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Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Bill Cawthon of Frankly on Cherokee Is Cooking Up STL's Best Fish Fry

Posted By on Tue, Mar 12, 2019 at 9:00 AM

click to enlarge Bill Cawthon. - MABEL SUEN
  • Bill Cawthon.
Bill Cawthon was a sixteen-year-old kid, hanging out around the house and not doing much of anything, to the annoyance of his future brother-in-law. The situation so irked his friend that he offered the younger kid a job at the restaurant where he worked.

Little did Cawthon know, that part-time job would change his life.

"It was dumb luck, really," Cawthon says. "My brother-in-law got me a job washing dishes in a seafood restaurant in west county because I was doing nothing but sitting on the couch. One day, the salad guy called out sick, and it all started there. I've never done anything different in my entire life except work in kitchens."

For Cawthon, the owner of Frankly on Cherokee (2744 Cherokee Street, 314-325-3013) and the Frankly Sausages (@FranklySausages) food truck, work in the kitchen was appealing because of the hands-on nature of the learning process. He liked that he could get into cooking by figuring it out on his own, and he brought that ethos with him as he moved from the seafood restaurant to several different restaurants around town.

But once he realized that cooking was his life's calling, Cawthon wanted a more formal education. He enrolled at the Culinary Institute of American in New York where he developed the skills that would lead him to the high-end restaurants of Manhattan.

He would not stay in New York for long, though, feeling the pull of warmer weather and — more importantly, his future wife, Jamie — in California. When he arrived in Los Angeles, he landed a position as sous chef at the elegant restaurant Culina, learning all he could about Italian cuisine under acclaimed chef Victor Casanova. When Casanova left Culina to open the well-received Gusto, Cawthon followed, soaking up as much knowledge from his mentor and living his passion for upscale Italian cooking.

"I was my happiest working at these fine-dining Italian spots in L.A.," Cawthon explains. "I got to create and loved the cooking, but I also got to learn how to run a kitchen properly."

As much as Cawthon loved his professional life in Los Angeles, he would again feel the pull to make a move across the country for love. Jamie Cawthon had grown increasingly homesick and wanted to start a family. Knowing she wanted to do this all closer to home led the couple to return to St. Louis with the intention of opening a place of their own.

Rather than diving head-first into restaurant ownership, however, Bill Cawthon decided to survey the city's dining scene first. As he explains it, he wanted to work for "an old-school chef and a new-school chef," a strategy that led him to "new-school" Gerard Craft's kitchen at Pastaria. There, Cawthon got to indulge in his passion for Italian cooking and pasta-making and became the restaurant's chef de cuisine.

Eventually, Cawthon left Pastaria to work for the local culinary legend Bill Cardwell at his now-shuttered Plaza Frontenac restaurant. The experience not only pushed his knowledge and skill level, but developed into a mentorship and friendship with the famed chef.

"I've worked for a lot of people, but I have never had a chef or owner who was 65 years old and busting his ass in the kitchen to make sure everything was done right," Cawthon says of Cardwell. "He's straightforward with you and he takes care of his employees. He cares about your family and your kids and wants to know what you're thinking about new concepts and new ideas. There is no down time for him."

The encouragement from Cardwell gave Cawthon both the mental and actual support he'd need to open his own business. Cawthon had come up with the idea for a concept that revolved around artisanal sausages, and he and his wife had been recruited by the owners of Six Mile Bridge Beer to turn that idea into the food service for their brewery. The Cawthons decided that a food truck would be the right move, and they got to work creating Frankly Sausages.

Cawthon thought his new business would mean he'd have to leave Cardwell's. Instead, he found in its eponymous owner not just a willingness to let him stay on, but also the generous offer to use the Cardwell's kitchen as a commissary.

"Frankly was built out of Cardwell's," Cawthon says. "Here I thought I was going to get fired when I told him what I was doing, and instead, Bill asks me, 'How can I help?'"

Frankly Sausages quickly developed a name for itself and began to grow out of the capacity provided by Cardwell's kitchen. Cawthon and his wife realized that they needed their own space, and they also decided the brand was ready for a brick and mortar. That happened in November 2017 when the Cawthons opened Frankly on Cherokee.

In the months since, Cawthon has received praise for how well he has brought a fine-dining approach to a fast-casual concept — and an almost religious devotion to his shockingly good French fries. He admits that he still has in him the passion for upscale dining, which he allows that to creep into some of the interesting sausage flavors, off-the-menu specials, and his weekly Lenten fish fry, which regulars say is the best in the city.

"I'm able to be creative and get the instant gratification that comes from putting so much into a dish, then dropping it in front of them and having them say, 'Wow, this is good,'" Cawthon says. "It's what I love about restaurants. It's all I've ever done and all I will ever do, if I have anything to say about it."

Cawthon took a break from frying up fish for the Lenten event to share his thoughts on the St. Louis food-and-beverage scene, the chefs he has his eye on, and why it's dangerous for him to be located in a neighborhood with such good Mexican food.

What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
We do a lot more than just sausages, but I think that people that come down to the restaurant are starting to find that out. Also, I am a lot nicer than I let on.

What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
Coffee, no matter what. I try to get to Mud House or Sump which are in the neighborhood, but often I brew it at home. Also, I take my kids to school. I love getting to spend the morning with them before we start the daily grind.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
I would love the ability to multiply. Being able to be in a few different places at once is what every person in this industry needs.

What is the most positive thing in food, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
Savage is really pushing the boundaries of what people have seen in St. Louis. That makes me happy even though I’m too abused to ever actually get to go in for dinner. It’s on my list.

What is something missing in the local food, wine or cocktail scene that you’d like to see?
The St. Louis food scene has exploded, and it’s a lot of people sharing their own ideas of what food means to them. I’m looking forward to when St. Louis as a dining destination becomes more defined as a whole. What is St. Louis food beyond the toasted ravs and square pizza?

Who is your St. Louis food crush?
Bill Cardwell — it's complicated. Also, Nick Bognar has been killing it in Ballwin, and I can’t wait to see what he brings to the Botanical Heights neighborhood.

Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene?
Evy Swoboda. The Last Hotel is starting to look like a killer project, and I’m excited to see how it turns out. It’s been a long time since we made pasta together. I'm happy to see her come into her own.

Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
Salt. Too little of me and you’re missing something. Too much and you’re gonna hate me.

If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
I’d be a farmer. We already own the FranklyFarms URL because my wife is a manifester like that.

Name an ingredient never allowed in your restaurant.
I won’t blacklist an ingredient but I will say no to microwaves and pre-made French fries.

What is your after-work hangout?
If I am not going home you can catch me at Louie eating pasta or Olive + Oak getting after their burger.

What’s your food or beverage guilty pleasure?
Tacos, all the tacos. We are surrounded on Cherokee Street. Can’t say I feel guilty about it, though.

What would be your last meal on earth?
The tasting menu from Antico Arco in Rome. It changed my mind about how I cook Italian food.

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