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Putting Food on the Table

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Brandon Frohne makes a good first impression. He’s twenty-seven and the head chef at Mason’s, the new restaurant inside the freshly renovated Loews Vanderbilt Hotel. He’s seen every indie cooking documentary under the sun and can remember each of them by heart (e.g. Jiro Dreams of Sushi). He can explain the science behind transglutaminase (meat glue) and how he’s used it to wrap halibut cheek in chicken skin. He says “super progressive modernist cuisine” and “f*ck” in the same sentence, without blinking an eye. Five minutes after meeting him, you think you’re talking to an approachable Southern nephew of Marco Pierre White, the original badass, cigarette-smoking British celebrity chef—the guy Anthony Bourdain wanted to be in Kitchen Confidential.

When asked about his culinary inspiration, it’s no surprise that he names one of the most radical and misunderstood chefs of our time, Paul Liebrandt. Equally revered as he is ridiculed, Liebrandt is basically a whinier, less successful version of Marco Pierre White. But that’s not what Brandon finds inspiring about him. “Like me, he didn’t have much of a family. He put all his energy into cooking because that’s what he loved to do.” As he says this, his eyes relax and his voice softens. He reaches back into his past and offers a glimpse of why he got into this profession: he didn’t have much of a family. I hang on to these words as he takes me into the kitchen and shows off his favorite cooking tools.

The kitchen at Mason’s is a workshop. Aesthetically, it’s light-years behind the Michelin three-star kitchens we’re used to seeing in movies like Ratatouille and A Matter of Taste. There are no copper pots dangling from the ceiling, no pristine white tiles on the floor. There isn’t a hanging garden of freshly picked herbs. Functionally, though, it’s right there with the best. Tucked away in the back, Brandon has some of the most advanced cooking tools in the business: a $20,000 combo convection-steam oven you can program recipes into, an anti-griddle that can chill to negative-seventy degrees, a sous-vide cooker that he’s been using to “flash pickle” veggies all summer. His descriptions of what these tools can do make you want to go to Williams-Sonoma and throw away your life savings.

Have you ever tried sous-vide Fried Chicken Galantine? Unless you’ve eaten it at Mason’s, probably not. Brandon tells me how it’s prepared: “You gotta grind up all the chicken thighs, chicken breasts, spices. Then purée it to get an even better texture.” He speaks about fancy foods and preparations with a likeable colloquialism. His prepositions and contractions make these cooking techniques sound simpler than they actually are, like you could do them yourself. “And then we have to stuff it into casings.” Okay, like a sausage, I could probably do that. “And then we have to sous-vide it.” Right, with this sous-vide cooker here.

“And then we have to make sure it’s perfectly symmetrical.” That’s where my unfounded confidence ends and my appreciation begins. Even if I got the meat-spice mixture right and learned how to fill the casings and turn on the sous-vide cooker, my imaginary Fried Chicken Galantine would not turn out perfectly symmetrical. It would look like Owen Wilson’s nose after a fistfight.

Though he claims he’s not a modernist chef, obsessed with beautiful foams and gelées, Brandon hasn’t adopted a romantic cooking philosophy—he doesn’t want ingredients to have to speak for themselves. He’s still more Wylie Dufresne than Mario Batali. His recipes have multiple components and steps that are designed to add flavors to his ingredients, not bring out existing ones. Take bone marrow, for example: “So the bone marrow—we soak it overnight. Then we change the water and re-soak it. Then you gotta roast ’em. Then we have a beef cheek confit. We take beef cheek and braise those f*ckers for like, twelve hours.”

I can tell he’s just getting started by how fast he’s talking. “Beef cheek confit goes on top. Then we have these little baby quail eggs that we fry sunny-side. It’s so intricate, hard not to break the yolks on them.” Those are the three big ingredients: marrow, beef cheek, and eggs. “Then we do this Perigourdine sauce made with truffles and veal stock that goes on it. And then a little bit of gremolata, lemon zest, parsley, garlic.”

Whereas Batali would roast the marrow with some olive oil and parsley, Brandon adds big, heavy flavors: confited beef, truffle, and quail egg. Balancing these flavors the way Brandon does is a culinary circus act.

You don’t learn how to cook with these ingredients by yourself. You need a Yoda—a dedicated teacher, someone to put these ingredients in front of you and teach you how to combine and transform them. Brandon’s mentor was a chef named Dave Miller, whom he met when he was seventeen years old, shortly after moving to St. Petersburg, Florida, to live with his grandmother. “I got my first apprenticeship at a restaurant called Six Tables. Dave was twenty-three years old and was the top chef in Florida. I just needed a job to build my life back together.”

Every week, Chef Miller would test Brandon on sauces, fabrications, and knife cuts. “Every Friday and Saturday, I’d take a test.” It was a weekly routine that Brandon craved, a stability that he needed to turn his life around. This lasted for two years, before Chef Miller took a job in the Bahamas and Brandon returned to Tennessee.

We move across the lobby to the restaurant bar, and Brandon begins to elaborate on his childhood in Tennessee, before cooking and Chef Miller saved him. The words and images he uses catch the bartender and me by surprise. “My childhood was spent addicted to drugs, incarcerated, in and out of juvenile detention all the time. I was a hellion.” The more he recalls, the more words he utters, the more tragic his upbringing becomes.

He takes me back to the beginning. He was born in Florida in 1986, and moved to Sevierville, Tennessee, with his mother and siblings in 1989—to escape a physically abusive father. Most people don’t remember life before the age of three, but Brandon carries the scars with him. “While she was pregnant with me, he abused her, which caused my right hand to be deformed.” Two years later, in 1991, Brandon witnessed his mother’s new boyfriend assaulting her. “I used little toy airplanes to hit him to try to get him to stop beating her.” He was four years old.

After playing by the rules in middle school (he was a straight-A student), in high school, Brandon turned into a delinquent. In the space of a year, he had his first beer, his first joint, and starting hanging out with gang members. Then he drove without a license, robbed a gas station, and eventually got kicked out of school. These are all the charges he picked up in the year 2000, when he was fourteen: truancy, unruly, trespassing, violation of curfew, violation of probation, assault. These charges got him placed on house arrest with an ankle bracelet.

In email correspondence after our interviews, Brandon goes into more detail about his past. He describes a scheme that he and his friends hatched to steal things from their local Walmart: “One of us would go in and buy a DVD player and take it out to the car. Then we would take that receipt back into Walmart where there were no cameras and shake hands with someone and hand the receipt off. That person would then go get the same DVD player and walk out as if they purchased it.” They called this scheme “The Receipt.” It worked like a charm—they never got busted.

The American Dream rarely allows for this sort of delinquency. People who don’t follow the rules at an early age don’t get to enjoy the benefits of upward mobility. They don’t go to college. They don’t get good jobs with corporate ladders and yearly promotions. They might get a second chance along the way, but not a third and a fourth. That’s what makes Brandon Frohne’s success so rare.

After a childhood of bad fortune and bad decisions, he circumvented the system. He pursued a profession (cooking) and a career path (apprenticeship) that are from the Old World. Cooking has been in the Frohne family for generations—his ancestors owned restaurants in Germany and Switzerland. And apprenticeship was the only option available to him after high school. Through old-fashioned pluck and luck, he got to where he is today, running a top kitchen at one of the most prestigious corporate hotel chains in America.

Brandon has come full circle. He didn’t go to college or culinary school, but he’s ahead of his peers who have. What he would’ve learned in culinary school he has learned at numerous jobs over the past ten years, working with his hands, making real food for real customers.

After apprenticing with Chef Miller in Florida, Brandon worked at Burger King, Red Lobster, moved to Ohio, moved back to Nashville, landed a job at Bluegrass Yacht & Country Club as a line cook, and then found a sous-chef position at Nick & Rudy’s Steakhouse. When he was twenty-two, Brandon got his first title as head chef at Park Manor, an upscale Belle Meade retirement home. There, he soon became the Food Services Director and simultaneously started cooking with local food maven and caterer Martha Stamps.

As his work life accelerated forward, though, Brandon’s personal life hit a few speed bumps. In between his job at the Bluegrass Yacht & Country Club and Nick & Rudy’s Steakhouse, he and his girlfriend had a baby boy named Nolen. Brandon was just nineteen and only two years into his cooking career. Four years later, after landing the job at Park Manor, he and his girlfriend separated. She took Nolen away to live with her family in Ohio, sending Brandon into an emotional tailspin. Despite his steady progress in the culinary world, Brandon began suffering from depression. He wasn’t able to see Nolen for several months.

It wasn’t until 2010 that life and work started moving in the same direction. That year, he fell in love with a girl named Lessie (who worked in the catering business) and got married. They welcomed baby Greyson into the family a year later—the same year Brandon began making a name for himself at Nashville cooking challenges. At Savor Nashville 2011, he picked up a first place People’s Choice Award and a second place Judge’s Choice Award with a prototypical elevated Southern dish: smoked shrimp with gouda grits and pickled peaches.

After a brief foray in the Atlanta food scene (two head chef jobs in one year), Brandon and Lessie decided to return to Nashville and put down roots. He took another retirement home position, started an underground pop-up dinner club called Forage South, and continued competing in local cooking competitions. Success followed close behind him. In one weekend last summer, he took home second place at the International Biscuit Festival and a Fan’s Choice Award at Savor Nashville. These performances earned him an invite to the 2012 World Chef Challenge in Las Vegas, where he reached the semi-finals, and the Mason’s opportunity came shortly after that. The interview process was basically another chef challenge: an all-in, eight-course tasting dinner for the Loews corporate team. He passed with flying colors and began curating the Mason’s menu.

What Brandon has created at Mason’s isn’t a hotel restaurant, it’s a canvas for his elevated Southern cuisine. There are no oversized Caesar salads or chicken clubs, and Brandon remains adamant about this: “I don’t want to put a chicken club on the menu.” The closest items they have are the Heirloom Tomato and Okra Panzanella (essentially an okra, tomato, and crouton salad) and a Tangle Wood Farms chicken panini. That’s as hotel-accessible as he’s willing to do—Brandon isn’t catering to hotel guests; he wants hotel guests to come to him. He’s building a restaurant that people want to go visit, not a restaurant that people go to when they visit. And it’s working.

The Mason’s launch has not only been successful financially, it has driven Brandon higher up the food chain. In early October, the Loews Vanderbilt Hotel announced that he’d been invited to cook Thanksgiving Dinner at the James Beard House in New York—the organization that doles out annual awards to the country’s most talented chefs. This invitation is a formal recognition of his talent and an indication that he may be in the running for a James Beard “Best Chef” nomination.

When I spoke to him this summer, Brandon mentioned the Beard invite and set his sights on a higher target: “What I’m striving for is to get a James Beard award—the Rising Star Under 30.” This nomination would add another chapter to his modern rags-to-riches story. But more importantly, it would demonstrate that a combination of hard work, passion, and persistence can still take you anywhere.

But it all rides on his performance at the Thanksgiving dinner. If he can execute on the big stage, he’ll be closer to his goal of receiving an award. Despite the pressure, he’s prepared an ambitious and technical menu, a perfect display of his elevated Southern cuisine. It begins with three passed hors d’oeuvres: deviled eggs with pork belly marmalade and mustard seed caviar; sweet potato biscuits loaded with German-style prosciutto with blackberry mostarda; and Carolina rice arancini with pickled shrimp, romesco, and bottarga. Those are followed by a five-course tasting menu: butternut squash with foie-gras marshmallow and peanut butter espuma; smoked squab with whipped carrots, German eickhorn, and salt-roasted beet; brussel sprouts and beef cheek with hominy and maple-kumquat gastrique; heritage turkey with Backerei bread and Tennessee truffle; and finally, Olive & Sinclair white chocolate-pumpkin cremeux with vanilla-chestnut beignets and cranberry conserva.

The James Beard menu has gone through several drafts and edits. He showed me an early version this summer, when he invited me over to celebrate his twenty-seventh birthday with his eight-month-pregnant wife Lessie and son Greyson. The three of them (now four with Violet) live in a two-story home in Nashboro Village, down by Percy Priest Lake. It has all the fixings Brandon didn’t enjoy when he grew up: stable parents, a front and backyard, an heirloom herb garden. As we chat over homemade ribs and chive biscuits, Brandon says the most earnest thing I’ve heard him say all week: “Everything I do now is for them. I have personal goals in the food world. I want to keep the family legacy alive. But I really want to bust my ass to create some opportunity for them.” His family is his motivation. In an industry popularized by egotistical, self-centered chefs, Brandon is like a reformed saint.

As Lessie, Brandon, and I talk about local produce, two-year-old Greyson exhibits some of the hellion genes that run in the Frohne family. One second he’s jumping on the couch, the next he’s climbing on the kitchen counter. He’s a three-foot-tall, forty-pound spider monkey. “Catch, catch.” He wants his dad to catch him as he jumps off the counter. “Daddy, catch.” He doesn’t stop saying this until Brandon lets him jump and catches him, which he does, very carefully (the counter’s four-feet high). As he schlepps his son back to the table, he says what everyone in the room is thinking, “Man, this kid’s going to be a stunt car driver.”

Watching Greyson tool around the house is like watching a young Brandon, before the drugs and cooking and reformation, before Chef Miller taught him fabrications and Park Manor hired him to be their head chef. Greyson is innocent. He hasn’t heard of transglutaminase. He doesn’t know the difference between heirloom tomatoes and regular tomatoes. But he has energy, a sense of adventure, and the opportunity to do whatever he wants in life. And that’s what Brandon has been working to put on the table.

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