L.A.’s French Cuisine Pioneer Moves North
Chef Ken Frank opened his first La Toque restaurant in Los Angeles in 1979, just shy of his 24th birthday, and he soon showed the culinary world both that he was serious about French cooking and that he could cook modern French food on a level as yet unseen on the West Coast.
“Americans were chomping at the bit for an American to come along and challenge these stodgy Frenchmen who were cooking at the time,” Frank says. “I was good, I was crazy, so I got a lot of attention and diners were tired of French restaurants telling them they had to eat this or eat that.”
Frank first fell in love with French cuisine at age 15, when his family spent a year in a village of 307 people near Lake Geneva. His family returned to Southern California, but Frank stayed on for another summer, returning again the summer before his senior high school year.
“I just fell in love with the whole French way of life, eating in particular,” he recalls. “I wanted to learn how to make some of the food I had become accustomed to eating because I was not going home without knowing. I was going to continue eating this way.”
Frank perfected a very personal cooking style over the decades in Los Angeles, with a French-influenced focus on fresh vegetables, fresh fish, dishes he had learned to make in France, and others of his own creation. But by the time he was pushing 40, he felt he needed to heed the long-time siren call of the Napa Valley, opening the next iteration of La Toque in Rutherford, in the heart of Northern California Wine Country. The raves quickly followed, and the seats filled.
“Napa Valley seemed to be the kind of place that would allow me to run the kind of restaurant I could run and still support myself, and be a beautiful place to live,” he notes. “I have always had an affinity for Northern California, the farmers’ markets, the weather, the people, the culture of eating; it’s a little more European.”
Two years ago, Frank, 53, never one to sit idly by, challenged himself again by moving the celebrated La Toque down the road to the town of Napa—in the midst of its own impressive revitalization—within the serenely luxurious walls of the new Westin Verasa. “For my entire career, my focus has been on getting better, doing things differently and, if you can make your own path, you’re a fool not to,” Frank says. “Change is good; I built a bigger kitchen and now have twice the number of options.”
Frank went from a set five-course menu at the Rutherford location to a choice of three, four, five or seven, depending on his patrons’ appetite, their budget, and their mood. Frank sees his menu as a current set list reflective of the seasons, what’s coming in fresh from local gardens or farms, and the players he has in the kitchen.
To wit, a favorite recent dish was a warm Maine lobster with roasted sweet potato salad, dressed in crème fraiche and bits of succulent bacon. Frank also loves to cook game birds and can’t get enough of wild mushrooms. “It’s a gift from nature,” he says. “You can’t have it when you want it—only when it’s available. There’s something pure about something you have less power over.”