In the 30 years since he first entered the kitchen, Franklin Becker has amassed shiny trophies of a successful culinary career: He landed “two very nice stars” from the New York Times while he was the executive chef at Local, earned a Best New Restaurant in America nod from Esquire for Capitale, and sustained a steady television presence, with appearances on heavy-hitting food shows like Iron Chef and Top Chef Masters.
“I fell in love with food the first time I put a fork in my mouth,” Becker says, and that began a journey that would take him from assisting his mother in her kitchen after she had a stroke into his first restaurant job at age 14. He’d been hired as a busboy, but management soon sent him to the back of the house, where he’s been since. “I was constantly seeing things you shouldn’t see and things you should see,” he recounts.
He went to the Culinary Institute of America, which propelled him to positions under chefs like Charlie Palmer and Bobby Flay, and he took his first executive chef position at Local in the mid-nineties, the first of many leadership roles in fine dining restaurants that would carry him through the next two decades.
Ready for a new challenge and inspired by health issues that hit close to home — he’s a type 2 diabetic; is son has autism and celiac disease — he’s heading the direction of many fine dining chefs exploring a new frontier: He just opened The Little Beet (135 West 50th Street, 212-459-2338), a fast casual restaurant built around gluten-free healthy options, in Midtown. “I decided to create this fast casual environment here that would still serve the best ingredients I could get but for a reasonable price point,” he explains. “I wanted to make sure that people coming to the Little Beet leave here feeling good, feeling energized, feeling healthy, and wanting to come back again and again.”
In this interview, he weighs in on the how TV has changed the restaurant industry, how the New York’s food world is changing, and his best advice for new cooks.
Why this concept?
I’m type 2 diabetic. I’ve written books on type 2 diabetes, and I’m currently writing a book with Peter Kaminsky on healthy fats and how to incorporate them into your diet. It’s something that’s near and dear to my heart. My oldest son has autism and celiac disease and other gut issues, and as a society, we’re fairly obese and fairly unhealthy. If we can change the masses, we can make a movement that changes the future.
Is there a healthy eating sea change happening in New York restaurants right now?
I think people are more conscious of it in fine dining than fast casual. With the exception of Chipotle and Sweet Greens, pretty much everyone [in the fast casual space] is using commodity product. I get it. It’s very hard to make it all work financially. We chose to concentrate on the quality of the ingredients.
Reflect on New York industry: Is fast casual the next frontier?
There are a few temples of gastronomy that will always exist. And then you have a number of restaurants opening in the Lower East Side, Brooklyn, Queens that are serving high quality food but at more approachable prices. These spots are high on technique — the same thing you can eat for $100, you can now eat for $50. So consumers think, I don’t have to spend $100 to have a great dinner, I can spend $50. Or $15 at the LIttle Beet and get a great meal. This is just that evolution. People are much more conscious. They’re much more conscious of what they’re putting in their bodies. They want to know you care.
How has the clientele changed?
When I started in the industry, there was no Whole Foods — the only place you get could high quality ingredients was fine dining. There was no Fairway, no Trader Joes. You had a choice to go to Key Food or Pathmark — and you’d find generic produce in the aisle. Now you find organics and a gluten-free aisle.
What was your biggest challenge in opening this restaurant?
Profitability for sure. You still have to make a profit on what you’re serving or you can’t pay the rent. That means choosing salmon and steak but using skirt steak instead of a primal cut. We use Bell and Evans air-chilled chicken — so we pay more than others for our raw ingredients. It’s a conscious choice. We serve a lot of vegetables and a lot of grains; our vegetables are more expensive than the average, but you taste it. It’s the only way I know how to approach food.
Can you talk about your overarching food philosophy?
If you start with a protein, everything you add should highlight it and not hide it. I don’t believe in putting ingredients in for the sake of color or garnish — I’ll put it in because it tastes great and changes the dish. If you order a duck, it needs to taste like a duck. Simplicity is the short answer.
Does that play out differently in fine dining and fast casual restaurants?
It doesn’t. The ingredients I’m using here are what I’d use in fine dining. I might use more vegetables here to make it more economically viable, or I might use white cabbage here and Savoy in fine dining, but my approach to food is the same.
On the next page, Becker talks about the evolution of food media.
Any lessons learned in fine dining that really helped you here? Anything that hurt you?
I’m really focusing and concentrating on quality above all. Working in fine dining helped me. If I’d done it in reverse, I don’t know if it would have worked.
Personnel. In fine dining, everyone’s coming from another fine dining kitchen or a school — they’re mentally prepared for the challenges and rigors of the day. In the fast casual world, you can’t talk in kitchen terminology. Nobody knows what a brunoise is. I say, “I want a small dice.” And then I show them what a small dice is.
Talk to me a bit about the evolution of the food media and how that’s played into your career and the culinary world in general.
What a lot of people don’t realize is that if you take these networks, the main chefs — Bobby [Flay], Mario [Batali], Morimoto — these are all established culinarians. They’ve followed the same path that I’ve followed or followed a harder more rigorous path. All became excellent cooks before TV helped their career blossom. The same is true for me. I’m 44 years old now. I’m not a kid showing up and cooking for the first time — I’m a seasoned veteran. A lot of people on television were chosen for their personality. Media has enhanced their position and helped them grow, but media didn’t make them.
How has TV changed the industry?
We’re servants. We always were servants. We’re in hospitality, we’re meant to serve others. While everyone else is enjoying their holiday and party, we’re cooking. Now, we’re no longer viewed as servants. We’re viewed as rock stars. That’s all due to the media — and that’s great. It’s enabled us to earn some real dollars. I’m willing to bet that none of us went into this for money. We all went into it because we love to serve others; we love to make others happy. Now we we get to do that and make money? And get fan fare? And play volleyball with swimsuit models? Great!
Any advice to people just getting started?
I have a lot of advice! Be patient. Concentrate on the small details, because a lot of the small details add up. If you concentrate on the details, in a year or two, you’ll be so much better off because you’ll be able to sustain it. If I jump on a grill or salad station or butcher station, I’m comfortable. A lot of people rush the steps. They do things that aren’t thought out. Then they’re faced with an obstacle, and they’re not prepared. Mise en place is especially apropos for a newbie in the business — have everything in it’s place before you start.
I want 100 of these! In the next 10 years, I want 100 of these. And I’m also opening a fine dining restaurant. On a larger scale, I’d like to see less diabetes, less cancer, less autism, a healthier America in general. If I can play a part in that, great. I’m happy to do that.
Up next, Becker divulges some of his favorite spots in the city.
Favorite place for a cup of tea:
We sell Tea Forte here, and it’s phenomenal. Otherwise, David’s Tea.
Best place in the city for cocktails:
My only cocktail is gin and tonic; I’m partial to Tanqueray. Any old-style bar. Pete’s Tavern.
Favorite special occasion restaurant:
Craft and Gramercy Tavern.
Place to be when you have no where to be at all:
I love Yakitori Totto. I love Ushiwaka Maru. I love Nom Wah Tea Parlor for dim sum.
Place that doesn’t get enough credit:
Aldea. 15 East. Tocqueville.
Person who doesn’t get enough credit:
Probably George Mendes again. Harold Moore. Harold Moore is, without question, one of the most talented chefs in the city.
Person you’d most like to cook for:
My grandmother and grandfather.
Person you’d most like to have cook for you:
Pressing industry issue:
The oceans. What’s happened with the spread of the radiation from Japan to California, the oil spills. It’s very scary.
Place to go for a healthy meal:
Dirt Candy. I think she’s doing a great job. The East Village in general — there are a lot of small nooks and crannies that are fantastic. You can go get a great vegetarian or vegan meal.
Dish you could eat forever:
Kasha varnishkes, latkes, blintzes, dim sum, sushi, yakitori.
What about a menu highlight here?
The millet salad — millet is an African grain and one of the main sources of protein for the Nigerian population. That’s a sleeper on the menu. The roasted turkey sandwich with apple butter and brie.
Something you love:
The camaraderie among my peers. We’re always there for each other.
Something you wish you could change:
The blogosphere. There are a lot of people that don’t give restaurants a chance. When you start a new job or open a restaurant, there are going to be issues, and you don’t know what they’re going to be. And once you figure out what they are, you fix them. Give people a chance — their lives depend on these restaurants being successful. The critics used to give you a grace period — seven, eight, nine weeks. Now there’s no grace period — it’s like, let’s get ’em. It’s great if it’s positive — if it’s negative, it’s a real thorn in your side.
Anything we’re missing?
I’m a student first and a teacher second. I discover new things every day, and then I pass it on.
Anything else you want to talk about?
I’m chairing a charity event for the Wounded Warriors. It’s an eat-around event in March; if there are chefs who want to be involved, please reach out to me.