By Michelle Farnham
June 13, 2022
SANDESTIN – With a dining empire to run, Chef Emeril Lagasse relies on Chef de Cuisine Frank Szymanski to hold down the fort at Emeril’s Coastal. Chef Frank stepped out of the kitchen long enough to grab a cup of coffee and answer a few questions.
You’ve been at Coastal almost five years now. Share your resume.
I had previously been the chef de cuisine out of the company as well as sous chef for Chef Emeril at NOLA and Emeril’s Gulf Coast Fish House that was in Gulfport, Miss. I had history with Emeril’s, so when I found out they were doing something in this area, I was pretty excited to come down here. I no longer wished to live in New Orleans, and when I heard they were doing something by the beach, I said, ‘I’m in!’ ‘Do you want to know what it is?’ ‘Nope! As long as I’m at the beach!’
What sent you on the road to a culinary career?
I turn 40 this year. I started cooking almost 26 years ago, and people ask how that’s possible, and I say it’s because I started when I was 14. I had a job at a little mom and pop place in Pass Christian, Miss., and they paid me in a little bit of money and lot of food, and that’s how they got around the rules for the first year. You can’t get around that nowadays. We’ve had some younger staff and you have to give them certain breaks and there are things they can’t do, and I think, ‘When I was 14, they had me on the slicer, everything dangerous I could do, I was doing.’
I was a marine biology major years ago and made the transition. I was a chef at a restaurant in Gulfport, Miss., going to USM, when Katrina hit. No school, no job, everything kind of started over. I was in my 20s, almost done with my degree, and I said, ‘I’m going to go to culinary school’ and I went to Johnson & Wales.
Describe your culinary inspiration
I’m from Long Beach, Miss., spent a lot of time in New Orleans – both eating and working – so that’s played a very strong influence in the way I cook. I love Southern food, taking comfort foods and making them a little more refined, but where they still invoke a memory. I love when you eat something, smell something, and it produces a memory. I strive for that.
What is it like to lead an Emeril Lagasse kitchen?
A lot of people ask if it’s stressful working for Chef Emeril, and the answer’s no. It’s exciting. He gives me the opportunity to do what I want, as he does with all his chefs at his different restaurants. We want to make each restaurant different and put our own personal touch on it, so he allows us to have creative freedom. We’re special here because he’s here all the time since he lives here, and it’s a help. His knowledge, the way he teaches the cooks, it’s so nice having him in the house. The cooks actually miss him when he’s not here. The vibe is a little different when he’s in the house, the customers are excited because they can see him. But we work like he’s here no matter what.
What does a typical day look like?
For a restaurant that only does dinner and Sunday brunch, we’re here a long time before the doors ever open. Usually I open at 7 a.m., we start checking in orders, I talk to seafood purveyors and they tell me what they’ve got coming in. I look at the books for the night to see how many customers we have coming in and start creating the menu for the night. We do a lot of whole fish preparations and that’s a fun thing for me in the morning, to find the fish that I’m going to serve that night.
After that, I walk around tasting things. Once we get through the morning, the cooks start coming in between 1 and 2, setting up their stations, getting their mise en place together. Sous Chef Tommy Wachter and I start deciding who’s going to make what that night and go over it with the cooks. Usually Tommy, myself or Chef Emeril will make the specials with them, walk them through the dish, so when it’s service time, they’re ready. I’m so lucky to have the staff that I have. Since we’ve re-opened, we’ve retained most of our staff, which is tough to do in this environment. Whether we’re short-handed or not, they get the job done every day.
We have a fairly short service, we open at 4:30 and go until 9, 9:30 on Fridays and Saturdays. We’re busy enough that even seating at 9:30, we’re still cooking until 10:30 every night. In the summertime we get out of here at 1 in the morning and we do it all again the next day. A typical day here is pretty long, but we all have each other’s backs. On a normal dinner shift, we’ll have 12 people in the kitchen, plus Chef Tommy and myself. That goes up in the summertime. We’re a pretty tight-knit crew and it takes a lot to produce the kind of food we’re producing.
Tell us about your namesake dish, Frank’s Honey Butter Fried Chicken.
When I’m off work, I eat a lot of simple foods: tacos, pizza, fried chicken. A few years ago, a table asked me to make fried chicken, so I did and they loved it. They asked for it again, then another table, and it became this thing if you called a day ahead, you could get Frank’s fried chicken. During truffle season, I’d come out and shave truffles on it, and it became this very special thing. At least once or twice a week, someone was coming in for it, and we’d do different sides with it, just having fun with it.
When we re-opened and were trying to come up with a chicken dish, Chef Emeril said, ‘Just do your fried chicken! It will give people from out of town the opportunity to get it.’ We started and it sells very well. We do a 24-hour brine with a buttermilk wash with a ‘very secret’ spice blend in the flour. We drizzle a little honey butter on the top, and if someone wants truffles, we’ll do that too. It’s pretty yummy.
What is your favorite thing on the menu to cook?
That’s tough. It’s whatever I’m cooking at the moment, but I get excited about our fish dishes. We always have at least three Gulf fish that we can do different preparations: a grouper, snapper, swordfish, cobia, wahoo done broiled, seared in a cast iron skillet, grilled, fried. Each one has different sets with sauces and sides. I get excited changing up the sets, like a grilled set with a salsa verde with capers and soft herbs, local vegetables and a saffron orzo. The fish are the same year-round, but switching things up because of the season, when it’s cold outside some Brussels sprouts or sweet potatoes or parsnips, those are exciting changes.
How was Emeril’s Carnivale du Vin in November?
All Emeril’s chefs from around the country go each year. In 2020 with Covid, we did a virtual event, and it just wasn’t the same, so this was the first year back. I had fun. I bought a beautiful 130-pound bluefin tuna loin, Osetra caviar, sea urchin, and made lobster oil with tarragon and smoked paprika, micro pickled vegetables. It was a very, very good dish and represented what we do here: super-fresh uni, beautiful caviar, a beautiful piece of fish. I don’t want to smother things with cream sauces – I love butter, it has its place – but we want to let the seafood speak for itself.
What do you like to do on your day off?
I love to fish, believe it or not. A lot of the fish we serve here are fish I like to catch in my own time. I try to get out 10, 15 times a year, at least. I grew up fishing on the Gulf Coast, I did a lot of in-shore fishing. As I got older, I started making more trips off-shore. Anything I can do that involves water, I’m in.
Other than that, I love movies. I was excited when the theater next door opened back up. A lot of times if I open and I get to sneak out of here at a decent hour, I’ll run next door and watch a movie. I love to read, but I try to do as much outdoor stuff as I can because I’m inside here so much.