How a Reality TV Cooking Show Helped Create Dallas' Coolest Underground Supper Club
Frank chefs Jennie Kelley, left, and Ben Starr first met as contestants on season two of MasterChef.
Frank Underground/Melissa Hennings
A group of strangers gather at sunset in Deep Ellum, huddled next to a trendy loft door in the shadow of I-75. Someone pulls out their iPhone, looking for instructions on how to get into the building. No one knows exactly where they're going, but they talk excitedly about how they got here.
"We may or may not have set Facebook to get notifications," an older couple says, noting how many times they failed at their attempt to be right here, in this unfamiliar space, about to dine with two dozen complete strangers on a Sunday evening.
Inside the high-ceiling loft where dinner preparations are well underway, a long table stretches through the open room as people mill about making introductions and sipping sparkling wine. The difficult process to get in, the young chefs toiling away in the nearby kitchen, the reclaimed wood table inside a trendy loft belonging to a member of the Polyphonic Spree — it's hard not to feel just a little bit cool at Frank Underground, a little like the one percent of trendiness, if not the one percent as determined by wealth. Not that money doesn't factor in a little — at $150 a head, suggested, Frank Underground is not accessible to all. But then again, if it was, it wouldn't exactly be an underground supper club.
Frank's origin story is befitting of the experience. Jennie Kelley, a member of the Polyphonic Spree, went to an underground dinner while touring Europe with the band and loved the concept. She started dreaming up Frank but knew she needed help making it a reality. In 2012, she was a finalist on MasterChef season two — with fellow North Texan Ben Starr.
Left: A peaches and cream salad with prosciutto (inspired by gender-bending musician Peaches and the Snoop Dogg song "Peaches and Cream"). Right: A tobacco chocolate milkshake inspired by Kelis' song "Milkshake" and Rufus Wainwright's "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk." Both were served at a recent Frank Underground dinner called "Side B," which featured courses inspired by songs.
Frank Underground/Melissa Hennings
"When I met Ben on MasterChef and realized we only lived 20 minutes apart, and had very similar ideas about food and how it has enormous power to bring people — even strangers — together, I asked if he'd be interested in partnering with me in making Frank a reality," Kelley says. "Two years into it, Adrien (Nieto), also from MasterChef, came out to help with a New Year's Eve dinner and also fell in love with the concept, and he's been a part of the team for the past two years."
A few years into running Frank, they've got the system down pretty well. Diners join an email list and about a week before the dinner, organizers open the guest list and interested diners enter their names into a lottery for the few available seats. With thousands of North Texans on the email list and only a few seats at each dinner, it's not always easy to get into Frank — but the people who do get in seem to know that they're the lucky dining elite.
"There is no rhyme nor reason to the panoply of diners that have graced our table," Kelley says. "We'll see struggling art students sitting next to oil magnates, doctors sitting next to mechanics, Olympic athletes and line cooks sitting next to accountants and attorneys; and the ages at our table have ranged from 9 to 86. The only thing these people have in common is that they love food and yearn for a non-traditional dining experience — or they've been invited by someone who does."
At the recent Frank meal, a couple celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary sat next to a couple celebrating their first. At the other end of the table was a family who's been to nearly a dozen Frank dinners, and at my end, a tiny gaggle of 30-something women who'd never been. The biggest rule of Frank is not that it has to be a secret — it has a hashtag, after all — but that getting to know your fellow diners is a must.
"Communal dining is something we both love to do and it's something that's dying in our culture," Starr told the table at the start of the meal. It wasn't hard for diners to find something to talk about — food this good is bound to dominate the conversation.
From a Beeman Ranch prime akaushi tenderloin deviled egg inspired by Old Dirty Bastard's "Shimmy Shimmy Ya" ("Baby I like it raw ...") to a peaches and cream salad inspired by the gender-bending musician Peaches to a meal-ending milkshake that, when opened, released a cloud of smoke, it was a completely memorable meal. The wine pairings were impeccable, the timing of each course perfect, the food meticulously sourced. The underground supper club may be a trendy idea, but the Frank team executes it beautifully.
"We've developed relationships with a number of local farmers that allow us to serve the vast majority of our meats and many of our vegetables and fruit from local North Texas farms," Kelley said. "Most of our eggs come from our own flock of chickens that we raised from two days out of the shell. We usually plan our menu around what is available locally and seasonally, but if our menu dictates that we need to reach beyond North Texas, we stick to greater Texas whenever possible."
So in an era of fawning food journalism and social media, when even underground supper clubs have their own Facebook and Instagram accounts, is anything really "underground" anymore? Kelley and Starr think so. As the underground supper club has ballooned in popularity, they've kept to the traditions that make Frank, well, Frank. Every meal has a theme and no dish is ever served twice, making every meal a unique experience.
Recent dinners have been held at Jennie Kelley's Deep Ellum loft apartment, but Frank Underground dinners have been held on rooftops, in a photography studio and on farms where Frank sources its ingredients.
Frank Underground/Melissa Hennings
"When you take the full spectrum of 'underground' dining, from chef popups to supper clubs to underground restaurants, there's very little these have in common with each other, beyond the fact that they are ephemeral events," Kelley said. "They are not open in a singular location on a regular basis. That's the only thing they share."
The Frank team tries to throw eight dinners a month, but "since all three chefs have other careers, the stars have to align perfectly for us to do Frank," Kelley says. "Sometimes (like in May) we can't host any dinners. But we try to make up for it, like we're doing by hosting 15 dinners in June."
This month's meals have all focused on dishes inspired by songs, and it's proven so popular that Frank was hosting up to five a week.
If you didn't already make the cut for this round, you're out of luck — that's just how it goes with Frank. Sometimes cancellations are announced on their Facebook page and the quickest of the bunch can grab a last-minute spot, but your best bet is to join the email address and wait for an invitation to the next round. Once your name is in the hat, you just have to cross your fingers and hope for the best.
At the beginning of the night, when everyone is sheepish and still making introductions, Starr and Kelley always give a brief talk on what Frank is — and why it is. "What we at Frank like to do is cook for complete strangers," Starr said. "Welcome to the family."
(Be sure to read the rest of our counterculture guide to Dallas.)
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