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RESTAURANTS : A TIP OF THE TOQUE : After Suffering Early Acclaim, Bankruptcy and Illness, Ken Frank Is Still Cooking

March 15, 1992|Ruth Reichl

You've got to do something about La Toque," said a voice on the telephone. It belonged to my former editor, a man notable for the way he drove his writers crazy with 11th-hour requests for rewrites. "I know it's not my business to tell you how to do your job," he continued, "but La Toque is one of my favorite restaurants, and every time I go to dinner the place is empty. I'm afraid one day I'll get there and discover that it's gone."

La Toque is empty at night. At lunchtime, it's packed with le tout Hollywood, which pours in from Sunset Boulevard offices and over-Laurel-Canyon studios to busily chew its way through piles of greenery. But at night, when Ken Frank really gets cooking, there are few takers for the serious stuff. The salads may be wonderful, but nobody expected L.A.'s hotshot chef to spend his time tossing lettuce and watercress.

And Frank was hot. In 1976, at age 21, he was Los Angeles' first famous American chef. He achieved instant stardom at a restaurant called La Guillotine, was dubbed "the Sinatra of the Stockpots" and was single-handedly expected to rescue the city from culinary boredom. He did his best: He bragged about driving his Lotus under garage gates at a cool 50 m.p.h., bought his pastry weights in head shops and devoured sushi while others still shuddered at the sight of raw fish. He was the bad boy of the kitchen brigade. The owner of one restaurant he worked in tried to beat him up. Frank didn't care--he just walked out and became head chef at Michael's in Santa Monica.

In those days, Frank's reputation was so enormous that Michael's owner Michael McCarty, who considered hiring him something of a coup, worried that his restaurant would be known as "Ken Frank's place." Frank didn't stay long enough for that to happen--in 1979, he opened La Toque, in the same location as La Guillotine.

He was 23 years old and given to saying such things as, "In six months in France, you can learn to be a chef in L.A." Actually, Frank spent more than six months in France--he went there with his parents when he was in high school and stayed for a year on his own, washing dishes to get by. Returning to San Marino to finish high school, he became a cook at Chez Paul, "the Perino's of Pasadena." Still, from dishwasher to restaurant owner is a big leap in only seven years.

Frank knew he wasn't much of a businessman. When he was chef at Michael's, he said, "Michael is real well-organized, but I know I'm basically a chef. When I have my own place, I'll get a partner to run the front."

He did just that, and La Toque was instantly acclaimed. Frank was cooking innovative French food, but he was also the first of the young American chefs to explore what the Asian community had to offer. His first menu featured a salad topped with warm eel poached in soy sauce and another salad of raw tuna and enoki mushrooms. He was among the first to start growing his own vegetables--in his own back yard--and La Toque quickly became known as the home of the best cheese plate in Los Angeles.

But the restaurant, which was not efficiently run, was soon laden with debt. Frank and his partner fell out; the partner left. Then disaster struck. Crossing the street one day, Frank collapsed. He had been struck by Guillain-Barre syndrome, and he tried to run the restaurant from the hospital. "It was a fabulous character-building experience," he now says. "I grew up 10 years in the first month."

It was more than six months before Frank was able to work. Struggling to make up for lost time, the superstar watched the reputations of his former sous-chefs eclipse his own. While others appeared on television, wrote books and marketed products, Frank simply stood at the stove and cooked. Foodies admired his menus--but they were very busy going to the next new place. Before long, La Toque had filed for Chapter 11 protection.

Frank dug in. He stayed at the stove. He continued to concentrate on producing the best food he could. And in the process, the spoiled brat of the kitchen reorganized his business successfully and transformed himself into one of Los Angeles' most mature chefs. His cooking isn't flashy, but it has a confident quality more akin to that of the French, with their long training, than to the Americans, with their framed diplomas from cooking schools. Ken Frank cooks with conviction.

He changes his menu daily, shuffling dishes like cards in a deck. Even his salads are out of the ordinary. Consider watercress with Roquefort cheese and bean sprouts. I happen to think that bean sprouts are the most boring vegetable that ever pushed through the dirt, but they come into their own in this dish, their cool crispness a perfect punctuation for the richness of the cheese. Frank's Nicoise salad is robust, with sweet, tender chunks of lobster, cool green beans and slick roasted peppers brought to life by lots and lots of olives.

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