From flipping burgers to 2024 James Beard semifinalist: Meet Exeter chef Lee Frank

Frank is a one of three New Hampshire finalists, along with Super Secret Ice Cream’s Kristina Zontoni, who is up for “outstanding pastry chef,” and Chris Viaud, who is up for “outstanding restaurateur” for Greenleaf and Ansanm in Milford. The winners will be announced April 3. 

Lee Frank started working in a kitchen at 15, honing his skills and mastering the art of flipping burgers in a bustling roadside shack in Los Angeles. His cooking has since taken him from some top restaurants in California, like Moose’s in San Francisco and The Lark Creek Inn in Larkspur, where he worked under his mentor, native New Englander Jason Miller, to some of the finest restaurants on the Seacoast, including Bonta Restaurant in Hampton, New Hampshire.  In 2016, Frank started his own business in Exeter called Otis Restaurant, which features a  five-course tasting menu that changes weekly based on the availability of local ingredients. “I think I kind of wanted to prove to myself that I could do it,” Frank said. “The idea of working for myself sounded fun. The idea of being able to build and create something that was completely mine sparked my interest in doing my own thing.” Within four months of opening Otis, Frank was invited to cook dinner at the James Beard Foundation at James Beard’s former home in New York. Now 45 years old, Frank has been named a semifinalist for the coveted James Beard award in the “best chef of the northeast” category.   “I was definitely in disbelief,” Frank said. “I actually had no idea that list was even coming out.”  Frank is a one of three New Hampshire finalists, along with Super Secret Ice Cream’s Kristina Zontoni, who is up for “outstanding pastry chef,” and Chris Viaud, who is up for “outstanding restaurateur” for Greenleaf and Ansanm in Milford. The winners will be announced April 3.  Hungry for more info? We asked Frank some questions about his process.  Granite Post: Can you recommend a kitchen tool or gadget that you find indispensable? Lee Frank: A spoon because you’re constantly tasting. GP: What would you eat for your last meal? LF: A double cheeseburger, Philly cheese fries, and strawberry milkshake.  GP: What's your signature dish, and what makes it special to you? LF: We do have one dish that's been on the menu since day one, and it's our sticky toffee pudding. I refuse to accept that it’s our signature dish. I think our signature is just the fact that we're constantly changing and evolving. But, you know, regulars always order it—it's sticky toffee pudding with bourbon caramel and whipped cream. People read the menu and just go, ‘yes, I'll take one of those.’ GP: Name a celebrity you would like to see at your restaurant. LF: Any of them.I would love to cook for David Kinch (the former chef of Manresa in Los Gatos, California, which was awarded three Michelin stars in 2016), or celebrity chef Michael Symon, who I've had the pleasure of meeting at the Steel Chef Challenge for the New Hampshire Food Bank. He's super talented and super down to earth. Kinch’s food, his cookbook, his philosophy is pretty impressive and something to strive for. It embodies that California cuisine feel. His food is very fresh. He's very ingredient-driven, which I like to think we are. A lot of his food is less than more—not feeling like you need to put 9 million things on the plate. He's extremely innovative.  GP: Do you have any pre-shift rituals or routines before a busy night in the kitchen? LF: I like to clean the kitchen. I like a bit of calm before service. I hate that feeling of “We open in 20 minutes and I have nine more things I need to do.” GP: What's the most rewarding aspect of being a chef for you? LF: Making people happy. I tell my staff all the time, especially in the economy now, people take their money very seriously. Everything costs more. Whether people are rich or not, they choose to spend their hard-earned money in our building. When they leave, we need to make sure they don’t regret that choice. Great service can save a mediocre meal. Great food never saves awful service. GP:  What's the most challenging dish you've ever prepared? LF:There are times when I have a dish in my head, texture and visually. Then when it gets to the plate it never looks like that. That's pretty tough to deal with. GP: Can you share a memorable cooking mishap or unexpected success in the kitchen? LF: We recently had some smoked ham that we got locally but we didn't have a ton of it. I decided to make a broth out of this smoked ham. I kind of just started winging it by looking at what I had in front of me. GP:  If you could cook for any historical figure, who would it be? LF: My father passed away when I was 8 years old. He was the general manager of a Jewish delicatessen in Los Angeles. I definitely would cook for my dad, just so he could see I did something. GP: What's your go-to comfort food to prepare at home? LF: Baked ziti, meatballs, and sausages.      

By Katy Savage

January 30, 2024

Lee Frank started working in a kitchen at 15, honing his skills and mastering the art of flipping burgers in a bustling roadside shack in Los Angeles.

His cooking has since taken him from some top restaurants in California, like Moose’s in San Francisco and The Lark Creek Inn in Larkspur, where he worked under his mentor, native New Englander Jason Miller, to some of the finest restaurants on the Seacoast, including Bonta Restaurant in Hampton, New Hampshire. 

In 2016, Frank started his own business in Exeter called Otis Restaurant, which features a  five-course tasting menu that changes weekly based on the availability of local ingredients.

“I think I kind of wanted to prove to myself that I could do it,” Frank said. “The idea of working for myself sounded fun. The idea of being able to build and create something that was completely mine sparked my interest in doing my own thing.”

Within four months of opening Otis, Frank was invited to cook dinner at the James Beard Foundation at James Beard’s former home in New York. Now 45 years old, Frank has been named a semifinalist for the coveted James Beard award in the “best chef of the northeast” category.  

“I was definitely in disbelief,” Frank said. “I actually had no idea that list was even coming out.” 

Frank is a one of three New Hampshire finalists, along with Super Secret Ice Cream’s Kristina Zontoni, who is up for “outstanding pastry chef,” and Chris Viaud, who is up for “outstanding restaurateur” for Greenleaf and Ansanm in Milford. The winners will be announced April 3. 

Hungry for more info? We asked Frank some questions about his process. 

Granite Post: Can you recommend a kitchen tool or gadget that you find indispensable?

Lee Frank: A spoon because you’re constantly tasting.

GP: What would you eat for your last meal?

LF: A double cheeseburger, Philly cheese fries, and strawberry milkshake. 

GP: What’s your signature dish, and what makes it special to you?

LF: We do have one dish that’s been on the menu since day one, and it’s our sticky toffee pudding. I refuse to accept that it’s our signature dish. I think our signature is just the fact that we’re constantly changing and evolving. But, you know, regulars always order it—it’s sticky toffee pudding with bourbon caramel and whipped cream. People read the menu and just go, ‘yes, I’ll take one of those.’

GP: Name a celebrity you would like to see at your restaurant.

LF: Any of them.I would love to cook for David Kinch (the former chef of Manresa in Los Gatos, California, which was awarded three Michelin stars in 2016), or celebrity chef Michael Symon, who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting at the Steel Chef Challenge for the New Hampshire Food Bank. He’s super talented and super down to earth.

Kinch’s food, his cookbook, his philosophy is pretty impressive and something to strive for. It embodies that California cuisine feel. His food is very fresh. He’s very ingredient-driven, which I like to think we are. A lot of his food is less than more—not feeling like you need to put 9 million things on the plate. He’s extremely innovative. 

GP: Do you have any pre-shift rituals or routines before a busy night in the kitchen?

LF: I like to clean the kitchen. I like a bit of calm before service. I hate that feeling of “We open in 20 minutes and I have nine more things I need to do.”

GP: What’s the most rewarding aspect of being a chef for you?

LF: Making people happy. I tell my staff all the time, especially in the economy now, people take their money very seriously. Everything costs more. Whether people are rich or not, they choose to spend their hard-earned money in our building. When they leave, we need to make sure they don’t regret that choice. Great service can save a mediocre meal. Great food never saves awful service.

GP:  What’s the most challenging dish you’ve ever prepared?

LF:There are times when I have a dish in my head, texture and visually. Then when it gets to the plate it never looks like that. That’s pretty tough to deal with.

GP: Can you share a memorable cooking mishap or unexpected success in the kitchen?

LF: We recently had some smoked ham that we got locally but we didn’t have a ton of it. I decided to make a broth out of this smoked ham. I kind of just started winging it by looking at what I had in front of me.

GP:  If you could cook for any historical figure, who would it be?

LF: My father passed away when I was 8 years old. He was the general manager of a Jewish delicatessen in Los Angeles. I definitely would cook for my dad, just so he could see I did something.

GP: What’s your go-to comfort food to prepare at home?

LF: Baked ziti, meatballs, and sausages.  

 

 

Author

  • Katy Savage

    Katy Savage is an award-winning reporter with more than 10 years of experience working in daily, weekly and digital news organizations as both an editor and reporter. Based in Enfield, Katy is a New England native and has a passion for telling stories about where she grew up. In her free time, she enjoys running and being outside as much as possible.

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