“There’s some love on this table, isn’t there?” Everything Frank Miller does is done from the heart. Over a two hour lunch, I got some good insights into the man who is the new Executive Chef at The Smokehouse Restaurant at Ponte Winery. Frank’s resumé is more than a little impressive. The list of clients he has worked with as a personal chef includes Mary J. Blige, Gary Sheffield, Def Jam founder Rick Ruben, Burt Bacharach, Michael Douglas and Gwen Stefani. He’s owned his share of restaurants and has spent time catering for names like Rolex, Piaget, Rolls Royce and Ralph Lauren. He has trained under and worked with some of the greats: Guy Leroy “Guy was the best and still is”, Wolfgang Puck and Camille Schwartz.
“Our lives revolved around food, around the kitchen.” His Sicilian grandmother grew everything she cooked with and her love of cooking and food left a profound impact on Frank. His uncles each had a dish they would would make. One said that Braciole was proof that Italians invented dental floss. With so much love of food around him, he wanted to impress his family and began cooking professionally at the age of fifteen. His first job was with Chef Bif Caruso at the Hotel Mar Monte in Santa Barbara and he spent the next several years there honing his skills.
Frank has known Claudio Ponte for more than twenty years and wrote the original proposal and drew the plans for the kitchen at Ponte. A few months ago he was at Whole Foods and saw Dave Romer, a colleague of Claudio’s, out of the corner of his eye. Dave told him they were looking for an Executive Chef for The Smokehouse. “I was so sick of jumping on and off a plane.” Frank had just finished his third world tour with Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z and Beyoncé and the idea of being in one place held great appeal to him. His first day on the job lasted twenty six days, from 5 or 6 am until 10 or 11 at night. He stayed in a cottage on the property while he restructured and reorganized. “We are at the precipice of turning the corner into what what I think is real culinary greatness.”
His vision for the Smokehouse? “I would really like us to be the Bouchon or French Laundry of the south. We serve a little more working man’s fare, a little less pretentious.” He says cuisine is geographic by nature and our proximity to Arizona and Mexico lends to what he calls Nueva Latina cuisine, but with an Italian base. Being a private chef is a solo act, here he considers himself more a conductor. “You get oboes and strings and horns and you get to cook with everybody’s hands. Food is like music. The inspiration comes from what you hear, what you see, what you taste.”
Frank has ambitious plans for The Smokehouse. Claudio has given him carte blanche with all the wine he wants to use, so look for a Cabernet reduction sauce (incredible over vanilla ice cream), an Asti Spumante vinaigrette, a crusting mix with Old Bay and aromatics for grilling, wood chips from Cabernet barrels for smoking meats and more. “I’ve always kind of looked at food from a packaging perspective and have always tried to be on the cutting edge of what’s the next cuisine or what’s the next big thing. Having all this wine at my disposal is just kind of fantasy cooking.”
Frank took me to where they had just planted 144 onions that he will grow into calçots, like a green onion but to the size of a leek. They’ll keep mounding the soil to support them. At harvest time there will be a Calçotada Festival like the ones in Spain. Up to eighty guests will drink wines from porrons while enjoying a grape and wine-themed menu. The calçots will be charred over beds of grape canes, wrapped in paper and then put in insulated coolers for up to an hour. You then peel off the burnt outside and dip them in salsa romesco made with hazelnuts, olive oil, hazelnut oil, roasted red pepper, roasted garlic and fresh parsley. Beside food and drink guests will enjoy a bit of bocce. Next to the onions he is planting strawberries, Sequoia and Chandler berries from U.C. Irvine which will be picked fresh every morning. From June to mid July “strawberry shortcake will be king. Nothing more like a day in the country than having fresh baked shortcake, fresh strawberries out of the garden that morning with crème Chantilly on top.”
With all the conversation you may be wondering if we ever got around to eating. Let me assure you we did. We started with an amuse bouche of hummus with chipotle on a panier, similar to a rolled philo dough. Then came the salads, a mixed green with pomegranate arils and Asti Spumante vinaigrette as well as grilled romaine with shaved parmesan and his signature filone crackers. Then came the appetizers – salmon pizza on a crisp thin crust with poblano cilantro pesto, charred poblanos, garlic confit and a paillard of salmon, and South American barbeque shrimp with grits sweetened with sherry and apple cider vinegar. We cleansed our palates with a pink grapefruit tarragon sorbet drizzled with Limoncello. Then we moved on to the entrées – New York Steak with chimichurri sauce, stuffed chicken il forno and Pasta Diablo with shrimp. Frank is like a proud papa watching food come out of his kitchen, beaming from ear to ear while making comments like “this is spot on” or “they nailed it.”
I didn’t know how I could possibly squeeze in one more bite, but Frank wasn’t done yet. It was time for dessert. Flourless Chocolate Nirvana Cake, Banoffee Tort (Mary J. Blige’s favorite) made in a graham cracker crust with hand made toffee and whipped cream with sliced bananas and shaved white chocolate, Local Meyer Lemon Pie (like Key Lime Pie, but made with Meyer Lemons), chocolate bags filled with mousse and Charlotte Brazilian, made with lady fingers and passionfruit mousse. We had Ponte’s Dolcetto wine which Frank calls “a baby doll”. Patrick Terrail of the legendary Ma Maison used to say you could judge a restaurant by the cars in its parking lot. Frank thinks a better gauge is the sounds you hear from the diners.
Frank absolutely loves what he does and it shows in everything he does. He demands excellence from his staff. “You’re playing pro ball here guys. This is not amateur, this isn’t single A, double A or triple A. We are in the show.” He looks for two things when hiring a line cook. He has them put on an apron and he checks their hands for calluses. He can tell by how they don an apron if that’s something that is second nature to them. If the calluses are in the right spots, that indicates years of working with knives properly.
Frank and I are heading to to Santa Barbara this coming Monday to hunt chanterelle mushrooms. I can hardly wait. The Smokehouse at Ponte Winery – 35053 Rancho California Rd, Temecula, CA 92591 (951) 694-8855