Apronomics: Michael Frank
The local culinary scene is constantly evolving, but there is something extra exciting about a hometowner returning to make their mark on the StL. Michael Frank has done just that. As a chef, he’s worked in kitchens from Alaska to New Mexico, and now, he’s taken the helm as executive chef at Café La Vie, the restaurant inside the new Le Méridien hotel in Clayton.
Frank is originally from Webster Groves. “I lived in an amazing neighborhood with great friends,” he recalls. “I’m a huge baseball fan, and my father always took me to Cardinals games. I loved growing up in St. Louis.” He greatly enjoyed the outdoor offerings of the area, spending his summers camping, floating down rivers and exploring caves throughout the state. “Missouri is very underappreciated when it comes to its natural beauty,” he says.
It was Frank’s love of the great outdoors that led him to his culinary career. While he wasn’t interested in cooking growing up, he took a summer job at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska as a prep cook. “I had worked as a dishwasher before and hated it, so I didn’t think I’d ever want to be in a kitchen,” he says. “When I got the position in Denali, I vowed to transfer departments as soon as possible. However, I worked under a wonderful chef, and something just clicked. I ended up cooking at the park three summers in a row.”
Frank’s career has taken him across the county. In Jackson Hole, Wyoming, he was part of the team that launched Roadhouse Pub & Eatery. “Opening a restaurant from the ground up was an eye-opening experience,” he says. “I worked with the Fine Dining Restaurant Group and learned a lot about cooking really amazing food from scratch.” In Scottsdale, Arizona, he had another formative experience working at The Phoenician, a luxury resort. While there, he gained insight into both the hospitality and culinary industries. Frank also worked under the James Beard Award-winning chef Mark Kiffin at The Compound Restaurant in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
“I learned so much traveling and working, but the hospitality industry is very demanding, especially during the holiday season,” Frank says. “Typically, you’re working, and it’s hard to get back home to see friends and family. I felt the draw to settle down back in St. Louis.” Since returning, he already has made his mark in local restaurants, spending time in the kitchens of Farmhaus and the former Grand Tavern at the Angad Arts Hotel. He’s been excited to see how St. Louis’ culinary scene has been growing and earning national recognition. “So many James Beard nominations are coming out of the city, and there’s a great culture here,” he notes. “It’s very diverse, and it gets more exciting each year.”
Café La Vie marks the first time Frank has taken on the role of executive chef. Preparing to open a restaurant during a pandemic has added to the challenge, but he has enjoyed every step of the process. “Honestly, it’s been the most exciting thing I’ve done in my life,” he says. “We had to open with a smaller team because of the pandemic, but everyone who works here is in it 110%. It’s been an amazing experience, and we’ve been working hard to make things safe but still memorable for guests.” To add some fun to social distancing, teddy bears occupy tables that can’t seat guests.
Frank’s culinary inspiration starts in a simple place. “I just think about food I would like to eat,” he says. “I also read a lot of cookbooks and research food trends. Whether creating a feature for dinner or designing the breakfast menu, I start with what I find exciting and what seasonal ingredients are available.”
The menu at Café La Vie is inspired by both European cuisine and local influences. Frank says he wanted to create dishes that were simple and sophisticated while reflecting the Missouri and Illinois farms that help supply the restaurant. “When planning, I started with classic French dishes like tartines, charcuterie boards and pâtés, then I tried to put my own spin on them,” he explains. “I wanted the menu to be elegant, delicious and approachable at the same time.”
yield: 1 gallon
½ lb. butter
½ lb. sliced leeks
5 large Yukon potatoes
(peeled and cut into even pieces)
1 c heavy cream
3 qt. cold water
Salt to taste
- Heat butter and leeks in heavy bottom pot and cook leeks until softened but not brown.
- Add potatoes in water and simmer until potatoes are tender, then season with salt.
- In batches, pour into blender and puree with cream until very smooth.
- Strain through fine mesh strainer and serve.
- Garnish with creme fraiche, chives and caviar if you’re feeling fancy!
Photos: Bill Barrett