WINTER 2014 / VOL. 14 ISSUE 1
Gaelic Foodies
 

Brian Frakes
Pfister Hotelís Frakes Adds Dash of
Viking to Irish Cool

By Martin Hintz

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Brian Frakes, executive chef in Milwaukeeís venerable, century-plus Pfister Hotel, has more than a bit of the Irish in him, even if he is a native of Brookfield, Wis. Thereís a twist in that family tree, as well. His mom Karen is from the Finnish side of the family, hitting a 100% heritage mark with the last name of Partanen. Both sets of those great-grandparents were directly from Finland. 

Frakes said his dadís side has the Irish connection, to balance that Scandinavian influence. His mom went long with all that Irish stuff, he confided, chuckling that the Finns were among the Vikings and probably plundered Ireland once or twice.

"Itís worth noting I got in a lot of trouble saying mom wasnít that good of a cook," he laughed about about comment he made a few years back. "Had to send flowers, was a little bit of a misquote! However, she did a pretty darn good job keeping us Irish boys well fed," he admitted admiringly of her pot roast and rice casserole made with Irish ingredients, of course.

Frakesí great-great grandpa immigrated to Ohio via Canada. His great- grandpa then moved to Wisconsin. His grandpa, Russel Frakes, had eight children. One of them was Frakesí dad, Harley.

Frakes has done his own galavanting, as well. At 15, he got his first job in a restaurant, where cooking meant extra money to help with college. Nearing the end of securing a psychology degree at Florida State, he considered heading back into the kitchen, with cooking as a career. The culinary bug bit hard, so he dove into the food world, albeit on a higher level than his kid days doing dishes. 

Frakes sharpened his skills at Florida's Boca Raton Resort, then chefed at the upscale Bel Age Hotel in West Hollywood. He returned to his hometown in 2006. "After working my way through West Palm Beach and Los Angeles, it was the perfect way to move back home. And Iím incredibly proud to be the chef of the 120-year-old grande dame," he said of the Pfister where he can indulge some of his dishes with good old-fashioned Wisconsin bacon, cream and butter.

But Frakes didnít just walk into the place and take over. For management, he had to perform an 11-course tasting menu in the hotelís original main kitchen. "They liked it a lot," he said. A typical cooking interview maxes out at three courses, so he really showed his culinary stuff. Frakes feels the spirits of past chefs hovering around the Pfister kitchen, offering suggestions. He agrees that If there are ghosts in the old hotel, they were certainly the cooks. 

"We take the tradition of cuisine here very seriously and want to continue to carry on what those who came before us have established," he asserted. Frakes will also be working in Irish dishes such as salmon and stews to the Pfister menu, especially for March. Frakes isnít sure there were any other Irish chefs in the hotelís long culinary lineage but he just came across a menu from 1962 with corned beef, young cabbage and steamed potatoes. The price was $1.30.

Hotel chefing is not different than that in restaurants or resorts. Itís all cooking, Frakes said. He loves sharing his experience, citing his passion for teaching. "There are no less than 15 former cooks of mine who are now executive chefs around the country. People say Iím the creative type. Yet we are only as good as the last plate we serve. That keeps us very motivated," he added. Frakes also holds regular cooking classes and is happy to give demonstrations, enjoying the chance to share his love of food and food prep.

Frakes is generally free to develop his own menus, rather than rely on directives that come down from on high. "I have matured enough to know the DNA of each of our outlets and stay true to that, while staying ahead of the current trends in the culinary world. Sure, we have some sacred dishes that will always be part of our tradition here at the Pfister," he confirmed. Guests can even order off-the menu. "We never say no at the Pfister," he exclaimed.

Hotel owners Greg Marcus and his dad Steve visit often, especially enjoying the signature Mason Street Grill. They are wonderful supporters of the hotelís restaurants, according to Frakes. "They are very passionate about food and beverage," said Frakes proudly.

But back to the Irish. "My brothers and I have always celebrated St. Patís day a little more than everyone else," Frakes said. "The Irish flag and green clothing have always been part of our regular wardrobe. In college, I designed a Green Bay Packer tattoo adorned with Irish clovers that resides on my left arm," offered, pointing out his body artwork. More clovers are being planned, he hinted.

For another touch of the Celtic, one daughter is 4-year-old McRae, "which was going to be the name of our daughter even if she were a son," he laughed. The story goes, that when emigrating to the United States, the family name was McRae and was changed to Frakes. He admitted that it was a little unclear as to when or where that happened. He and his wife Gina Chirchirillo Frakes, have another daughter, Tiana, 5. Gina happens to be of Italian background.

Heís always been partial to movies with an Irish accent, enjoying such productions as Far and Away. The 1992 Ron Howard film features Joseph Donnelly (Tom Cruise) as an impoverished 19th-century Irish tenant farmer who lost both his father and his home to the evil landlordís agents. On a mission to avenge the injustice, the hero meets the landlord's daughter and the two run off to America together. Just as they should.

Even with his hectic schedule at the hotel, Frakes finds time to roam around Milwaukee Irish Fest every year, loving the Celtic dancing and music, the mead and the people. Although heís never been to Ireland, Frakes indicated heíd like to pursue his heritage, following in his dadís footstep tracking down the familyís roots. "If I had the time Iíd love to dig in deeper, it fascinates me. I know there are a lot of Frakes and we did stop on a road trip in Kentucky to take a picture of street named Frakes.

As a chef, Frakes likes to experiment with the Irish style of cooking, with lots of root vegetables, fish and lamb He loves the comfort of Irish cuisine. "I enjoy doing modern twists with the classic ingredients," he said. "I really enjoy coddle. Love me some Guinness! Smithwickís and Bass ale too! The perfect beer is a black and tan," he pointed out, recalling that he first drink that beverage as a sous chef on Marthaís Vineyard in the Ď90s and have loved it ever since.

Thatís not bad for a half-Finn.
 
 
For more information on The Pfister Hotel, check out www.thepfisterhotel.com.

 


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