Interview with Chef Ken Frank – Host Chef of the Napa Truffle Festival
I recently sat down with Chef Ken Frank of La Toque to get his personal history and recommendations for truffles. Being a celebrated Michelin star chef renowned for his knowledge of truffles, he had a lot to share. I started at the beginning…
What is your first memory of eating and/or cooking with truffles?
When I was in high school I was working at a very fancy French restaurant in Pasadena called Chez Paul. And of course, their classic recipes called for truffles and pretty much the only way you could get truffles back then was out of a can. The more experienced chefs I was working under always told me “If these were fresh truffles you could smell them across the room” so I was always kind of intrigued by it. When I had lived in France we could eat fresh fish out of Lake Geneva everyday but we didn’t even know what truffles were, let alone ever taste them.
A few years later I was working in Beverly Hills and I heard about an Italian guy, Darrel Corti of the famous Corti Brothers in Sacramento who imported fresh truffles. So I called him up and ordered a pound. The next week I flew up to Sacramento for a cousins wedding, and went over to Corti Brothers in Sacramento to pick them up. I paid $80 dollars for that pound, a fortune at the time! I took them to my cousin’s and we put them in a jar with fresh whole eggs because I had heard that if you store the truffles with them, the eggs will absorb the truffle flavor. The next morning for breakfast we cooked the eggs and were like WOW! I have been a truffle fan ever since!
Why do you like cooking with truffles?
Truffle is one of those flavors that is very magical! They are both easy and difficult to work with. It’s about the way you cook with them, as strong a flavor as they are, you need to use them in ways that their flavor can really shine. It’s about making good choices, eggs are a great vehicle, as well as cream and cheese. They don’t work well with acidic foods or spicy foods. You need to choose things where the truffle flavor can really express itself through. And sometimes the best thing is just shaving them right on top of something.
How would you describe the flavor and aroma of truffles?
That is one of the most difficult things to describe. It’s an earthy perfume, it’s aromatic, it’s almost vanilla like though sometimes they can be more vegetal or even have a tarry note to them. Every truffle is a little bit different. White truffles are more garlicy and black truffles tend to be earthier with sweet earthy aromas but it’s very, very difficult to just describe their flavor in words. It’s almost like this primal aroma that pulls you in!
How would you describe what a truffle looks like?
When you first dig it out of the ground it looks like a dirt clod because they are covered in mud. When you brush them off, you get a gnarly, knobby, black tuber. Occasionally they are just the right size and shape to look like a chocolate truffle but usually they’re quite a bit bigger and irregularly shaped.
How would you entice someone who has never tasted truffles before to try them?
I think I would just explain to them that there is good reason that they are highly sought after and if you don’t like them I won’t ever ask you again. I have yet to fail.
What is your favorite truffle dish?
It tends to run to something very simple. Probably eggs and fresh truffle, I know it is simple, it’s not particularly creative, but that flavor combination is very hard to beat!
What are your serving truffle wise on the menu right now at La Toque?
Right now, of course it is full on white truffle season, the black truffle season is just getting started. The last couple of weeks the white truffles have been very good. I am serving them right now with a potato gnocchi and pan roasted cauliflower cooked in brown butter with a little bit of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and wild mushrooms and then we shave white truffles over the top.
How long have you been involved with the Napa Truffle Festival and how would you describe your influence?
In January, this will be our 8th annual Napa Truffle Festival. It has certainly grown better every year. The first year that we did it I invited three fantastic Michelin Star chefs to come cook with us. The next year we added a lunch at a winery and a wild mushroom foraging hike. The next year we added another lunch at a winery and a cooking demonstration. For Two Winery Truffle Lunches.
And now we have developed it into a full weekend with the Marketplace at the Oxbow Market on the Monday. This year we’re adding an educational program we call “Dig Truffles” that will be open to locals at the CIA Copia campus on Monday afternoon.
How did you get involved with the Napa Truffle Festival?
I have just always been a chef who loves cooking with truffles and have been cooking with truffles for over 40 years now. There really wasn’t anything quite like the Napa Truffle festival when we started it, it’s pretty unique. It has become very popular. We now attract people from all over the US. We sold out most of the tickets in a week. There are only a few tickets left for a few of the events.