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Q & A with Franklin Becker

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It’s a brave chef who would try to rescue a sinking restaurant.  That’s just what Franklin Becker did when Gary Robins abruptly abandoned Sheridan Square a few months ago.  Unfortunately, both the restaurant and its sister tapas bar, Tierra, were already too far gone and both soon closed. 

But Franklin Becker isn’t new to the chef shuffle or the sometimes fickle industry.  Over the years, he’s managed to earn praise for his cooking at a number of restaurants. With Becker in the kitchen, Capitale was named one of Esquire’s Best New Restaurants of 2007.  Tribeca Soho Grand soon followed suit.

How many chefs would kill to cook at Le Cirque?  Not an easy audition to get, but Becker was just recently a candidate.  What did he cook?  An eight-course menu that included a salad of exploding bleu cheese croutons, candied walnuts and dehydrated ham as well as a dry-aged strip steak with herbed butter and truffle potato leek fritters.  As for his next project, he says he’d like to put his own spin on familiar American cooking with dishes like, scallops with unagi-glazed pork belly.  Meanwhile, he’s just finished a diabetic cookbook that will appear on bookshelves this spring.     

Single/Married/Divorced?
Married.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
I have always wanted to be a chef, however, there was a brief time where I wanted to be an actor.

What was your first job in food and what did you learn?
I was a busboy at the age of 14 in a local Italian restaurant. I was in the kitchen prepping 6 months later. I learned that there is a lot that goes into making a meal. It is hard work.

What was it like “auditioning” for the role of executive chef at Le Cirque? Are you disappointed Craig Hopson got the job?
It was fun. The only difference between this and other job auditions is the history of the restaurant, which ultimately adds a lot of pressure. To have such an opportunity is an honor. Of course I wanted the position and was disappointed in myself that I did not get it, but I am very happy for Craig and I know he will do an excellent job. He is a good friend, so I can’t be disappointed. I would not be a friend if I thought that way, would I?

What did you cook for the Maccioni clan?
 A lot, I think it was about nine-courses.  A quick play by play from Becker recounted:

  • Kona kampachi cru with fresh wasabi & extra virgin olive oil
  • A salad of “exploding blue cheese croutons, candied walnuts, and dehydrated ham
  • Squash soup with pumpkin seeds & creme fraiche, & pumpernickel croutons
  • Pan-roasted foie gras with butternut squash puree & roasted pears
  • Pan-roasted halibut with maitake mushrooms, celery root & green apple puree (two ways)
  • A ravioli carbonara
  • Roasted & Sliced dry-aged New York strip steak with herbed butter & truffle potato leek fritters
  • Butter-poached lobster with a green apple & lemon-inflected lobster bisque sauce


After Gary Robbins abruptly left Sheridan Square, what motivated you to take the lead? What problems did you encounter taking the gig?  Ultimately, why do you think it closed?
Gary is an extremely talented cook. When the opportunity came to take over I jumped at it. I was unaware that the restaurant was in so much trouble. I knew that the food cost and the labor cost were out of control, but that is my forte so I was not worried about bringing that in line. I am confident in the way I cook, so I was not worried about preparing food people would want to eat. What I didn’t know was all the other variables, too many to mention. In the end, the restaurant had too many obstacles to overcome. When a restaurant is born, it is no different than a baby. It needs tender love and care and it needs to be nurtured. Unfortunately, this baby was dropped on its head one too many times.

You were also in place to take the reigns Tierra next door. What happened on that front?
We did open the tapas bar, but it was much too late. Everything ran from Sheridan Square. That wasn’t viable, so Tierra did not stand a chance.

As the executive chef at Capitale, what was your biggest takeaway regarding the restaurant industry at large?   And Esquire’s Best New Restaurant of 2003 to boot?
Capitale was a monster, 45,000 sq. ft in total! We did banquets, ala carte and private dining simultaneously. I had a great team, especially my pastry chef, John Lee and my Chef de Cuisine Fred Brightman. The award was won by all of us. A restaurant is always a collaboration, at Capitale it was essential to do so. My biggest take away was learning how to juggle. It was not easy.

As a chef with Type 2 Diabetes, how has your cooking style changed? Do you consider the disease when devising chefs these days?  What personal precautions do you take?


I always think of diabetes, because it is with me daily. My cooking
style has gotten lighter, healthier. I try not to consume too many
carbs in one sitting and I eat several small meals a day to regulate my
sugars and keep my numbers constant.

Tell us about your role in the annual event Autism Speaks and what compelled your initial interest in the cause?
Autism
Speaks to Wall Street is an event I conceptualized and helped start as
a tribute to my son and as a way to raise awareness and much needed
funds to support Autism Speaks in its efforts to find a cure for
autism. I am co- chair of the event and organize all the chefs and some
of the in kind donors. This year we had over 80 chefs total and raised
just shy of 1 million dollars. In two years, we have raised a little
over 2 million dollars to help AS find a cure.  The true heroes in the
fight against autism are Bob and Suzanne Wright, the co founders of
Autism Speaks.

How did working at Brasserie shaped your grasp of French cuisine?
The
Brasserie is a classic, iconic restaurant.  It is rooted in tradition
and so it was necessary for me to become deft in cooking classic French
fare. We had many modern interpretations, but in the end, the
restaurant was truly classical.

Any new projects on the horizon?  Spill the beans…
Ultimately,
the next restaurant I do, I would like to serve my version of New
American cuisine – a cross between what I was cooking at Local,
Capitale and Washington Square in Philadelphia. Approachable and
inspiring.  I’ve got a bunch of exciting options on the table. Will let
you know as soon as I do.  In the meantime, I’ve got a cookbook for
diabetes coming out soon.

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