Thank you Frank. And to the stranger at Tonic in Mt. Pleasant who, in January of 2006, upon overhearing my conversation of where to work next, kindly urged, without hesitation, “go to Palena. It’s the best place in the city.”
I just re-read the first 10 pages of the Palena thread and with the exception of the Pojarski detractor (a dish you will have trouble finding anywhere else, in this century, and is representative of Frank’s scorchingly low heat classical repertoire) and grumbles of service, long waits for a table (for a damn burger) and other bullshit white whines there was near universal and effuse praise for the food, on a weekly basis. We all misfire from time to time but on Frank’s watch those fumbles were rare exceptions.
Frank’s tenet #1. Anything worth fucking up once is worth fucking up twice.
Jonathan and I (Logan, Brian, Sarah, Carl (now CdC at Craigie on Main)) and quite a few more are fortunate to have fallen through that door to culinary Narnia and been able to work at Palena. After 8 years cooking for grand fromages Laurent Manrique, Charlie Palmer, Gerry Hayden, Buben, Cathal and Bryan Voltaggio I thought I knew a bit, as most young-ish cocky cooks are wont to do, but all the while we were playing brash checkers to Frank’s brass chess. We unlearned some clumsy, bastardized -though standard- practices and were exposed to an entirely new reality of deliberate discipline, finesse, proper technique, sound theory, resourcefulness, professionalism, practicality, humility, layering of flavors and elegant compositions that highlighted traditional techniques of yesteryear, seasonality, regions and well established combinations that made sense and had exceptional flavor. Never anything that was purposely random or conceived because of the pervasive “it sounds cool” variety of insecure ideas. Decadent, but no gimmicks. Nothing left out in the sun to softly spoil and call it our own clever sleight of hand. We learned to make everything that was worth the while.
Tenet #2: Anything worth doing is worth doing right.
We were treated to premium, tippy-top shelf products. We had the privilege of cutting up and cooking wild Atlantic loup de mer, glass eels, abalone, live urchins, live snails, periwinkles, crayfish, turbot, Dover sole, shiimaji, fresh anchovies, the Kraken, fresh Alaskan king crab, all types of things with wings, cockscombs, wild game, the best beans, olive oils, grains, luxury mushrooms, truffles, all sizes of animals all in raw state and then all the stuff from his garden which you can’t really make out from Google Earth, but probably rivaled Le Potager du Roi.
We learned a better way to make pasta (a well made dough never, ever needs eggwash for sealing ravioli), a better way to make stocks and sauces, a better way to cook rice and grains (stirring risotto is folksy and romantic but totally unnecessary if you do it how he learned in Italy), the proper way to butcher, season, cure, brine, marinate, sear, grill, simmer, roast, poach, braise; to turn vegetables and glaze them; to taste, test, feel, smell, and cook until tender; to be patient, to make breading, doughs, condiments, soups and an ethereal consommé; assemble stews and ragouts; to be efficient, be professional, make use of everything and waste nothing, to stuff things, to better use collagen, fats and proteins to thicken or emulsify; to use recipes, proportions, percentages, formulas, to measure, calculate, take notes, to write recipes and be remarkably consistent without sacrificing soulful cookery. Seeing how the butter was cubed on the stations was the first of 5 ½ years of revelation and immeasurable inspiration.
Frank is said to have learned from stalwart Olympic heavyweights at that White House during the gilded salad years (Messrs. Haller, Raffert, Flay, Messier), bonafide masters of the trade who knew how to do everything better, faster and slicker than the rest. A flabbergasting amount of skill and craftsmanship to be exposed to, and 50 ways to cook a potato. He regaled us one day with some pictures from his White House tenure (needlessly apologizing for the barely distressed 20 year-old photos). Drive-in theatre sized glasses, an unruly soup strainer under the nose and one of those unfortunate mini-aprons that wouldn’t conceal one of those random workplace erections. There was a nougat cauldron with sherbet flowers courtesy special pastry tips from the WH engineers, lobster Bellevue, elaborate centerpieces with stuffed this and jellied that, monkfish ballotines, booties on crown roasts, a dozen of hundreds of sweet potatoes whittled into Santa’s boots for the Christmas party… “L’Art Culinaire Moderne” and Escoffier’s whimsical highlight reel revisited by Kodak. I sucked up that inspiration like a depraved tick.
Palena was DC’s premier seminary for learning crucial fundamentals and essential practicum (then go to Cityzen for a proper polishing) and I’ll never know another chef personally that so heavily influenced my passion and who’s style was in my immediate, hopelessly dated orbit. I helped in a retrospective dinner that celebrated the White House years back in 2010 and Frank made the following salmon bavarois with stuffed artichokes. There aren’t many others, if any, who have the diligent digits and formidable mind to fabricate such a professional old timey composition, these days. Frank can do it all; baking the breads (all antique starter based, naturally), butchering, curing, puff pastry, vinegar, mostarda, donuts, savory tarts, occasional plumbing, pies, even torrone nougat petit-fours. And all the fancy napkin folds cradling the even fancier canapés. This a working chef who cooked something every day for almost 14 years gracefully, with composure and absolute pleasure.
Tenet #3: Perfection doesn’t happen by accident.
I am eternally grateful for Frank’s particular flavor of tutelage and congratulate his remarkably quiet reign. Palena’s untimely expiration is a legitimate bummer. That’s life.
- DonRocks, squidsdc, mdt and 37 others like this