Chef Talk With One of Dallas’ Hautest Chefs, John Franke

Executive Chef at Ida Claire: John Franke
Chef John Franke

Graduating in 1995 from Johnson and Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island with an Associates in Culinary Arts and a Bachelors in Food Service Management, not even Chef John Franke’s could have anticipated the success he would have in the  future.

Beginning his culinary career in Dallas as a sous chef at Harvey Hotels, it didn’t take long before he went on to work as a sous chef and later as a chef de cuisine with luxury, retailer Neiman Marcus. Always striving to grow in his profession, Chef Franke moved to Chicago to work at Nick’s Fishmarket as an executive sous chef before going on to Sullivan’s Steakhouse where he became Executive chef.

With all this experience under his belt, Chef Franke decided to move back to Dallas and became the area chef for Pappadeux restaurants.

In 2003 he made the significant decision to pursue his humanitarian work and embarked on a trip to Africa where he would work with street children in Burkina Faso. On his return to the US, Chef Franke was eager to start where he left off and he went to work for Pappas Restaurants as a Research and Development Chef in Houston,TX.

Later he moved back to Dallas in June of 2008 to join forces with Front Burner Restaurants as the Corporate Chef and for the past 8 years, has led the menu development for some of Dallas’ most well known restaurants including, Twin Peaks (now 75 locations), Ojos Locos Sports Cantina (7 locations), The Ranch at Las Colinas (Irving, TX), Whiskey Cake (3 locations), Velvet Taco (4 locations), Mexican Sugar (Plano, TX), Ida Claire (Addison, TX) and is now in the development stages of Front Burner’s newest concept Sixty Vines (Plano, TX).

With his focus on menu development for each concept, he creatively combines his passion for creative innovation with his love of using the freshest ingredients possible. By establishing close relationships with local growers and ranchers, using local products and making recipes from scratch, Chef Franke discovered the key to his success.

Haute Living had the opportunity to interview one of the busiest chefs in Dallas to see what’s next on his plate.

Where are you originally from and how long have you been in Dallas? I am originally from MD. I moved to Dallas after graduating from Johnson and Wales (Providence, RI) in December of 1995.

What inspired you to become a chef? My first job was as a busboy at a small strip mall restaurant called Lox Stock n’ Bagels. I quickly became a dishwasher and then a cook at the age of 16. I knew very early on that this was the career path I wanted to follow. It felt right, I loved the high intensity environment, and had a passion for the business right off the bat.

What do you think has influenced your cuisine the most? I think my passion for local sourcing and supporting the local farmers and ranchers has driven my cuisine and flavor profiles I lean towards. Working under Sharon Hage as a young sous chef played a large part as well in the direction I’ve gone with flavors.

How would you classify your cuisine? Using local products to create simple identifiable dishes that are balanced, fun, full flavored, and memorable to the palate.

What do you think your biggest challenge has been in your culinary career? Learning how cooking and being a chef is almost as much about interpersonal skills and communication skills as it is about food. I have made countless mistakes in my approach to all levels of employees. Learning to adjust my approach, tact, and message over the years to achieve the best result has been a huge challenge. I have evolved as the industry has evolved.

How do you think Dallas’ culinary scene is different from other places? The great thing about Dallas is it isn’t steeped in tradition as much as the East coast where I grew up. There isn’t a “dallas” cuisine which gives chefs a blank slate to work with. It’s a cosmopolitan city that welcomes any and all cuisines and cooking styles. It has been truly amazing to watch the culinary scene transform over the past 21 years.

How would you classify Texas Cuisine? It is very diversified it’s hard to answer that question. Texas is an  incredible state that is so big it covers so many cuisines.  From the coastal seafood, to the east/west Texas BBQ, to the German influenced Hill Country, to Dallas, San Antonio, Houston and beyond;  there is a little of everything. If I were to try to pigeon hole it, I would say it’s true and heartfelt food with a downhome sensibility that is spicy at times, rich and deep to the palate, and always made with love.

Do you have any mentors and if so; who are they and what did you take away from them? Sharon Hage. I took so much away from my 3 ½ years with her at the Harvey Hotel and Neiman Marcus. How to balance flavors, use very little ingredients for the maximum impact, how important local sourcing is on so many levels, how to be a better person and the best chef I could be.

If you were not a chef what would you be doing? I can’t imagine doing anything else. This has been my life for 28 years and it’s who I am in my heart. No matter where life leads, I will always work in the restaurant industry in some capacity.

Last day on Earth what city would you be in? Jerusalem, Israel. I have never been and being the last day on Earth, I can’t imagine a better place to be or a better time to be there.

What would be your last meal? I guess Matzah Ball Soup. It’s one of the first things I made as a young cook and still my favorite soup to this day. And being in Israel I can only imagine it’s not hard to find!

Sommelier or Mixologist? I can go either way. Both bring something to the table and both have their place in the restaurant.

Favorite cocktail? Margarita – any and all

Whats your signature dish? Or is there one dish that sums up your culinary career? I can’t say there is one dish. It is more a style as noted above.  With my years overseeing Velvet Taco I will say I have become quite partial to tacos. Using the tortilla as a vehicle to hold complex yet approachable flavors and ideas has been a real comfort zone for me.

What ingredient do you most dislike cooking with? I detest truffle oil with a passion and refuse to use it, eat it, and when at all possible, smell it.

Where does your inspiratioon come from? It comes from many different places. It could be a picture, an ingredient that I see at the store or market or in magazines/TV, and familiar flavors from my childhood that pop into my head.

How do you think the glamorization chefs have changed the industry as a whole? I think it’s possible it has pulled some chefs out of their restaurants more than they would like or certainly more than maybe they should be. But as a whole the industry has become a more flashy place to call home and all the TV shows have just glorified our profession more. I am all for it.

Working on any new projects? Future plans? We are opening a new brand called Sixty Vines in August. It is a wine centric brand with food that is inspired by central CA wine country. We have a Whiskey Cake opening in Katy, TX in October, a Velvet Taco in Austin as well as Houston in the beginning of 2017, a second Ranch called Haywire in Plano, TX in 2017, and we are also opening a 50,000 square foot food hall in Plano in September of 2017. Just a few things going on…

Who is on your bucket list to experience your cuisine? Honestly no one in particular. I just love to know anyone and everyone can dine in our restaurants and enjoy the food on a daily basis.

Do you work with any nonprofits or benefits? I do not currently work with any outside of regular donations. From 2003-2007 I lived in Burkina Faso, West Africa doing missionary and humanitarian work and started a safe haven club for street children called the Kids of Hope that still exists today.

What’s a kitchen gadget/tool that you couldn’t live without? A Japanese Mandoline

What are your thoughts on food critics? I think there are wonderful food critics out there. I also think they are becoming obsolete in many cities due to yelp and bloggers. I am not incredibly fond of one food critic that doesn’t seem to be at all supportive of all of the wonderful brands we have created as a company. I won’t name any names

What’s your favorite comfort food? I’m not sure if it’s an official comfort food but it is my absolute favorite thing. White bread slathered with Hellman’s mayonnaise, about a half of a lb. of VA honey baked ham shaved insanely thin, yellow American Cheese, and fresh summer tomatoes.

Farm to table or burger joint? I love cooking “farm to table” food but if I go out I’d much rather have an awesome burger for myself.

What do you think are some unique ways that chefs can brand themselves better? I think sticking to a particular style and staying put for a longer period time would help chefs be associated with a restaurant or cooking style.

What was your inspiration behind the Ida Claire menu? The inspiration came from a fictitious character named Ida Claire. In the team’s mind she was a debutant from the 1930’s who left her home in the Carolina’s and took a ship, train, and other means to travel the world for several years. She left a debutant and returned a world traveled gypsy. She experienced so many cultures, flavors, and cooking techniques that she wanted to express them to her community. She did this by opening a restaurant that used the spirit of her grandmother’s southern down home cooking and added small touches of flavors, herbs, spices, etc that she encountered on her travels. There are many fun flavor additions to some of the dishes that exemplify this story. So we wanted to present approachable and memorable southern dishes with a small twist to most.