F&W Star Chef
Chef: Micah Frank
Restaurant: Black Market (Indianapolis, IN)
Experience: R Bistro (Indianapolis, IN); Restaurant Eve (Alexandria, VA)
Who taught you how to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from him or her?
The great thing is that learning to cook is life-long, so I can’t say any one person taught me, but my education began with my grandma and my mom. I grew up in rural Indiana and my grandparents had a farm. They gave me the Midwestern farmhouse values of spending time in the kitchen and using leftovers.
I learned so much about cooking locally from Cathal Armstrong at Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Virginia, and in Indianapolis, from the chefs Regina Mehallick at R Bistro, Tony Hanslits from Nicole-Taylor’s Pasta and Market, and Greg Hardesty at Recess and Room Four.
What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
At Black Market, I try to keep the cuisine simple but perception-changing. There’s a beef tongue cocktail that I do that’s inspired by the shrimp cocktail at a famous Indianapolis restaurant, St. Elmo Steak House. It’s beef tongue that’s brined, cooked for a couple of hours until tender, then fried until crispy and combined with whipped cottage cheese, pickled beets and topped with fried potatoes and horseradish. Beef tongues aren’t the sexiest ingredient, but whipping the cottage cheese makes the texture appealing. It changes the diner’s perception of beef tongue, and I use everything, including the skin on the fried potatoes. Nothing goes to waste, and that’s definitely my style—to utilize the whole vegetable or animal.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself? And what is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
I was fascinated by omelets and those were my first attempts at cooking. For a beginner, I’d suggest trying to make a bowl of Vietnamese pho soup because it seems very simple, but when you eat it, you’ll taste complexity from the beef bones and the star anise, Thai basil and lime that infuse the broth. I’d recommend cooking at a lower temperature and slowly giving the flavors time to develop.
Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from him/her?
Fergus Henderson from St. John in London. I staged there, and he was very influential in my cooking style and how I view things. He taught me the value of restraint in cooking, and of keeping things simple and not masking flavors with extra ingredients. He was the pioneer of nose-to-tail cookery and it’s nice to see things going back to basics. I am a minimalist at heart, and Fergus helped me retain that.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
Fergus Henderson’s The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
Developing your palate is the most important thing for a cook or a developing chef. It’s something I work on all the time, because it’s so easy to over or under season food. It’s important to travel and eat out to keep developing your palate.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
It would definitely be baking bread. I really admire well-skilled bakers, especially bread bakers. It’s hard to find good bread, but it’s the most beautiful thing.
What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how would you use it?
I like the basics: salt and vinegar, which make everything so much better. You can start the process with salt and vinegar, and when you think of pickling and preserving, it’s the best bang for the buck. People don’t realize how complex you can make a protein or vegetable by curing or fermenting it.
What is your current food obsession?
Any type of broth, especially seaweed-based or seafood. That’s what I crave, especially the Vietnamese pho or Thai-style curries and noodle dishes.
Name three restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year and why?
There’s too many, but I’d focus on going back to St. John in London to meet up with Fergus and all the friends I made there. Then I’d go back to the restaurants where I worked in the U.S.: Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, VA, and in Indianapolis, R Bistro, and Recess. I’d end my Indianapolis tour at Nicole-Taylor’s, a pasta shop that’s also a dinner super club. I’d sit with the owners Tony and Rosa, drinking a bottle of red Burgundy and eating pasta.
Best bang-for-the-buck food trip—where would you go and why?
I’d go to Korea, Thailand or Vietnam, for the very strong street food cultures.
What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
I recently brought back a few bottles of rum from Callwood Distillery, in Tortola, an old-school distillery. I bought aged and white rum, and it didn’t take too long to consume when I got back.
What do you consider your other talent(s) besides cooking?
I studied landscape architecture, and I’ve always been interested in design and urban planning. I find cities fascinating, how they develop and change over time.
If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
I’d love to have the customers bring the ingredients to me, and I would cook in front of them. I’d love to do one to three things and do them really well.
If you were going to take Mario Batali out to eat, where would it be?
I’d like to get Mario Batali’s take on Japanese culture and take him on a trip to Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo. It would be an interesting night out.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
Fresh fruits will be talked about more, particularly some of the exotic fruits from South America. I think you’ll be hearing quite a bit about fruits from the jungles.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
My favorite snack is sweet, salty, cheap and quick: McClure’s spicy dill pickles, out of Brooklyn and Detroit, with my homemade peanut butter and white, crappy, air-laden Wonder bread.
Do you have any food superstitions or pre- or post- shift rituals?
I really don’t. I don’t believe in superstitions. As a cook, every day is different and if it wasn’t, I’d be bored. Everything’s always changing and evolving, and it doesn’t leave room for superstition.