Chefs You Should Know

La Toque’s Chef Ken Frank on Michelin-Worthy Meals, Festival Fare and Napa’s Food Scene

According to his baby book, Chef Ken Frank’s first word was “cook.” What started as a childhood obsession quickly became a serious passion when his grandfather, who owned a butcher shop, introduced to him the magic of making meals from scratch.

“I’d spend weekends at his house, and he’d make flapjacks — the kind you tossed in the air and caught with the pan,” said Frank. “Between making those and saltwater taffy, my grandfather was the one who planted the bug that cooking was something good to do.”

Frank, executive chef at La Toque in The Westin Verasa Napa, still has that bug. He opened his first restaurant in 1979 at age 23, and went north to the Napa Valley to open a new version of the same eatery in 1998.

In 2008, after the restaurant won its first-ever Michelin star, Frank moved it into new digs at The Westin Verasa Napa. La Toque has won a Michelin star every year since. The restaurant specializes in pairing wine with food that showcases the finest seasonal ingredients. It is regarded as having one of the finest wine programs of any restaurant in the Bay Area.

la toque
(Photo: Photography by Megan Menicucci)

Marriott TRAVELER caught up with Frank on a recent afternoon before service at La Toque. We talked about his role as a featured chef in the SPG American Express VIP Viewing Suite at the BottleRock Napa Valley music festival, from May 25 to 27, and how he continues to innovate after two decades.

[NOTE: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.]

2018 is La Toque’s 20th anniversary. What does this milestone mean to you?

There are many great restaurants in the Napa Valley, and we are fortunate to be one of them. In addition to the longevity, our Michelin star is a big point of pride — not just to me but to my entire team. It’s motivating to know you’re part of an exclusive club. Knowing we’ve done it for a while makes it all even more rewarding.

la toque
(Photo: Photography by Megan Menicucci)

How do you remain creative after all this time? What inspires you?

I live to eat. I love my job. I get excited about it. I travel on my belly and am continually finding new things. I find something every week and think to myself, “We can do something with that.” This sense of discovery continues to motivate me. I am very fortunate to have had almost 40 years of my career on my own terms. That’s a great thing.

You’re gearing up for a gig in the SPG American Express VIP Viewing Suite at BottleRock. How do you think about creating a Michelin chef–worthy menu that resonates in the music festival atmosphere?

This is the third year I’ve done something like this, and I’ve adapted my menu offerings each year. This year the theme is elevated finger food.

I went in thinking that [the menu] has to include stuff guests can eat standing up at a festival. There are no waiters. There can’t be any silverware. Guests are on their own, and they need to be able to eat standing up while holding a drink.

So we’ll do these miniature Maine lobster rolls, some arancini with a dot of pesto and a little piece of cheese in the middle, and shrimp on a stick. We’ll have these delicious Korean pork tacos — sort of like carnitas but with kimchi and other Korean flavors. There also will be crispy fingerling potatoes served with Spanish sauce we’ll make from piccata.

These are not necessarily items that would be on my menu, but instead are things I would be jazzed to find out I would have to eat at a festival. We’re really just trying to keep it fun.

la toque
(Photo: Photography by Megan Menicucci)

Generally speaking, when you’re cooking at the restaurant, how do you go about putting together your menus?

We have a few different tasting menus, but our core menu has about 16 dishes divided into four groups. People can choose first, second, third and fourth courses. It’s designed to be a progression of flavors, and everything comes with option for wine pairings.

Dishes in the first group are paired with lighter, brighter white wines. Dishes in the second group are paired with slightly richer white wines — often chardonnay. Dishes in the third group are paired with thin-skinned, lighter and brighter reds, while those in the fourth group are paired with bigger reds, most likely Napa Valley cabernets.

I always encourage people to do the wine pairings because that’s something we really focus on. The restaurant is a perennial winner of Wine Spectator’s Grand Award, given to only 72 restaurants around the world for their breadth and depth of wine selections. It’s something we take very seriously.

la toque
(Photo: Photography by Megan Menicucci)

What, in your mind, makes a successful wine pairing?

At the end of the day, a successful wine pairing is one where people go, “Wow!” Sometimes you have wine pairings where the flavor of the food and the wine are in sync, and they make each other better.

Sometimes you have situations where the flavors bring out the goodness in each other. Other times you pair things where you have something really bright that is going up against something that’s rich and cutting through it. Really what makes successful wine pairing is when the two together are better than they are separately. That’s the goal.

The Napa Valley food scene has changed quite a bit in 20 years. How do you think it will change next?

Across the Napa Valley, we have better ingredients today than ever before, and we’re sourcing from a broader range of cultures. At La Toque alone, where we’ve always had a bit of an Asian influence, we’re doing more with it than we ever thought we would.

There’s a dumpling on our menu right now that has shrimp and chorizo but was inspired by Korean flavors. We’re also incorporating a lot more Basque and Catalan flavors. Those are just examples. The world of food has gotten more diverse over the last 20 years, and I expect that to continue to evolve.


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