UNION PIER — Frank Biondo, executive chef at Frankie’s Place in Union Pier, only uses the best, locally sourced ingredients whenever possible. He respects what they contribute to a dish, and handles each one carefully.
He squeezes the San Marzano tomatoes he uses in his sauces by hand to get the chunkiness and body he wouldn’t be able to achieve with a blender or food processor.
His menu items are all about combining and balancing flavors so they complement each other.
“I don’t want my ingredients to be so distinct that you can name off each one, like a list,” he says. “To me, it’s about how they all come together.”
Biondi, who took over as executive chef after moving back to the area from Grand Rapids, is glad to be back home.
Born and raised in Coloma, he’s a self-taught chef who’s worked in a myriad of kitchens, soaking up the knowledge of different cuisines and techniques in each of the places he’s worked.
And no, the restaurant isn’t named after him, and he’s not the owner. It’s just coincidental that he got a job at Frankie’s.
“My first job was at the Plantation House at the South Seas Island Resort on Captiva (Island, Fla.),” Biondi says. “The restaurant was also a training facility for students who were doing their externships. They’d come just to get real-world cooking experience.
“One person left me their textbook when they left,” he says. “I also bought the others myself and would read and listen to what the students and the people training them would have to say, and learned that way. Then, I just traveled from resort to resort to cook and learn. I worked in San Antonio; Breckenridge, (Colo.); Bend, Ore.; New Mexico; and Baton Rouge, La., for a little bit.
“I was learning what everyone else was doing,” he says, “whether it was Tex-Mex food to authentic Mexican cooking from Michoacán, Mexico. And I’ve cooked about everything, from beef to alligator and moose.”
He worked at two short-lived restaurants in St. Joseph – Tulip, an Asian-concept eatery, and Port 421 on State Street downtown – and experienced the same bad luck in Grand Rapids. But, you always learn, he says, no matter what.
Chefs often come from a line of cooks, whether they’re relatives who are great home cooks or relatives who owned restaurants and showed them the ropes. But that wasn’t the case in Biondi’s family. Before he turned 11, he began making French toast.
“My parents didn’t cook,” says Biondi, describing cooking as instinctual for him. “I was the only one who went down this road. I’ve been lucky, though, cooking has taken me everywhere I wanted to be, it’s supported my family and it’s kept me out of trouble.”
And it also feeds into his quest for learning.
“Figuring out a new way of doing something is just fun,” he says about his time in the kitchen. “I have this cookie I’ve been trying to make for three years/’ Why so long?
The hold-up, Biondi says, is he’s trying to come up with a fluffy nougat filling for the cookie, but it’s one that has to be soft enough to stuff into the center - the problem being that nougat hardens so quickly once it’s removed from the heat that it hasn’t been stuffable.
“But I keep working at it,’ he says.
At Frankie’s, he’s not only created his own seasonal menu, but makes everything from scratch, including salad dressings, ketchup, desserts, mustards and even paprika mayonnaise. He also cures his own bacon and smokes meats over apple wood in the smoker.
Details are important. When making polenta, he grinds it again in a blender to make the grain finer.
“You still taste the corn,’ he says, “but the flavor is better.’
His duck risotto starts with duck confit braised with orange rind and leeks, and then simmered in duck stock. Next, the risotto is cooked and finished with butter, freshly grated Parmesan and Michigan white cheddar cheese, then folded in with blanched Brussels sprouts and the duck meat.
“My meatloaf is a play on Wolfgang Puck’s meatloaf,’ Biondi says. “I use duck confit fat, a blend of mushrooms, mixed in with lots of butter and heavy cream, Berkshire ground pork and organic beef from Ward Farm. I sear it on the flat top so it doesn’t get too dry, and serve it with a redeye gravy made from a coffee and red wine reduction.’
Though Biondi didn’t learn to cook at home, his daughter, Eleanor, is already a pro in the kitchen. So far, the 9-year-old’s repertoire includes bacon pancakes, which was one of the first things she learned to cook to celebrate her 8th birthday, and vanilla and cinnamon pancake cake.
“The layers are connected by a maple butter cream blend,’ she says, already sounding like her father.
The following recipes are courtesy of Frank Biondi:
Meatballs & Polenta
For the meatballs:
Heavy cream Parmesan Butter 3/4 beef to 1/4 pork meat mixture
For the marinara sauce:
Olive oil 1 onion, chopped Oregano Basil 1 large can San Marzano tomatoes, crushed by hand
Polenta Parmesan cheese, freshly grated (for garnish)
To make the meatballs, mix all the ingredients together; adding enough cream to hold the meat together to form into balls.
Bake at 350 degrees until three-quarters baked. Remove from oven. For the marinara sauce, heat the olive oil in a skillet. Add onions, oregano and basil to taste. Add the tomatoes when the onion has softened. Stir. Add the meatballs to finish cooking them.
In the meantime, bring water to a boil for the polenta. Run the polenta through a blender. Follow the package direction to cook the polenta, stirring it slowly into the boiling water.
Reduce heat and continue to cook until thick. Place in bowl and top with meatball/marinara sauce and freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
Lemon Rosemary Chicken
4 tablespoons rosemary, divided 2 tablespoons lemon rind 2 cloves garlic, minced 6 chicken thighs, extra fat trimmed Salt and pepper, to taste 1/2 cup flour Olive oil 2 tablespoons lemon zest 1 teaspoon herbs de Provence 1/2 cup chardonnay 3 cups chicken stock
Mince 2 tablespoons rosemary, lemon rind and 1 tablespoon garlic together.
Stuff under the skin of the chicken.
Mix flour, salt and pepper, and dust both sides of the chicken.
Heat olive oil on high heat and add chicken, searing skin so it is crispy on both sides.
Add lemon zest, herbs de Provence, remaining garlic, remaining rosemary and chardonnay to deglazed pan. Let the mixture simmer, reducing the liquid. Once it starts thickening, add chicken stock, swirl it around, turn the heat down to a high simmer, let cook for 45 to 50 minutes, then turn the chicken over for another 20 minutes, so it can soak up the sauce.
Check the salt and pepper content, add more stock if needed.
1 cup baby carrots Olive oil 2 tablespoons butter
Saute the carrots in olive oil over high heat until the natural sugars come out, turning them into a golden brown (the color indicates the natural sugars are coming out).
Then, salt and pepper them, add butter, and cooked over low heat for a few minutes.
Golden Beet Orzo
2 1/2 cups equal parts chicken stock and water 1 bay leaf 1 tablespoon butter 1 golden beet, peeled and diced 1 1/2 cups orzo
Bring water/chicken stock, butter and bay leaf to a boil. Add beet, and cook for 5 or 6 minutes.
Add orzo. Cook until water is reduced, and orzo is tender.