Chef Franklin Becker continues to introduce new concepts after the success of The Little Beet, The Little Beet Table and Hungryroot. The former chef of Hotel Americano recently opened a food hall called Manhattanville Market at Columbia University’s Manhattanville Campus, a hotel in Herald Square and more ghost kitchens in Philadelphia. He opened Universal Taco in March, expanding the ghost kitchen offering delivery to include chicken wings and pickup in May. We checked in then to hear about the concept and menu development.
How did the concept come about?
My inspiration was definitely COVID. Nobody’s traveling, we’re stuck at home, we can’t get from place to place. I love Mexican food, I love the tortilla especially, and I was thinking about the tortilla as a vehicle for distribution of international flavors. At the end of the day, a moo shu pancake is a flour tortilla. The pancake on peking duck is a flour tortilla. I looked at the tortilla as an airplane that was going to take me from country to country to country. A pita bread: flour tortilla. A Greek gyro: flour tortilla. And then I paired the corn with the ones that made the most sense.
Then we took Universal Taco and made it Universal Taco with wings. We did the same thing with chicken wings. They’re just fun foods to eat. You eat them by hand. Everyone has a variation of them. It was apropos that we were all stuck in our homes and we couldn’t travel: Here you go. We’re going to take you on a ride.
What’s your relationship to travel?
I love to travel. I travel around the world and try to absorb as much out of the cultures as possible. I deep dive into cultures. Especially if there’s something I enjoy, I like to understand how it’s made. I like to really get in there.
How do you approach R&D?
We have a pretty good team. Kevin Garcia, who heads my culinary division, is a seasoned chef. He was at Del Posto as the chef de cuisine for the opening, he was the chef at Rana Pasta, and Rana Pastaficio e Cucina. He’s a force on our tasting team. Chris Strelnick, our executive chef at our Manhattanville project up by Columbia — super creative, was Paul Liebrandt’s executive sous at The Elm, was Jose Garces and Chris Lee’s sous chef at Amada and Gilt respectively, so he’s on our team. Dan Drohan, who was the executive chef at Otto for 15 years, Reggie Soang, who was Wylie Dufresne’s sous chef.
We all sit in this box together, and I come up with the ideas and the end results and how we’re going to flavor them and how it’s going to be, but I let my guys dig in with me and we all create iterations, and we take a little bit from Peter and a little bit from Paul and we combine them and we create the end result. At the end of the day, I always have the final say on where it’s going to be, but if somebody creates something that’s better than what I create, I’m happy to put it on the menu. I’m happy to give them credit. It’s a really collaborative effort.
How’d you develop the tortillas?
We bought a molinillo and we were nixtamalizing our own corn and processing and grinding it. Then we discovered this incredible guy, Zack Wangeman. He worships corn. He’s all about making the perfect tortilla. We ate at his restaurant and had what we thought was the perfect tortilla, but we still wanted to make it ourselves. We have him nixtamalizing the corn and grinding it for us and delivering the masa, and then we press them and make them. The flour tortillas we make ourselves.
We have two guys, one’s from Puebla and one’s from Jalisco, and they’ve been on my team for 10 or 12 years and they have a field day pressing the tortillas out and cooking them. We just have a ball.
The flour tortilla would typically and classically be lard with flour, but we use butter. It’s literally flour, butter and water, nothing more. We use organic flour, it’s a multi-day process: We make the dough and let it rest, we portion the dough and let it rest. We don’t want the gluten to develop too much and make the tortilla tough. Then we press it out in the tortilla press and we cook it. We pull it, wrap them up, stack them. And we take them out to order and throw them back on the plancha and cook them the rest of the way. They’re always tender, always pliable, they have just the right amount of structure. They’re really good. We make about 720 corn and 780 flour tortillas every week.
What inspires new dishes?
We live in the greatest city. Even though we’ve been struck by COVID and it’s been disastrous for a little while, it’s still the greatest city with pockets of culture everywhere. Take that coupled with all my travels, and how much I research and love cookbooks and I deep dive. If I’m going to create a recipe, I want that recipe to be as authentic as possible, I want it to be as rich as possible. I’ll take everybody’s opinions and I’ll collect what everyone thinks in my mind and shoot it out into the end result. I trust my palate, I trust my team’s palates. Thankfully, that’s been successful.
What was the inspiration for peking duck?
I’ve been eating duck my whole life whether in Chinatown, Vancouver, British Columbia, San Francisco, any of the Chinese communities. Oddly, I’ve oddly never traveled to Asia. But I traveled to Asia being a Jewish kid growing up in Brooklyn many a time on a Sunday just hitting the local Chinese restaurant.
Duck is an incredible animal. It’s fatty on the outside but lean on the inside and if you can figure out a way to create the texture and play with it, there’s a lot that can be done with duck. So we took the premise of peking duck, which is obviously cooking a whole roast duck and blowing its skin open and letting it smoke and render out, and we took that premise and turned it on its head a little bit.
The Dish: Peking Duck Taco with Scallions, Cucumber Salad and Hoison
We took the idea of duck confit and imparted it into the peking duck model. We actually make duck confit that’s flavored the way a peking duck would be flavored: classic French techniques that I’ve learned through my career, imparting these new spices for duck confit into the mix and then creating the beautiful, rich, decadent meat that’s on the inside of the taco. We added the hoisin sauce that would typically be served with it. We added scallions that would typically be served with it. Then we took cucumbers that would typically be served with it and added a pickled element and a spice element. I treated them the way a banh mi sandwich would maybe be treated with sesame seeds, rice wine vinegar, Thai sweet chili sauce, pickled ginger all come together on these thinly sliced cucumbers adding acid, spice and sweetness to the top of the peking duck and then of course a handmade flour tortilla.
We started with a basic roasted duck and that didn’t meet our expectations, so we decided to do a peking duck and went through the smoking process and it didn’t yield enough product for it to be a cost-effective menu item, hence the reason why Chinese restaurants charge so much for peking duck. We asked what we could do that would allow us to make this a viable product for the menu and we fell upon the confit method. That was the progression for how we got there and the iterations were: We want to make it true to the peking duck, we also wanted to make it true to Mexico so we actually took condensed milk and combined it with soy sauce and peking duck fat to produce that thick mouthfeel that would be typical of a peking duck. You get that unctuousness and crispiness. We needed to replicate that but couldn’t afford to replicate it in its traditional form.
The Mexican element is very important in all of our tacos. The whole thing is centered around the tortilla. We know what pico de gallo and make Israeli pico de gallo or Greek pico de gallo. It was very important in our heads to create a balance, and we also wanted to make sure that things that are present in typical tacos are present here: Is there a heat element? Is there a fatty element? Is there a sweet element? How do we make these tortillas and tacos stand out?
How do you train your staff to recreate it?
We standardize recipes using meez. We really hone in on every aspect of the recipe. When we calculate, we take our traditional mindset of a confit and salt and marinate the duck in its dry phase before it’s going into the fat with the aromatics and everything is calculated down to the gram because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to replicate these recipes consistently from day to day. Then we use technology like the Rational to make sure we’re at the right temperature.
It’s a combination of data technology from meez coupled with our experiences coupled with our equipment. We even impart the smoke into it from an oven we have that’s made by Josper in partnership with Jade and we’ll do a cold smoke on the duck legs before they go into the fat so we’re getting as true of a flavor to the traditional peking duck as we possibly can. We buy D’Artagnan’s duck fat. We combine all of these different elements to produce the end result.
What else is taken into account?
It’s really important to gauge how we’re doing. When we put everything into meez, if something doesn’t fit financially, we stray away from that because at the end of the day we’re a business. We have to make money and we have talent. We can be endless with that talent. We all know how to work with truffles and foie gras and duck and these expensive ingredients but how can you make that affordable and bring it to the table in the best way? That’s what we’re always focusing on in our R&D process.
I’m at our food hall in Columbia that’s going to open soon and I have my FarmShelf, three of them, growing Portuguese kale, basil and different ingredients. We want to use those in dishes that we’re selling for less than $10. We figure out ways to do it. We don’t want guests to suffer from inferior products. We want everyone to get the best possible end result.
How do you train at different locations?
We go in as a swarm of bees and we hand hold for the first two to four weeks. There’s an executive chef on every station working with the cooks one-on-one teaching them what to look for while standardizing everything about the process. There are plans for everything. We go into all the minutia because we want to scale these businesses and we can’t do that without systems and procedures set up.
What has your experience taught you about recipe development?
I went from fine dining to fast casual to manufacturing, back to fast casual and fine dining again because I’m opening up three hotels this year coupled with all my casual ventures. Manufacturing taught me the most because it is so specific, literally down to milliliters and grams, but I’ve also learned that no matter how many recipes you have, no two animals are the same, no two vegetables are the same, so there’s going to be different water contents that have to be factored in. Even flour, producing dough for our pizza concepts: Humidity affects the flour, hydration affects the flour, hydration levels need to be monitored, everything needs to be altered. It’s an ongoing process: You can’t just rely on a recipe, the R&D process is constantly evolving.
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