End of a chapter
2000 – 2014
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 fiercely 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 and quite a few more) are fortunate to have found that door to culinary Narnia and been able to work at Palena. After 8 years cooking for 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 checkers to Frank’s 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 ideas. Decadent, but no gimmicks. No hollow celebrity inflated by the curious praise of leaving things to go bad on natures terms, but what Michelin and big-shot bloggers fawns over. 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 loup de mer, glass eels, abalone, live urchins, live snails, periwinkles, crayfish, turbot, Dover sole, shiimaji, fresh anchovies, 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 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 braise, to brine, to marinate, to butcher, to season, to sear, grill, simmer, roast, clobber, poach, cure, corn, to turn vegetables to glaze them, to taste, to test, to feel, to smell, to cook until tender, to use spice, to be patient, to make breading, doughs, condiments, soups and an ethereal consommé, stews, ragouts, to be efficient, be professional, make use of everything and waste nothing, to stuff things, to use recipes, take notes, to write recipes, proportions, percentages, formulas, to measure, calculate the weight 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, immeasurable inspiration and 4 years of seasonal affective disorder. We also got a free turkey every thanksgiving.
Frank learned from stalwart Olympic heavyweights at the White House (Haller, Raffert, Messier), bonafide masters of the trade who knew how to do everything better and faster than the rest. A flabbergasting amount of skill and craftsmanship to be exposed to, and 50 ways to cook a potato. Frank 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 sorbet 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, fanciful desserts… “L’Art Culinaire Moderne” and Escoffier’s whimsical highlight reel revisited by Kodak. I sucked up that inspiration like a depraved tick.
Frank was the first I ever saw to make a pâté en croûte from start to finish (though technically it was more of a pâté plantain). Marinated in truffle juice with venison, prunes, ham, fatback and such. A very elegant and particularly savory farce fine. Though it would be cut up in slices he decorated the top just as if it were a centerpiece, painstakingly weaving vines, leaves and motifs and lavished layers of eggwash to give it a golden luster. He told me he once made a pâté en croute for an event attended by all the city’s big toques. One pointed and said “now that is technique”. Another asked why he took the time to decorate it when the guests would never see it in the slices. He answered that he himself would see it and so would all the other chefs. Some humble showmanship and proud upstaging that showed off know-how.
Palena was DC’s premier seminary for learning indispensable fundamentals and essential practicum (then go to Cityzen for a proper polishing) and I’ll never know another chef personally that and so heavily influenced my passion and who’s style was in my immediate orbit. We did a retrospective dinner that celebrated the White House years back in 2010 and Frank made the salmon bavarois with stuffed artichokes. There aren’t many others, if any, who have the trained hands and talented mind to fabricate such a professional old world composition these days. Frank can do it all, from baking the breads (all starter based, naturally), butchering, curing, puff pastry, vinegar, mostarda, donuts, savory tarts, pies evenougat petit-fours. And all the fancy napkin folds cradling the even fancier canapés. 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 tutelage and congratulate his remarkable reign. Palena’s untimely expiration is a bummer. That’s life. Every patron, cook and chef worth a damn anxiously awaits his inevitable rebound.