Christian Eggers

The dessert is served with something we call Aztec hot chocolate.  Before European explorers were introduced to chocolate by the Aztecs, all the chocolate in the world was consumed in the form of a drink by the native peoples of Central and South America.  And it wasn’t sweet.  It was combined with chiles and water and served as a ceremonial drink, reserved for chiefs, priests, gods, and warriors.  Our hot chocolate is a nod to chocolate’s origin, with flavors from Latin America’s most coveted ingredients…cinnamon, chiles, vanilla, and coffee.  It is thick and rich, but not very sweet.  A perfect balance to the dessert.  And so good that one guest (a gifted chef himself) asked to take home the leftovers to serve at his own Valentine’s dinner the following weekend.

And now, after 3 hours of indulging by our guests, and 3 hours of cooking and serving by us, it’s time to relax with our guests and chat about what they thought, and share a toast with our crew.

We may look full of life!  But we’ve been busting our humps for days, and we’re exhausted.  Service is a VERY hectic time as we try to plate 18 servings of each course and get them out quickly enough that everyone can start while the food is still warm.  (Or frozen.)

We relax with our guests for a bit, and then pass out their parting gifts…in this case, the truffles we made a few nights before.

Our guests pay whatever they feel is appropriate for the meal, either in cash or by credit card.  We give a suggested donation amount for each event, based on the menu and the occasion (generally between $100 and $150), but the final amount (if any) is up to our guests.  They universally tell us it’s worth far more than we charge for it.  (Though I admit, I’ve only spent that much on dinner a precious few times in my life.)  They’ve been eating the finest hand-crafted food, all of which has a story behind it, and drinking superbly paired wines, all night long.  They are leaving with new friends who they actually plan on seeing again.  And they are all prodding us for more info about how they can get a guaranteed seat at the next FRANK, since our invitation list is so long.

When the final guests leave, it’s often approaching midnight.  But our evening isn’t finished.  We have to wash all the dishes, put up any leftovers, and get the place back into order before we can sleep.  And the next day we’re up early, cooking again for Sunday night’s FRANK!  As you can imagine…the week following a FRANK demands quite a bit of taking-it-easy.  (Though…who really has time for that?!?)

I applaud those of you who made it all the way to the end of this blog.  At 5,500+ words, I know it wasn’t easy.  But FRANK isn’t something that is easily explained in a few words.  Maybe some day you’ll find yourself around our table, and we can chat about what FRANK was like for you!

Feel free to comment below, especially if you’ve dined at FRANK before.  And visit our new website, which we built ourselves, with some help from our amazing photographer friend Lauren Logan, and my techie wizard Ozzie Bock.  Thanks to EVERYONE who makes FRANK work.  Thanks to everyone who patiently waits through lottery after lottery to dine with us.  And most of all, thanks to Jennie Kelley, who conceived of FRANK long before she met me, but who welcomed me into this magical project.  FRANK has been one of the greatest adventures of my life, and I can’t wait for many more years to come!

To read more about FRANK, click here for a list of blog posts about our more interesting menus!

A MasterChef 4th of July

Many of you have been asking about the relationship between the contestants during and after the show, and I’m happy to report that we all pretty much adore each other.  We grew VERY close during the filming and have remained extremely tight since.  Just in the past month, I’ve been to LA to visit Adrien, Esther, and Alejandra, and to NY to visit Derrick.  (Max was out in the Hamptons, so I didn’t get to see him.)

Then, over the 4th of July weekend, I hosted Tracy and Alvin back-to-back, with the lovely Jennie Kelley driving the 30 minutes that separates us on quite a few occasions over the long weekend.

Tracy and Jennie arrived a few moments apart on Thursday afternoon in time for us three to get in my kitchen and start cooking.  After welcome hugs and tears, we did just that.  And I can’t really explain how cathartic and healing it felt to be in the kitchen with these two dear, dear friends, cooking for the first time without cameras or time limits or mystery boxes.  I cook because I love people.  That’s the only reason.  I don’t cook for the process itself…for the ingredients or the finished plate.  I cook because it’s the best way I know how to show the people in my life that I love them.  And many moments throughout those hours, tears welled in my eyes as I looked over at Tracy and Jennie, cooking in my kitchen next to me, as if it was the most normal thing in the world.

I made my signature Chicken Parmigiana…a dish many of my friends were shocked to see me NOT make during the chicken challenge under which the top 18 were selected.  But I made myself a promise that I’d do everything possible to AVOID making Italian food for Joe Bastianich, because he’s such a purist, and my chicken parm is anything but traditional.  Still…it’s YUMMY!  I’ll post the recipe soon.

I also made an overnight loaf of spent-grain sourdough bread, using the barley that I had used the week before to brew some grapefruit ginger IPA.  I threw some rosemary and garlic in for good measure.  I had planned on firing up my wood-burning pizza/bread oven in the backyard, but it was almost 110 degrees outside, and I just wasn’t in the mood to stand in front of a flame-belching oven in the heat.  That oven’s not gonna get much use until the temps drop below 90 here in north Texas.  Late September, perhaps?  Ugh!  So I just baked the bread in the oven and it came out great.

Jennie had some across a rare selection of FRESH morel mushrooms, which are among the yummiest things on the planet!  (She swore me to secrecy about her source.)  They weren’t local, I don’t think, but I could be wrong.  (Morels DO grow all over Texas, and careful, knowledgeable foragers can find them in late spring.)  With the morels she made a delectable mushroom risotto…one of my favorite ways to eat wild mushrooms.  She had also brought some fresh burrata, which is a type of fresh buffalo mozzarella that is filled on the inside with a rich creamy combination of cheese and cream.  Over that we poured some amazing, rare olive oil from the vineyard my partner’s sister lives near in Sicily, and that combined with the bread was mind blowing.

Jennie also whipped up a salad of baby spinach and arugula and feta cheese, with a vinaigrette of jalapeno and mint.  I had never tasted a salad like that before…it goes down as one of the most delicious I’ve ever had!

Tracy had just driven in from New Orleans, so we spared her any menu conceptualization, but she jumped right in and made my chicken parm for me.

It should also be noted at this point that my fridge decided it no longer wanted to live during the middle of dinner prep.  OH well…just another thing to add to the urgent to-do list that’s about 5 pages long.

After an amazing dinner with my friends, we settled down on the couch with some of my homemade beer and talked until the wee hours.  Laughing and crying, like we’d known each other since we were kids.  And to think that 5 short months ago, we didn’t know of each others’ existence!

After another incredible dinner at the Meddlesome Moth on Friday (pork belly, veal sweetbreads, bone marrow, mussels with tarragon and gorgonzola, pate and pickled okra, followed by fireworks at Grapevine Lake, Tracy headed to Los Angeles and I had just enough time to clean up the kitchen and buy a new fridge before the great Alvin Schultz arrived.

Sunday afternoon we went to all my favorite ethnic grocery stores in the area, and tossed a couple of briskets on the smoker.  Alvin had brought his sous vide immersion circulator, courtesy of PolyScience, and into it went about 10 pounds of pork belly.  (At the Mexican grocery store, we didn’t see pork belly in the meat case, so we asked the butcher if she had any.  “Maybe, how much would you need?” she asked.  “A lot,” replied Alvin, as she disappeared into the back…to return with AN ENTIRE PORK BELLY.  “Maybe not quite that much,” Alvin retracted.)  He cooked that pork belly at 70C for 14 hours, then smoked it for another 3, the crisped the fat cap under the broiler.  It was ridiculous.  I threw together my mom’s potato salad, and a big batch of my homemade barbecue sauce, which has like 100 ingredients, and then we settled down for a night of chatting.

Monday morning Alvin made a deconstructed Spanish tortilla for breakfast.  Normally, a Spanish tortilla is like an omelete or frittata, shredded potatoes cooked in a layer with egg.  But Alvin had made some 63C Degree Eggs the night before (basically an egg delicately poached inside its shell to a custardy consistency), which he placed in a glass, topped with potato foam, and finished with crispy fried potato hash and carmelized onions.  It was MIND BOGGLING.  SO delicious.  I tossed together some banana nut muffins to go with it, and one of the better breakfasts my kitchen has seen was served to a hungry crowd.

The rest of the day we finished preparations for the big July 4 dinner.  I made some BBQ beans.  Alvin made an incredible strawberry lemon sorbet that he froze in my KitchenAid using dry ice!

Alvin Schultz from MasterChef freezing sorbet with dry ice

Alvin, Freak-Genius, freezing sorbet instantly with dry ice

I got out my antiquated ice cream churn and made some coconut ice cream to go with the sorbet.  It turned out lovely, too, but took 30 minutes to freeze, whereas Alvin’s sorbet took around 1 minute.  Sheesh…

Then we packed up all the food and headed to our friend Kellie’s house for the party.  We had around 20 people show up, including Tudie from MasterChef.  She is one of the funniest people alive, it was great to see her.  Jennie Kelley came with her partner Evan, who I adore, and she whipped up the BEST fried okra I’ve ever had in my life.  (She cuts the spears in half lengthwise, rather than cutting them into rounds.)  She also produced some truffled deviled eggs, and I popped 3 of them into my mouth hole before she could even set down the tray.

I really feel like Jennie never got a chance to adequately show the world her talent on MasterChef.  Literally everything she has touched since we came back from filming has been stunningly good to me.  I guess the format of a limited pantry, limited time, and forced themes certainly allows a versatile chef to strut his or her stuff, but it doesn’t necessarily allow for a wide-open freedom of culinary expression.  Or Jennie would probably have won.

Much beer and food later, floating in the pool and watching the fireworks, I am captivated by this amazing country in which we live.  We must NEVER forget all the brave men and women who both lived and died for our country.  Not just soldiers.  Flight attendants and pilots, too.  Civilians at work in skyscrapers or going on vacation from Boston to the west coast.  Presidents.  Activists.  Artists.  Teachers.

Our country may be divided by political polarization.  But it is STILL the best country in the world.  We have a long way to go, but we’re headed there faster than anyone else.  Let freedom ring!

 

MasterChef: Veggies and Catfish

The only difference between de-ja-vu and mys-te-ry-box is that one of them has 4 syllables. I am sick of mystery boxes. I hate them. My only consolation is that you can’t be eliminated on a mystery box.

I lift today’s mystery box and underneath is a treasure trove of veggies. I may be a Texan at heart, which means I could never be vegetarian, but I love me some vegetables. I have a huge organic garden in my back yard, and in the armpit of summer, like now, I might as well be vegetarian with all the fresh producing coming out of the back yard. This is actually the first mystery box I think I’ll enjoy.

Ben Starr cooks for Gordon Ramsay on MasterChef season 2
But previous mystery boxes have been so traumatic for me that I heed some advice the judges have given in the past… “If you’re not immediately convicted about what to cook, start several things, and then see which ones turn out well.”

So I start two dishes. The first is a pairing of a creamy beet and potato soup with a mushroom and goat cheese tart. The second is a curried green tomato and eggplant ratatouille. And since we’ve got an hour, I’m actually able to finish both meals completely. But then I overhear the judges saying, “I’m worried about Ben Starr, he’s cooking 3 different dishes and I don’t think he’s feeling very confident.”

So much for following the judges’ advice!

After tasting my dishes, I really believe the curried ratatouille is the best. I love ratatouille. I make it all the time in the summer when I’ve got eggplant, zucchini, and tomatoes coming out of my ears from the garden. The green tomatoes are giving it a really nice tang that balances out the sturdy flavors of curry. I’m proud of my dish and I’m hoping it will actually be in the top 3 today.

It’s not, but it’s also not the worst of the day! That honor goes to Christian, which takes us ALL by surprise. Christian cooks like a veteran chef every single time. There is no denying his talent and expertise. So we’re all shell-shocked by Ramsay’s condemnation. And, true to his spirit of independence and candidness, he vocally disagrees with the judges’ opinions.

In the top 3 this time are Adrien (NO surprise), Alejandra (NO surprise), and Jen Behm. Pleasant surprise! Jennie cooks next to me on the same station, and I just love cooking next to her. She has a great energy and is bursting with creativity. And her dish looks really yummy. The judges give the winning position to her (yay!) and she heads back into the pantry to decide our collective fate for the next round.

Little do we know, she’s back there cavorting with Whitney Miller, the winner of last season’s MasterChef! I really like Whitney. Reality TV is littered with people who can seem phony or one-dimensional. Whitney is like a breath of fresh air…so real, genuine…so much like the rest of us. She has just published a cookbook, and Jen’s job is to pick one of 3 dishes from her cookbook for the rest of us to replicate, based only on looking and tasting. No recipe.

When Whitney comes out on stage, I shed a few tears. And I also have an epiphany. All of my fellow competitors live in a different world than I do. I don’t regularly dine on “gourmet cuisine.” I can probably count on two hands the number of times in my life that I’ve eaten food that could even be called “cuisine.” I may have been to all 7 continents, but when I travel, I eat the same “category” of food I eat and cook when I’m home in the U.S. Humble food. Farm house food. Street food. The Food of the People. Certainly not the Food of the Privileged.

Yet here I am, struggling to try to cook “sophisticated, well-conceptualized cuisine” (thank you, Joe Bastianich) and failing miserably at almost every turn. This is NOT the kind of cook I am.

Seeing Whitney up there in her MasterChef outfit, knowing that last season she beat many incredible talented “gourmet chefs” with her humble Southern comfort food does something to me. From this point on, I’m going to cook BEN STARR FOOD. And if they don’t like it, they can send me home!

Thankfully, Jen has chosen fried catfish with slaw, tartar sauce, and sweet potato fries. Could there be a more BEN STARR MENU? Methinks not. For the first time in this contest, I feel totally confident.

And it works. All around me, people are struggling with the catfish. Heck, this was probably the FIRST fish I ever ate, and collectively I’ve probably eaten more catfish in my life than all the ocean fish combined. I LOVE CATFISH. I grab a cast iron skillet…(what ELSE could you possibly cook catfish in?)…and an hour later I’ve got an almost exact replica of Whitney’s dish.

I proudly walk to the judges’ podium and present my plate. Ramsay looks at me, looks at my plate, and squints his eyes.

“Have you got Whitney Miller hiding under that ridiculous hat of yours?” he asks. And at that moment I know that I’ve perfectly replicated at least the appearance of Whitney’s dish.

He tastes.

“The fish is perfect. In fact, it might even be better than Christian’s.”

What??? Christian is the strongest competitor here. And his ultimate strength is fish! He lives a block from the ocean. He cooks fish every single day. My fish might even be better than his?

This is big. Now I feel like I have a reason to be in this competition. I might even have a chance of winning. As long as I can keep the focus on my kinda food.

But the challenge is not over. Adrien and Alejandra are down front for the worst dishes of the day. Bizarre, because they were just up there an hour ago for the best of the mystery boxes. Standing with them is Jennie Kelley. My fellow Dallas competitor. One of my closest friends in the competition. Jennie is a peacemaker, like me. She spreads love and joy and encouragement to everyone else.

And they take her apron and send her home.

Ben Starr and Jennie Kelley from MasterChef season 2

Winning is no joy when you win at the expense of people you love. Losing Jenny is as hard as losing Alvin. Maybe harder. She has incredible talent that I don’t believe has been fully shown to the judges. She is a kindred spirit. Someone who gives of herself constantly and consistently. I would describe her as the heart and soul of our group. A musician, artist, free spirit. An angel, really. My joy at winning is instantly overshadowed by sorrow at knowing she won’t be here tomorrow. This is a tough blow.

But it’s a competition. And now I’m going to be a team leader up against the person who most of us view as the strongest chef here. I have my work cut out for me. I need a brilliant team…