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MasterChef Where Are They Now: Tracy Kontos

For the next installment of my MasterChef: Where Are They Now? series, I’ve chosen one of my personal favorites from Season 2…Tracy Kontos.  Tracy is one of those people that, upon meeting, you instantly feel like you’ve been bosom buddies for decades.  She immediately sweeps you into this comfortable familiarity and makes you feel like the most important person in the world.

Tracy’s MasterChef journey began in southern Florida, where she lived with her then-husband, a private pilot for a mega-celebrity.  Tracy met her husband when she was a private flight attendant for said celebrity, in a time when her life was very spontaneous and free, exploring the world, following her heart and her dreams.  After getting married, she applied her rare people skills to a sales position with a major multi-national company and, in no time, she was a national sales manager, making big bucks, wheeling and dealing with Maserati-driving big-wig executives twice her age.  She and her husband settled down with a white picket fence and contemplated a family.  But something was missing.

The siren song of her beloved kitchen led her to a MasterChef audition, and in no time she was sitting next to me in a grimy warehouse in Compton filming the signature dish challenge.  Smooth sailing right through to the big challenge that would decide the top 18, when her chicken skin cracklins caught fire in the oven and Ramsay really noticed her for the first time.  But certainly not the last.  Tracy is one of those people who is magnetic…when she’s in the room, you can’t help but gravitate toward her.

Tracy did well and went far, but not as far as most of us thought.  (We all considered her a definite candidate for the win, and I think the judges did, too.  Of course…neither the contestants nor the judges have any say over who the winner will be!)  And being on the show affected Tracy more deeply than most of us.

She didn’t return home immediately after the show finished filming.  She went on a tour of the country, interning in some of the best restaurants (including Graham’s and Joe’s), getting to know what being a chef is REALLY like.  Because, on MasterChef, it’s just a bizarre hybrid of celebrity and slavery.

Upon returning to southern Florida to her husband, her dogs, and her white picket fence, Tracy discovered that she had no job.  Because when you leave to be on MasterChef, you have to tell your employer, “I’m going away for an unspecified amount of time…it could be a week, or it could be two months.  I can’t tell you what I’m doing, and I won’t be able to contact you during that time.  So I’ll see you when I get back.”  A major corporation can’t really deal without one of its top national sales executives for 2 months, so Tracy was replaced while she was in LA filming the show.

The loss of a job is no big deal for a woman like Tracy.  She could walk into the corporate headquarters of ANY major company in this country and have a corner office that afternoon.  She’s that kinda person.  But she looked around her home…she looked at her marriage…and she realized that her life had gotten derailed somewhere back along the line.  She had lost her creative spirit…her drive to explore life on her own terms…and she walked away from her husband and her beloved pups, packed up a suitcase, and drove to Los Angeles.  With a stop at my house along the way, of course, to make sure she was doing the right thing.

Understandably, the only person who could answer that question was her, and I told her as much.  But having her in my kitchen, cooking casually without Ramsay’s firey breath on our necks, was a moment I’ll remember all my life.  She was scared.  But she was excited.  Because she had lost track of who she really was during the past few years, and MasterChef had been a brutal wakeup call.

Tracy landed in LA with no job, and she started at the bottom, in the place where most people start: waiting tables.  A scant few months ago she was sitting in her corner office in her suit, commanding a sales force.  And now she was slinging cocktails and burgers at a beach bar.

“What did I do to myself, BenStarr?” she asked me when I was out there visiting shortly after her move.  “What did I give up?  Look at me!  Look at how I’m living!”

I thought for a bit, and I said, “Are you happy?”

“Happier than I’ve been in years.”

“Then you’re doing the right thing.”

Tracy started a catering company with Alejandra Schrader from our season, which began developing her connections in the LA food scene.  Soon after, she was offered a fairly lucrative private cheffing gig with a family who are dear friends of Esther Kang, also from our season.  Friends of that family heard about how fabulous Tracy was, and soon she had top-tier clients all over Los Angeles, including some Hollywood mega-stars.

But not only is she resourceful and savvy…she is conscientious and generous.  So it was time to give back.  And in October of last year, Tracy formed WILFS:  Women In LA Food Scene.  (And that acronym is no accident, boys!)  It began with 15 members…women Tracy had met in her exploration of the Los Angeles food world.  They dedicated themselves to mentoring other women wanting to break into that world, to sharing resources and contacts with each other, to support the local farming and food artisan communities, and to educate others on the importance of where their food comes from.  Nine months later, they have almost 80 active members.  They meet monthly to break bread, network, share new food discoveries, and discuss and explore a different food-related subject each time.  The guest speaker may be a local coffee roaster, a farmer, a chef, a vintner, or a brewmistress.  Their last meeting was at the home of a woman who owns an urban farming consultation company, and they planted veggies and learned how to care for backyard chickens.  (I’d have LOVED to have been at that meeting!)  Tracy beams when she reports that at least 10 new jobs have been created for extraordinary women because of connections from within WILFS.

Tracy has also carved out time to join me in my support of YO! House, an outreach program for homeless youth in Hawaii.  Many of the nation’s homeless kids (and there are many…it’s an epidemic) prostitute or drug-sell their way to a one-way ticket to Hawaii, because it’s the one place in the country where it’s always warm, and they hear tales of picking fresh fruit from trees on the beach and living the good life.  Unfortunately, they land in Honolulu and discover horrible gang violence, the nation’s worst crystal meth problem, and just about the only comforting thing for them is that they don’t shiver at night when they sleep in the park.  (At least not from the cold.)  YO! House is an extraordinary place where these homeless kids can come and get a medical exam, birth control/STD prevention, take vocational classes or get their GED, have a hot meal, and keep a locker in which to store their few valuables…making them a less likely target for assault and theft by older homeless and gangs.  And you’d be deeply troubled to learn about many of these kids.  At one event, an 11-year-old limped up to YO! House with blood running down his leg from a “fall” (ie assault).  His parents had left him there on a recent vacation.  Intentionally.  Tracy has joined one of several trips down there, coordinated solely by MasterChef contestants and our amazing friends Dr. Cristy Kessler and Rev. Liz Zivanov, and her amazing flock: the Parish of St. Clement in Honolulu.  We’ve been honored to visit with these kids, hear their stories, help inspire them, and most importantly…to cook for them.  When I see people who are extraordinarily gifted at making money and being successful, I am impressed.  When I see people who are like that, but who spend just as much time and money giving back to others, I am in awe.  And Tracy is one of those people.

As always, I ask MC survivors what advice they would give to a passionate home cook who wants to be on MasterChef.  Tracy says, “So you wanna be on MasterChef?  My first question is: why?  What is it that you’re looking to achieve?  Having the MasterChef name behind me has definitely helped me quickly achieve a certain level of credibility.  So if you’re looking to be somewhat recognizable quickly, go for it.  But if you’re trying to find out if this is your life’s passion and if it’s the direction you should be going in, MasterChef (or reality TV in general) probably isn’t the best testing ground for that.  Especially if you’re sensitive, because the judges make lots of unfounded criticism that could easily crush the dreams of someone without a thick skin.  You can learn so much on your own in a safer environment than the reality TV route.  I mean look at what happened to me!  I lost my job.  I lost my marriage.  My life was a whirlwind of change.  Of course, it was all for the better in the end.  But it wasn’t an easy road to walk.”

I also normally ask people if they had it to do all over again…knowing exactly how everything turned out…would they do it all again given the opportunity.  I think Tracy is probably the single most interesting MC survivor to ask this question to, because I believe her life was changed more than any other contestant from any season.  And here’s her answer:

“Absolutely.  Yes.  I would sign on again in a heartbeat.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’ve been through a WORLD OF HURT.  I’ve broken hearts and I’ve broken promises, and I’m not the kind of person who does either of those things.  But at the end of the day, I’m happier now than I’ve ever been in my entire life.  And that would never have been possible without MasterChef.  It catapulted me out of an existence I had allowed myself to get into, and it wasn’t an authentic existence for me.  This is where I was supposed to be all along.  I had gotten off track.  And it wasn’t easy getting back on.  And I hurt a lot of people in that process.  And I hurt a lot myself.  But without MasterChef as the catalyst, I might still be stuck in my old life, pretending I was fulfilled and happy with myself.”

I also like giving these folks a chance to send out one message to my audience and to the world at large.  And the message that’s on Tracy’s heart right now is this:  “We’re in a time where people really need to start focusing on the source of their food.  Start paying attention.  Asking questions.  Ask your grocer which farm those cucumbers came from.  Ask the guy behind the butcher cabinet what the farm is like where the animal he’s cutting up was raised.  We really need to know WHERE our food is coming from.  Organic food isn’t always available to everyone, due to cost or location, but seeking out responsible food is always a worthwhile endeavor.   I would prefer to have quality food in my body that is truly healthy and was raised responsibly, than to have a new pair of shoes.  (And I love shoes!)  I’ve discovered that I’ve actually cut back on my food intake over the past year, because I’ve become very conscious of what it took to get that food on my plate, whether it’s a veggie or meat.  I don’t waste anything any more.  Pay attention to the food you’re consuming, and have a voice.  And grow your own sh-t, people!  Grow your own sh-t.”

Tracy is an easy person to love.  Her smile is bigger and brighter than anyone I’ve ever met.  It’s so damn big that when I talk to her on the phone, the western horizon brightens about 10 shades.  I haven’t met many people on this earth as extraordinary as Tracy.  In the 2 short years since MasterChef turned her life upside down, she has not only been a voice for change in her Los Angeles food community, she has pulled together like-minded ladies to be an even larger force for good.  And she has touched many, many lives.  Including my own.

When people leave a reality TV show, they always say, “You haven’t seen the last of me!”  Unfortunately…that’s often not the case.  But we most certainly haven’t seen the last of Tracy Kontos.  We haven’t even seen the beginning!

Follow Tracy on Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn.  Check out her wonderful website, and if you are a woman in the food industry interested in helping WILFS branch out into other cities, get in touch with them through their website!

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 depressions-treatment-info.com.  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!

NEWS FLASH: Once upon a time…meat was ALIVE!!!

As you all know, I run an underground restaurant here in Dallas with the stunning Jennie Kelley.  We met on the set of MasterChef and have become incredibly close friends.  FRANK is a celebration of fresh, local, sustainable food.  And for our upcoming French-themed Bastille day dinners, our main course is coq au vin, a classic French dish which traditionally consists of an older rooster (which tends to be tough and stringy but BURSTING with old-fashioned chicken flavor that you never get these days), stewed long and slow in red wine, which makes the meat tender and juicy.

Rather than tromp to the grocery store and purchase a hermetically sealed styrofoam package with mass-produced chicken, we located a farm in nearby McKinney, Texas, where Farmer William had an overabundance of organic, free range roosters.  (Roosters don’t lay eggs, and basically just fight with each other and terrorize the hens, so roosters are often used for meat on the farm.  Most of the chicken breast you get at the grocery store is actually from a castrated rooster called a capon…more on grocery store chicken in a moment.)  So this morning I got up and drove out to McKinney to hand-pick a dozen roosters for our table at FRANK this weekend.  Shortly after arriving on the farm, I posted this on Facebook:

Immediately I was accosted by furious posts.  (I knew I would be, but not to this extent.)  Here are some examples of what was written:

Not all the comments were so hasty.  I appreciated this one from my fan Nicole:

I am, however, supremely confused as to how this photo conveys “Ha ha guess who’s dinner tonight?”  As you all well know, I’m a very verbose person, and if I typed in my Facebook post what you’re about to read in this blog, no one would even start to read it because it would be 4 pages long.  However, I thought it quite obvious that I’m showing supreme respect for the ingredients I cook with by traveling an hour to an organic chicken farm to select happy, healthy chickens, give them an honorable and quick death, and serve them to people I care about.

Before I wax poetic on my philosophy about eating meat, I’ll let some of my fans do the work for me:

A bit abrupt, and not too philosophic, but most definitely true.  Chickens aren’t very self-aware creatures, as any farmer knows.  But the chicken wouldn’t even exist today outside the forests of Asia had humans not domesticated them and selectively bred them over centuries.   These types of chickens only exist because humans eat them.

This is my fan Tim Brooks who is a talented chef in Chicago.  He, too, has an interesting perspective on meat, as he works in a meat store.  On his blog, Mulligan Soup, he describes a visit to a lamb slaughterhouse, which you may find insightful.  I love that line “Showing a completed dish is never the whole story.”  This could be a bulletin board.  And I’ll get on that subject in a moment.

Carefully saving all parts of the chicken so they can be put to good use

Of course I wasn’t trying to be disrespectful to the animal in any way.  Yes, there’s a great big smile on my face.  Do you honestly think it’s because I’m DELIGHTED that I’m about to take a life?  If you do, you don’t know me at all.  It’s not fun slaughtering any animal.  It’s tough.  I take a moment of silence to thank the animal for sacrificing its life so that we can have sustenance and live.  It gives its life to further life.  That smile on my face is because I am thrilled to be participating OUTSIDE the mass-meat-production chain.  Mass produced chickens live horrible, miserable lives of torture and are electrocuted to death and butchered by machines before you buy them without thinking twice for $1.99 a pound on sale.  I am supporting the livelihood of a local farmer who is raising his chickens with care and respect, giving them an honorable and respectful death YEARS after they would die in a meat factory, and recycling EVERY bit of that chicken.  (The heads and feet are simmering to make stock on my stove right now, and the feathers are in my compost pile to nourish my garden next year.)

You all know Tony Scruggs from MasterChef season 2.  He was one of my favorite people on the show.  I’ve been to his farm in Illinois where he raises turkeys and chickens for meat and has an incredible garden.  In fact, while I was there I demonstrated my method for hynpotizing poultry, which relaxes them.  I usually do this before slaughter so that they are calm and peaceful.

And, like Tony said, I’m not sure you nay-sayers understand exactly HOW MUCH I LOVE CHICKENS.  I adore them.  I kiss them on the mouth, for Heaven’s sake.  I would never glorify in their death for the purpose of making people laugh.  But I WILL REVEL in sharing with you all photos of what a happy, healthy, free range chicken looks like, so that you understand exactly how important it is for chickens to live that kind of life, rather than a factory life of terror and misery.

My girl, Crystal.  I’m willing to bet my house that most of the nay-sayer posts were from meat eaters.  Because virtually all of the vegans, vegetarians, and pescetarians I know are very tolerant, educated people.  Here we’ve got someone who DOESN’T eat chicken, but who really gets everything that was meant behind my post.  I adore you, Crystal.

Ever seen fat this yellow on a storebought chicken? Of course not. That's because this free range farm chicken eats grass and bugs and seeds, which is what a chicken is SUPPOSED to eat.

Indeed.  The chicken you buy in the grocery store is mass produced.  Roosters are castrated (caponized) which causes their breasts to grow abnormally large.  Then they are force-fed antibiotics which causes dramatic meat production.  They live their entire life in small cages, crammed in with 3 other roosters.  (Do you know what roosters do when caged with each other?  They fight.)  So they spent their entire lives cramped, panicked, fighting for their lives.  Often they are fed antidepressants to calm them down and reduce fighting.  They are slaughtered for meat anywhere from 1 month to 6 months of age.  Have you seen the size of boneless skinless breasts in the grocery store?  A normal free range farm chicken can live 5 years and never have breasts HALF the size of what you see in the store.  Storebought chicken meat is abnormal and comes from tortured animals.  Free range, small farm chickens are allowed to live their lives naturally.  You are exercising SUPREME respect for meat when you get your chickens from a small producer right on the farm.

Thanks, Jamie.  And that is exactly what I’m trying to do with my posts about meat animals.  To show you that your steak or chicken breast or pork chop once had a head…probably a fairly cute one.  So don’t treat meat with callous disrespect by buying it just anywhere, or by throwing away leftovers that you didn’t eat.  A living, breathing, probably-adorable animal GAVE ITS LIFE for you to eat that fried chicken finger.  So let’s understand that, because it makes us think twice about where it comes from and what kind of life it led.

Susan knows!  It’s not pleasant being exposed to revolting information about something as common as the meat you eat every day of your life, but it’s the truth, and it’s time for our country to realize that our industrial meat production system, which we’ve had since World War II, is making us unhealthy, and is colossally cruel to animals.  Most other first-world countries (and virtually ALL developing countries) still raise animals on a small scale with diets that emulate their diets in nature.

That’s Kris, and if you can’t tell, he’s a character.  He was almost cast on MasterChef this season, and you’ll be seeing him on TV some day soon.  He’s a great chef with a big personality, and he speaks the truth…in his own special, sarcastic way.

Folks…I understand that this is an uncomfortable situation.  The fact is, MOST people who live in urban surroundings are honestly not comfortable with the fact that they eat meat.  Which is sad to me, for starters, but downright dangerous.  Deliberately not wanting to face the fact that animals die for you to eat meat leads to a complete ignorance of the industry that produces meat.  So they can just go on without criticism, because people don’t REALLY want to know what goes on behind those factory doors.

The food chain exists in nature.  Whether you subscribe to a religion that defines your food chain for you, or whether you subscribe to no religion and simply choose to observe the life on this amazing planet…the food chain exists.  Humans are, by nature, omnivores, and have been since the dawn of our race.  Meat is part of our life.  Our ancestors hunted.  Then they learned that some animals could be domesticated and actually improved, and that’s where we get chickens, sheep, cows, goats, and pigs.  These animals would have been long extinct had we not taken them into our farms and given them a purpose in life.

I do not believe it is a crime to eat meat.  (Some will argue with me, and I completely respect their decision to not eat meat.)  But I grew up on a farm where we ate the animals we raise…and no, it was not easy for a 6 year old to lose his favorite pet lamb, and later be told that the lamb chops he was eating came from his pet.  But I learned from an early age that THIS IS THE WAY IT IS.  So it’s our responsibility as humans to give these animals the best life they can live, slaughter them respectfully and quickly, and use every bit of their body possible to help sustain and improve life for ourselves and our families.

Please think before you make a rash comment about meat.  If you’re uncomfortable seeing a living animal that you know is going to later be eaten, you need to take a close look at what you really believe, and if it’s even appropriate for you to be eating meat in the first place.

For me, I will NOT STOP spreading the message that meat comes from living, breathing creatures who must die for us to eat.  And I will continue to make my choices in such a way that local farmers can make a living raising meat animals with respect and care, and so that industrial meat producers realize that there IS an alternate option for virtually everyone in this country.

If you’d like to find a local source for meat, you can often find it at your Farmer’s Market.  Also, surf over to http://craigslist.org and type in “chicken” or “beef.”  I guarantee, in the farm section, you’ll find a local farmer that’s selling meat from his farm.  It may not be legal (which is a TRUE crime), but it will taste better, and probably be CHEAPER than the regular industrial meat you buy on sale at the grocery store.  These farmers often have weekend sales where you can buy a dozen cleaned and packaged chickens, bring them home and toss them in your freezer, and you’ve got incredible chicken for a month.  Yes, it’s out of your way.  But I can’t tell you how much you’ll be glad you did it.  And your food will taste infinitely better, too.  All that…and you can go to bed with a conscience that knows you made the RIGHT CHOICE for yourself, your family, your farmer, and his animals.

(If you would like to delver further into this matter, I highly recommend the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan.  It is incredible.)