When Franklin Becker was growing up in Brooklyn’s relatively sleepy Midwood neighborhood, the word organic was never uttered. “Everything we ate back then was fresh and made from scratch; it was just the norm,” recalls the Top Chef: Masters alum.
Becker most recently made waves as the corporate executive chef at the EMM Group, where he oversaw food that was way better than it needed to be at flashy, decadent NYC restaurants like Catch and Abe & Arthur’s. But his newest project, the Little Beet, embraces honest, healthy cooking.
“It’s not a departure for me,” he explains, “but the logical next step.” An on-the-rise Becker was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 1997. While that new might have been a career-ender for many chefs, Becker took it in stride and transformed his diet, even penning two cookbooks to prove that the disease doesn’t need to cramp an epicurean lifestyle.
It’s clear people want to eat better, but they often say they don’t have the time to do it right.
In the lackluster foodscape of midtown, the Little Beet showcases his mission, replacing the usual greasy steam-table fare with conscientious, fresh-cooked alternatives: quinoa oatmeal, smoked sea salt and Pecorino-strewn grilled sweet potatoes, and brown rice “sushi” salads with toasted seaweed and ginger-miso dressing. There are air-fried beet chips to snack on, and cold-pressed cashew milk-pineapple-coconut juice for office workers on the run.
“There’s been an explosion of healthy ingredients. With the popularity of grocery stores like Whole Foods and Fairway, it’s clear people want to eat better, but they often say they don’t have the time to do it right,” Becker says. “I’m trying to help people lead cleaner, higher-protein lifestyles at a lower price point here. Much of what we offer is gluten-free, too. We can minimize diabetes and obesity and bring it back to how it was when I grew up.”
His mother, who cooked up a storm, was the culinary force behind those halcyon days Becker speaks of; he learned that he wanted to become a chef by helping her in the kitchen. At age 14, when the neighborhood Italian restaurant that hired him as a busboy granted him the chance to prep, he was seduced by the professional kitchen “and hasn’t left since.”
If you order duck, it should not only taste like duck, but the best-tasting duck.
After the Culinary Institute of America, Becker embarked on a prolific career that led him to work with Bobby Flay, cook for the Revlon cosmetics guru, and turn out playfully presented dishes in ’90s and aughts at hot spots like Local, Capitale, and the Tribeca and Soho Grand hotels.
On the heels of the Little Beet, he’ll be opening a modern American fine-dining restaurant in a yet-to-be-disclosed location, but he stresses that simplicity will be a hallmark: “I feel like you should always get what you pay for. If you order duck, it should not only taste like duck, but the best-tasting duck. My cooking style has evolved. I’ve gone through changes in my own life that have led me back to the basics.”
Here, Becker recounts the stand-out dishes that have marked his sprawling two-decade career.
My mother’s latkes were light and fried to a perfect crisp. She’d grate the fresh potatoes, break the egg by hand, and add onion. She’d serve them with sour cream, applesauce, cinnamon, and sugar. I would help her with them, and so latkes were one of the first dishes I started to make in the kitchen.
Pasta al pomodoro
When I worked in Italy, back in the early ’90s, one of the dishes we served was pasta with fresh tomatoes, basil, and olive oil from olives that grew in the backyard. There were onions in the sauce, and some chile peppers, but no garlic. It was so simple and fresh; it really was about the purity of the ingredients.
In the late ’90s, at Local, I made a puree of beets garnished with grilled asparagus and ginger crème fraîche. The color of the soup was fuchsia. It brought borscht to a whole new level.
Pan-roasted sea scallops
At Local, I pan-roasted scallops and put them on top of a crab cake with no filler to hold it together. There was a touch of mayo and I served it with sweet corn chowder. It was the perfect harmony of flavors. We sold about 50 or 60 a night.
Inspired by the beauty and simplicity I saw while traveling to Spain, I made roasted carabineros—Spanish-style shrimp—at Capitale. They were served in the shell, on a bed of lentils with bits of chorizo and a little lemon oil.
Butter bath steak
At Abe & Arthur’s, I seasoned my steaks—Creekstone Farms’ dry-aged prime beef—with salt and pepper, and then I put them in the hot broiler. When I took them out, I let them rest in a butter bath with shallots, garlic, and rosemary. They soaked it all up and then I threw them back into the broiler for a perfect crust, finished off with sea salt.
Tuna tartare tacos
We sold over 150 orders a night of our tuna tartare tacos at Abe & Arthur’s. Every table got them—sometimes double or triple. I used high-quality ginger oil, chives, homemade guacamole, Sriracha aioli, and sweet soy. It was a play on the Southwest that just worked.
This spring I went to Portugal and had an amazing chicken seasoned with piri piri chile peppers, garlic, lemon, and olive oil. It was an everyday rotisserie restaurant, but the chicken, turning on the grill over coals and served with rice, was just such a simple and clean a dish. When I open my new restaurant it’s something I will most definitely replicate.
They make their own ricotta and mozzarella at La Sorgente in Sorrento, Italy, from the farm’s cows. The ricotta I ate there was seasoned with chile flakes, salt, and a drizzle of olive oil, and served with incredible crusty bread. It was mind-blowing.
Puffed millet salad
I can already tell the Southwest-style puffed millet salad at the Little Beet is going to be popular. It’s almost a riff on guacamole, with fresh tomatoes, avocado, and jalapeño. We toss lime juice and olive oil with the millet, which absorbs all those flavors like a sponge.