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Chef Frank Brunacci on Cooking for the Trump Family and the Quintessential Chicago Ingredient

06/14/2010 02:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Claire Bidwell Smith Los Angeles-based grief therapist and author of the memoir 'The Rules of Inheritance'

It was recently lobster week in Chef Frank Brunacci's kitchen.

What does that mean? Only that he featured an entire menu based around lobster for one week in May at his restaurant Sixteen, on the 16th floor of the Trump Tower in Chicago.

After cutting his teeth at Les Saveurs Restaurant in London, Australian-born Brunacci went on to open the Ritz Carlton, Buckhead in Atlanta. After that he opened Victor's in New Orleans, which earned five diamonds after just 13 months.

Brunacci is now happily heading up the kitchen at Sixteen where he turns out plates that smack of creativity, surprise and serious culinary finesse. I recently had a chance to talk to him about his cuisine.

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Claire Bidwell Smith: Every night at Sixteen brings a new menu, showcasing the creative freedom you're known for exercising. After so many meals on so many nights, what's been inspiring you these days?

Frank Brunacci: Sustainability/pasture to plate is all the rage right now, and my cuisine is definitely inspired by the local farmers and the product that is available to me within a 100-mile radius. To see the bounty that is available in our own backyard is enlightening, and it has allowed us to evolve the cuisine at Sixteen from great to superb.

CBS: What do your native Australians think of you focusing on modern American cuisine at Sixteen? Do you ever feel pressure to be more faithful to your country, or is it just completely fun to perfect another culture's cuisine?

FB: I call myself a modern chef. If I were in Portugal, my cuisine would be modern Portuguese...the flavors of the world have come a lot closer together so I love to utilize every ingredient I can get my hands on when it is in season. As for the Aussies, they are very supportive of my style and appreciate that I do on occasion bring in product from the homeland (even if they all say that I am starting to sound like a Yank). I love this country...but I suppose you can never take the Aussie out of me; I'll always be a larrikin.

CBS: For the past 2 years, you've been hosting "Australia Week." When is the next one and what's can we expect?

FB: We have held Australia Week for two years now, always coinciding with the country's national holiday (Australia Day) and with the Australia Day Ball that is hosted by the Australian Consulate at Trump Chicago. This year, we grew the event to include a celebrity guest chef - Simon Bryant from the State of South Australia; a collaborative dinner between the two of us; a special tasting menu that was offered for a week; and a walk-around charitable event featuring the finest in Australian food, wine, beer, art, jewelry, travel and more.

Bringing in a guest chef was a real crowd-pleaser, and we hope to do that again 2011, and probably bring the chef over even earlier so we can really showcase the talent that Australia bears in the kitchen. I see this event growing to be bigger and better one year from the next. My friends at Austrade are all incredibly supportive and are already asking about and signing up for next year.

CBS: Summer is almost here. What are some dishes or ingredients you plan on showcasing this season?

FB: With the weather we've been having, we've already started. Morels, fiddleheads, fava beans and white asparagus are already being utilized throughout our menu at Sixteen and will continue to play a role while they're in season. The spirit of Chicago truly comes alive with the warm sunshine, and I consider it the restaurant's duty to fill the city up with the best ingredients that represent the season. You never see people smiling in restaurants as you do in the spring and summer.

CBS: I've heard you're finalizing the plans for your "Feasting at Sixteen" series--one week dedicated to one ingredient. Can you explain exactly what this experience is going to be like?

FB: We just completed "beef week", and lobster week is next. I really like the "Feasting" series because it provides an opportunity to showcase many varieties of different species of certain ingredients and bring them all under one roof. Our guests loved beef week and I have equally high expectations for lobster, prairie produce and pork weeks in the future.

CBS: The dining room at Sixteen, although simple and somewhat intimate, could easily be the most elegant in the city. I think people expect it to be show-y and maybe gaudy since it's associated with Donald Trump. Did you have any input on the design, or were you just as surprised as many others have been?

FB: Mr. Trump's children, most notably Ivanka, were the driving force behind the design. I didn't know what to expect going into it, but when I started interviewing with the property it was after talks had ended with a very, very high profile chef. So I knew that this place was going to be uber-special, even if it was draped in gold. I was really thrilled when I finally saw the space - the modern elegance of the room and the views literally took my breath away. It's really a joy to come to work every day and produce beautiful food in such an amazing setting.

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CBS: Can you tell me what the last dish Donald Trump requested when in town?

FB: I love cooking for the Trump family because they really allow me and the team to showcase our talents. On a recent visit, Ivanka actually finished her dessert on the line in the kitchen, and she couldn't have been more kind; that really got my chefs here really connected with the fact that we're working for a wonderful family. Most of our cooks never get to see our guests, and to have had the chance to interact with Ivanka and receive such a warm response had them on high for weeks.

CBS: You're both a father and a chef. What is happening in your kitchen at home? Have your children shown any interest in cooking?

FB: My daughter and I often cook and bake together, especially during the holidays. We video record our kitchen "episodes" for YouTube and share it with our faraway relatives...she really knows how to turn on the charm, especially when baking cookies for Santa! My wife and I also talk a lot about the importance of buying a variety of high quality ingredients. This allows our children to taste food at its best and the ingredients themselves need very little handling or cooking when they're of great quality. To see a child light up when they take in a new or different ingredient is priceless...it's getting them to like it a second time that poses the biggest challenge.

CBS: A new pastry chef recently joined Sixteen's kitchen. Tell us a bit about her. How do your styles compliment each other's and what's your favorite dessert of hers?

FB: Sarah Kosikowski has impressed me from the very beginning. Her interview with me was to sit down and let me cook for her. I needed her to understand my philosophy when it comes to the style and vision of the cuisine. Despite the fact that she is a vegetarian, that didn't stop me from sending her every dish I wanted her to see - from fish to lamb, so she could really see the style of our food in all of its glory, even if she couldn't necessarily taste it. She is a true match for us in terms of her style. Like Sixteen's menu, she is constantly innovating and changing the dessert offering and evolving as a chef. The greatest compliment to a meal at Sixteen is one of her desserts. I am very fortunate to have her as part of my team.

CBS: What chefs or restaurants in Chicago are you enjoying right now? Anyone under the radar that you expect big things from in the future?

FB: I wouldn't say he is under the radar, but Curtis Duffy is gonna rock this world. One of the best meals of my life was at Avenues. I have also been "bromantic" with Phillip Foss form Lockwood since my introduction to Chicago. Phillip is doing a ton of community things and he will be one to watch in the future for sure...

CBS: One ingredient to represent the city of Chicago. What is it and why?

FB: The cliché answer would be beef. But I'm not going to say that! I have to say that ramps represent the city. When ramps are in season, it is the sign that the sun is finally here and that warmer days are ahead after a long winter. And we all know how much Chicagoans love the summer - it's why most people say they live here! Every restaurant is cooking with ramps right now, which will be followed closely by corn. I say bring on the sunshine!

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