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Inspiration: Chef Ken Frank

Author: Judith M. Wilson
July, 2013 Issue

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The garden is flourishing at 500 First Street in Napa, and Chef Ken Frank is excited about the possibilities that come with growing his own crops. It’s the newest endeavor for the owner of La Toque, whose innovative cuisine and attention to detail won the restaurant a Michelin Star, and it’s the next logical step for a chef with creative instincts and a commitment to quality.
 
Produce with exotic names such as Moon and Stars watermelon and Lunga di Napoli, a deep orange Italian squash that can reach 25 pounds, inhabit La Toque’s plot on the property of the former Copia, where nine downtown Napa restaurants have formed a cooperative to farm the land. “It’s an opportunity to do some interesting things that are outside the mainstream,” says Frank. “We try to grow things that are unique and interesting.” Take espelette peppers—piment d’espelette—a uniquely flavored pepper from the Basque region of southwestern France. They’re available here dried and ground, but fresh is another story. “You can’t buy them; you have to grow them,” says Frank, and that’s just what he’s doing, taking a productive step in a new direction.
 
Owning a restaurant in Napa, let alone one with the prestige of a Michelin Star, wasn’t part of Frank’s vision when he started college at the UC Irvine. His plan was to study medicine. But as he worked in restaurants to pay his tuition, he recognized his place was in the kitchen—and his destiny was set. After establishing his reputation as a chef and restaurateur in Los Angeles and launching La Toque to an appreciative audience there, Frank and the restaurant migrated north to Napa Valley in 1998, and he couldn’t find a better place to call home. Being in the beauty of California’s Wine Country with proximity to a great city is ideal. “I moved to Napa Valley because this is where I wanted to live,” he says. “Every time I travel and come home, I feel very smart for choosing to live in Napa.”
 
He considers himself fortunate to be at the center of a dynamic and progressive culture in a temperate climate with conditions that make Napa Valley perfect for farmers as well as vintners. The environment provides access to a network of small artisan farms, where he can get prime ingredients locally—quail, duck, vegetables, cured meats and cheeses among them. Much of the restaurant’s produce comes from local farms, and some farmers seek him out while he learns about others from colleagues. “Some of them, I’ve simply known for a very long time,” he says.
 
He also visits the Napa Farmers Market, which sets up shop every Tuesday and Saturday from the beginning of May to the end of October at 500 First Street, next to Oxbow Public Market. “Lucky for us, the farmers market is right around the corner,” says Frank. “One of the most important things I can do as a chef is start with the best ingredients I can find,” he adds, describing that tenet as central to his philosophy and explaining that using local products means they’re at the peak of the season and haven’t traveled too far.
 

Local and beyond

While locally sourced products are a priority, quality comes first, so ingredients from other parts of the globe find their way onto La Toque’s menu as well. “We pour a lot of world-class Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, but some varietals are better from other places,” says Frank. It’s the same with food. “Local isn’t the be-all, end-all,” he says, although, he emphasizes, “Local wins all ties.”
 
Truffles are an example. “Truffles’ flavor is all about freshness,” he says, pointing out that products such as oil and salt with truffle flavoring aren’t allowed in his kitchen. “Flavored products are simply all fake. I like to think about truffle flavor as having a half-life. It degrades very quickly. They’re terrific for the first week, but by the end of week two, the flavor becomes diminished. They can’t be too fresh.”
 
La Toque offers a special menu celebrating truffles each January, and Frank uses truffles imported from Europe because American truffle farms are still a few years away from commercial production. That’s likely to change in the future. Growers are beginning to cultivate truffles in Napa and Sonoma counties, but it takes several years for truffle plantations to reach maturity and produce fruit. Frank says he looks forward to foraging and sourcing Black Winter truffles close to home in Carneros and anticipates the day he can serve local truffles at the peak of perfection. “I hope as some truffle orchards come into production, we’ll be able to get truffles that are same-day fresh,” he says.
 
Meanwhile, he sees truffles as an interesting opportunity for Napa Valley. “Like wine, they offer a very sustainable, profitable agricultural use of our beautiful land,” he says. He believes that some areas are better for the cultivation of truffles than winegrapes, although they’re compatible, and says, “I think it’s healthy for Napa Valley to diversify. It’s better to be not so much of a monoculture.”
 

No ducking the foie gras fight

Another product currently lacking a local designation is foie gras. Frank fought passionately against California’s law banning one of his favorite ingredients, which went into effect a year ago, and he hasn’t given up. “To preserve my integrity, I’ve chosen to protest the law by giving it away at my own expense rather than sell it,” he says. “I know where every bite of foie gras I serve comes from. I’m intimately familiar with the [producers’] animal husbandry practices and am proud of the product I serve.”
 
He believes that the best foie gras producers—and only two remain in the United States, since the state ban on sales forced Guillermo Gonzales to shutter Sonoma Foie Gras— have so thoroughly refined their techniques and practices to adhere to strict animal protocols that no rational argument against its production exists. He describes foie gras ducks as an excellent example of what can be done for animals on farms when proper treatment is a priority.
 
“Yes, we’re going to slaughter them and eat them, but we can treat them well their entire lives,” he says. He expects documented proof of humane practices to render the law outlawing foie gras moot and says, “It’s my desire—my hope—that we’ll be able to set the standard for legal foie gras production in California and position California as a world leader.”
 
As for animal activists, “They’ve won; the ducks are treated well. They should move on to another cause,” he says. “If producers can prove they take care of their ducks, it’s over.”
 

Developing a new concept

La Toque made its debut in Napa Valley in Rutherford in 1998 and stayed there until 2008, when the restaurant moved to a new location in the Westin Verasa Napa on McKinstry Street in downtown Napa. But Frank didn’t jump at the initial proposal. He turned down Westin, which he describes as the first international branded four-star hotel, three times. Representatives kept approaching him with new ideas, and when he received the third offer, he responded with his requirements for what it would take to get him to agree. “Then we finally got a deal,” he says.
 
“At the time, I felt Napa was finally poised to really explode, and I wanted to opportunity to move to the city. I made them sweeten the deal to meet my goals. We made a $5 million bet that Napa was going to be viable.”
 
One of the conditions that sealed the deal was the creation of a second restaurant, Bank Café and Bar. When Westin’s representatives first approached Frank, they wanted a restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, and he turned down the offer. “I told them La Toque was never going to be a three-meal restaurant,” he says, explaining that the restaurant is a place for special occasions—a destination—and, he adds, “By its nature, it’s expensive.”
 
Instead, he wanted to keep La Toque’s concept intact and saw the hotel lobby as a great space for a second eatery. “I very much wanted to have two restaurants in the hotel,” he says. As part of the second, he envisioned serving breakfast on the east side of the hotel, where people could eat outside on a patio near the riverbank with a view of the hills. “That’s why people come to California,” he says.
 
“Bank Bar let me do many different things,” he says. As part of his vision, he wanted a circular bar, and although the end result is a rectangle, it accomplishes the same purpose because it lets people interact. “It’s not a hotel bar with a television with the sound turned off. I just can’t stand television in bars,” he says, although he does allow exceptions and makes one available for special events such as the Superbowl, World Series or Kentucky Derby.
 
Bank Café and Bar, named for the adjacent bank of the Napa River, is more casual and has a lower profile than La Toque; it doesn’t have a brand in the same way, nor does it have a sign outside the hotel. “It’s somewhat of a best-kept secret,” says Frank, noting that people only see it when they walk through the lobby. “I’m OK with a captive audience,” he adds.
 

An appreciative audience

During his first 10 years in Napa Valley, Frank observed the area’s development and transformation. “I could see it coming together to become what it is today,” he says. He describes the city of Napa as a “stand-on-its-own-feet” destination and says, “We have a broad range of very notable restaurants now without having to go up-valley. My guess is Napa will get another Michelin Star.”
 
That, in part, is due to a tremendously supportive audience of savvy customers. Frank says customers in the Bay Area have long been knowledgeable about the food they eat, and with the blogosphere and other sources, foodies have no shortage of information available. They have sophisticated palates, embrace the concept of locally sourced products and value quality.
 
That appreciation for fine cuisine extends to wine, and La Toque is noted for its sommeliers’ ability to pair food and wine so that each enhances the other. “This restaurant, in particular, has a very full wine focus,” Frank says of La Toque. He explains that every dish on the menu is paired with a wine that goes well with it, the goal being to make food and wine taste better together than either would separately. It’s an integral part of the process, to the degree that, when Frank is cooking, he’s contemplating which wine would be best to serve with the dish he’s preparing. “At the end of the day, my goal is to create great dishes with great flavors that go well with wine,” he says.
 
“Until I moved to Napa, I was my own wine buyer. It’s a role I particularly enjoy,” he says. Nonetheless, these days, he leaves that responsibility to his sommelier team, and he takes pride in their accomplishments. Lead sommelier, Richard Matuszczak, is preparing to sit for the exam to become a Master Sommelier (MS), and assistant sommelier, Zoe Hankins, a certified sommelier, is getting ready to take an advanced exam. In addition, “My wine program boasts two alumni who both got their MS certifications last year,” says Frank.
 
Frank believes it’s important to stay on top of new opportunities, and his venture into farming, with the garden as a source of unusual ingredients, reflects that opinion. An adventurous spirit and well-defined ethic paired with a favorable environment and community of people with shared values make him and Napa a good match. “I’m very bullish on Napa,” he says. “I love my job. Come let me spoil you.”
 
 

Thoughts and Observations: Homegrown

La Toque’s garden in downtown Napa is within walking distance of the restaurant, and it’s providing new opportunities that are interesting and fun for Chef Ken Frank. The kitchen makes a great hamburger for Bank Café and Bar, and “We’ll grow every cucumber for every pickle for every hamburger,” says Frank
 
He reveals that La Toque’s general manager, Patrick Loomis, makes “a really great Cajun-style hot sauce.” Loomis calls the sauce Tiny Head, a nickname for his dog, and uses it as gifts for friends. La Toque’s garden has a 50-foot row of Tabasco peppers designated for Loomis’ specialty, so this year he’ll be making it for Bank Café, too.
 
 

Thoughts and Observations: Wine

Frank has noticed young people beginning to learn about and develop an appreciation for good wine. “It’s very much an emerging trend. A new generation is just beginning to understand that wine is one of the finer things in life,” he says.
 
He talks about wine’s complexity and says, “Wine sneaks up on you. It’s very much an intellectual beverage. There’s a lot more than meets the eye.”
 
 

Thoughts and Observations: Foraging

Fresh truffles are a highlight of the year for Frank, and he plays an important role in the Napa Truffle Festival (napatrufflefestival.com). As part of the third festival in January 2013, he went on a mushroom foraging expedition—similar to seeking truffles—with wild mushroom experts. “We went mushroom foraging up on Howell Mountain. Mushroom geeks tend to be truffle geeks too,” he says.
 
 

Thoughts and Observations: Connected

La Toque began using Open Table, an online reservation system, several years ago. These days, two-thirds of reservations are through the Internet, with an increasing number from mobile devices. “I use my phone to make reservations all the time,” says Frank. “[Technology] is a great tool. It will make the reservation and tell you how to get there. It will tell you how long it’s going to take.”
 
 

Thoughts and Observations: Revelation

Frank was at the forefront of the unsuccessful fight to prevent California’s foie gras ban and continues to be an activist now that it’s in effect. He debated attorney Carter Dillard of the Animal Legal Defense Fund last year, and says, “It didn’t go very well for him.” A revealing moment for Frank was Dillard’s admission that the ducks at foie gras farms were well cared for during supervised visits, which shows that producers have the ability to take care of them all the time.
 
As to the current status of the ban, “We're in the end game…the law is not working,” he says.

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