Brian Frakes can still remember the Milwaukee Brewers’ starting lineup back in 1982. He was just 12, but that pivotal year stands out.
He moved to Florida, and his Brewers went to the World Series.
Choosing chicken wings over construction, at 15 he got his first job in a restaurant. Cooking meant extra cash in college, too. Not until he’d nearly completed his psychology degree at Florida State did he consider cooking as a career.
Honing his skills at Florida’s Boca Raton Resort, he then cooked for A-listers at the Bel Age Hotel in Los Angeles. Yet the Brookfield native always felt the tug of his Wisconsin roots and returned in 2006.
Today, he’s executive chef at the venerable Pfister Hotel and oversees all food and beverage operations. If you’ve had anything to eat or drink at the upscale hotel, you know his work. He travels around the country recruiting for his culinary team, but he relishes homegrown talent.
While he can throw down with the best of them at wine dinners and galas, on lazy Sundays you’ll find him enjoying pancakes at Ma Fischer’s with his wife, Gina, and their daughters, Tiana, 5, and McRae, 4.
Part of the Marcus Celebrated Chefs series of classes, which run through Feb. 16, Frakes presents “Finger Foods Frenzy” from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Feb. 9 at the Mason Street Grill Chef’s Counter. Cost is $29 per person, $49 per couple. For reservations, call (414) 935-5950 or go to www.marcuschefs.com.
Q. You attended Florida State and got a degree in psychology. So how did you end up in the restaurant industry?
A. When I was 15, my dad got me a job as a laborer on a construction site. My friend had a job making 25 cents more as a dishwasher in a chicken wing restaurant and there was free soda. It was a no-brainer.
That culture, the endorphins and rush that go with feeding a lot of people fast, the whole culture of cooks, within a year I was the “head” wing man, the alpha position in my midteens. . . .
Right around a year before I got my degree, I started realizing there was a much bigger world of cooking, bigger than hat on backward and slinging cheeseburgers. I found the nicest place I could and said I’d learn. Really, that was my culinary school. It’s in your gut or it’s not. It’s in mine.
Q. The Pfister is known for drawing in celebrities, sports teams and big names. Any good stories?
A. Our catch phrase is “We respect all of our guests’ privacy.” If in the elevator I’m asked if someone is here, I say that. Meanwhile, you see the buses outside. It does come up. I got Keith Urban tickets from Keith Urban. You do get to rub elbows. You name the celebrity, and they’ve been here. It makes my job fun.
Q. Where might we find you around town?
A. If I get a Sunday, I take the wife and kids to Ma Fischer’s for “pannycakes” and chocolate milk. Some of the best dining experiences I’ve had are over “pannycakes.”
Q. Memorable meals?
A. Best steak I ever had, hands-down, was at Carnevor, when I was courting my wife. They had this true Japanese Kobe (beef). When they say you could eat this with a spoon, you really could. I upgraded to lobster – surf and turf – to impress her.
Q. Who does the cooking at home?
A. I’m the second best cook in my home. My wife is amazing. We’re learning to share space in the kitchen, but it is her kitchen. If you ask her, she’d like me to cook a little bit more. We’ll get the girls rolling meatballs. We’re working on their knife skills with Play-Doh.
Q. Who are your mentors?
A. From Boca Raton Resort, Claude Loudec. He’s from France, started in a professional kitchen when he was 9, worked at the White House. A culinary god, basically. Boca Raton is kind of like the Pfister, but 10 times the size. Lots of young talent and we all wanted to move up. My story is it took two years for him to even speak to me. . . . I really appreciated the time I got with him.
Q. Define your kitchen style.
A. It’s personal. As a young chef, some of the chefs who I came up under, I tried emulating them. I had an image of the chef I’m supposed to be screaming for no good reason at all times. Quickly realized that wasn’t me. . . . I appreciated the time that chefs took with me, even the screaming ones.
I’m about treating people with dignity. I’m proud to mentor cooks. I’m proud of the fact that no less than 10 of my former cooks are executive chefs.
Q. Do you have a signature dish, something you want to be known for?
A. No. I have my favorite things to eat, which change often. That translates to what I like to cook. I’ll put those on specialty menus.
The maturity thing means I don’t want to outsmart the demographic of our outlet. Our Café, the breakfast and lunch dining room, this has been the restaurant for 120 years in the city. It’s a place to see and be seen. . . .
I’m sitting in the office that was the opening chef’s 120 years ago. So much has happened here before me. I need to always remind myself to be true to that.
Q. What do you like about teaching the Celebrated Chef classes?
A. The intimacy is nice. You could reach out and touch all 22 people. . . . I now have several email friends (from previous classes) who reach out for little tips, reservations. It’s a good thing.
Q. Valentine’s Day is the inspiration for your class. What romantic twists can people pull off at home?
A. It’s not very Pfister, but it’s very sexy. Just eliminate the silverware, make it finger foods. If you want to lick each other’s fingers, that’s great.
It doesn’t hurt to do a little Googling of aphrodisiacs. Whether it is a placebo or not, if the word aphrodisiac is in there, and it’s a little bit sexy, it sets the mood.
A nice glass of wine or chilled champagne, berries, papaya and local honey, dim the lights and get rid of the silverware. I don’t see how that could possibly go bad. And a little bit of chocolate is always great.
Q. Was cooking a big thing when you were a kid?
A. I’d love to lie on my mom’s behalf, but she was never that good of a cook. When asked the question of the best dish of all time, it’s my mom’s pot roast or her rice casserole, which I couldn’t begin to describe, but it’s mom and food. That’s bigger than anything that I’m doing because it has to do with family.
Q. You have a Green Bay Packers tattoo. Any food-related tattoos?
A. I don’t, although I’m feeling the pressure to get them. . . . I’m proud of coming from the old school, French, tall chef hat, more crisp. I don’t want to say sterile, but a little more respect for the trade. But I do know a lot of great cooks with full arm tattoos. I’m not trashing them, but it is not really me.
I have sketched what that tattoo would be. I’ve played with the idea.