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Chairman of the Board: Franck Pecol

The man behind Franck Bistro reflects on "Freedom fries," working at EPCOT, blackboards and how it feels to turn five.
2012-09-11 13:06:37

Franck Pecol doesn't want to conquer the world. He's perfectly content with his fiefdom in Ferguson Lane. Five years ago it began with an eponymous bistro that had one simple mission statement: No compromise. That's a risky proposition in a city with such shaky supply chains and finicky diners. And yet, the formula has worked. In the meantime, Pecol has expanded his little empire with a super-cool little bar, a pizzeria with French characteristics and in the coming weeks he's got a specialty bakery opening up. Pecol sat down with us last week to tell us about how "Freedom fries" ultimately sent him packing to Shanghai.


SmSh: Where are you from?

Franck Pecol: I'm originally from the south of France ... and I graduated from cooking school in Marseilles. After that I moved to London for my first job. I came back after that and worked in Paris for a while. But basically I have always been traveling since 1985.

SmSh: What was your first job in London?

F.P.: I started to work in a restaurant as a waiter, because the school I went to was a hospitality school. We learned both sides of the house, front and back. We learned cooking and we learned service...

SmSh: How does working in a restaurant in London compare to working in a restaurant in Paris?

F.P.: Hmmm... Wow. I think the difference at the time was that it was just a lot of fun working in London, because it was much more international, the customers were much more easy.

SmSh: Why is that?

F.P.: You know, Parisians are a little bit... difficult.

SmSh: [Laughs] I was hoping you'd say that...

F.P.: Yeah. The English are really fun people. I like their humor, and imagine London in the 80s! It was a fantastic city to be in. A lot of underground music... So after work there was a real life to have. I have to say at the time, though, there really wasn't much going on restaurant-wise. Not very many top-notch concepts. It was still very, very classic. There was not what we had in Paris at the time. You know, like the small bistros. There was nothing compared to what it is now. I mean, now, it is one of the best cities for dining. It's one of my favorite cities for food now.

SmSh: So after London, you head back to Paris. Then what?

F.P.: Straight to the U.S.

SmSh: New York?

F.P.: No. I just got a job with Disney at EPCOT Center. It was in the French Pavilion. I was a waiter there for a year. That was like... [laughing] living the American dream, you know?

SmSh: So your first experience in America was a simulation of France...

F.P.: Yeah! You know, it was Disneyworld. We had a French bakery. There was a Paul Bocuse restaurant. It was great. We were, like, kids. Every day it was packed. The restaurant was quite nice. But, of course, it was old-style, trying to recreate France, with a small Eiffel Tower and stuff. But it was fun. Mostly I learned the Disney way, the attitude, the way to behave and talk to customers. All of the processes of work. You know? They were very square and very respectful. It was a great experience.

SmSh: Right. Say what you will about Disney as an institution. I think it's fair to say that they've got the idea of the customer experience down-pat...

F.P.: Yeah. Exactly. From the minute you got there you could feel that everybody was so nice. And then on the floor, everybody was really, really cool, explaining to you, helping you. And when it was time to do your job, you wanted to give your best.

SmSh: Have you got any dirty Disney secrets you care to share?

F.P.: Yeah. I had a date with Cinderella.

SmSh: Was she American?

F.P.: Yeah. She was.

SmSh: I'm sure she loved your accent...

F.P.: [Laughs] Yeah. She did.

SmSh: How well did the tourist crowd receive French food back then?

F.P.: I think they were pretty receptive because we didn't have anything too weird and authentic -- no blood pudding and stuff like that. It was simple stuff like steak and French fries or veal stew and white sauce. But I have to say that the food was quite good with relation to the kind of volume we were doing.

SmSh: Faux France is one thing. How did you like Orlando, Florida?

F.P.: A lot of parties. We were all staying at the same place, Lake Buena Vista Village. You can imagine EPCOT with all of the different nationalities, so it was like, "There is a party with the Irish people tonight!" or "We're partying with the Mexicans tonight... Oh man, that's going to be a tough night..." Every night there was something.

SmSh: Then what?

F.P.: I went home for a while and then moved back to Miami to work on a cruise ship.

SmSh: What was that like?

F.P.: It was really tough. Of course, you start out thinking, "Oh my God! I get to see Jamaica and Cozumel" and all that stuff. But on board it's really tough. You start at five in the morning, and at six you have to be in the restaurant because the first customers come at seven. Then, after breakfast you have to start the mise en place for lunch. By the time that's done it's like three, and then you go back to your cabin for a break. You wake up around four-thirty, and by five you're back in the dining room setting up for dinner. And then dinner ends around 12 or 11.30pm. And this is seven days a week... You really learn your limits.

SmSh: OK, so fast forward to what brought you to China?

F.P.: I was supposed to set up a restaurant in New York, because this is a city that I like. You know? Brooklyn. I was looking around Williamsburg back around '99 and 2000.

SmSh: Back when it was still a "transitional neighborhood," right?

F.P.: Exactly... But I like this kind of thing, and I could feel that it would become something cool in the future, and the view of Manhattan from there... So I had two partners interested in a project, and then, the war... and then the French position was to stand back, and then the "Freedom Fries" and all of that... Finally my two potential partners were like, "Sorry, dude..."

Finally I went back home to figure out what I was going to do... I got a few offers, thought about opening a bistro in Paris, because I really love Paris. But it was just super expensive. So then I went to see an exhibition about Shanghai while I was in Paris, and I thought to myself, "Wow. This is really cool!" So I came here with a friend. We got two bicycles, and we really liked it from the first day. We could feel the potential for development... Then I met some guy who was working on a project ... and I gave it a try.

SmSh: So that was Fabrique, right?

F.P.:Yeah. That was Fabrique [Ed Note: Fabrique was a night club in the Bridge 8 development on Jianguo Lu. It was re-branded as the short-lived music venue 4 Live after Pecol left.] It was 2004. I was GM and project manager. I was there from the construction to the opening. It was a good experience because I learned how this city works...

SmSh: When you came up with the idea for Franck were you thinking about what you wanted in a restaurant or what Chinese diners would want in a restaurant?

F.P.:: I love bistros. I have always loved them... And after a year and a half here in Shanghai I began to think that the locals would like it too. But I told myself only one thing: No compromise. Just do it exactly the same way you would do it if you were opening in Paris... I mean, Chinese people are traveling now. They're starting to have a lot of interest in this stuff, and you can't give them something in between. You have to say, "This is what we do." Even the question of writing the menu in French was a big question for me. I had people ask me, "Isn't that a bit provocative?" And I'm like, "It's a board! If I have to translate it into English and Chinese, then how about German, and then how many more boards do I need? I'll need to hire a guy just to write on boards every day." You know? I can't afford that. And the good thing about the board is that it encourages interaction with the customer.

SmSh: Has there ever been an instance where ingredient availability has forced you to compromise?

F.P.: Again, it all comes back to the board. If we're missing any ingredient or if the quality changes we just wipe it, and then we just do something else. Or we just have one less dish. It's not like working at a hotel where you have a purchasing process and the manager has to approve everything. Or if you've got a printed menu that costs 500rmb per menu and then you have to stick to this menu for six months. This becomes difficult, because if an ingredient isn't available, if it becomes stuck in customs or something like that, what are you going to do? You have to change to another ingredient that you find last minute... Likewise, if some supplier comes to me and says, "I've got the first porcinis of the year, but I can't get you the fapiao until next week." A big organization with a purchasing manager just can't approve something like that. But I can give the green light on the purchase, so I can get great ingredients immediately. We're flexible.

SmSh: Did you ever get any doubts about the restaurant?

F.P.: Oh, yes. All the time. When we finalized the construction in the winter I would ride my bicycle through the neighborhood and stop in to the restaurant at 8pm on a Tuesday, and it was like, "There is nobody here. This is dead. Are they gonna come? Are they gonna come down this alleyway in this weather just for a piece of beef?" I was scared.

But, you know, I still see this as a work-in-progress. I am always trying to improve it. This is interesting. I try to do it at least once a month, and I suggest it to anyone in this business. Just take a piece of paper and a pen and walk through the entrance and then write down everything that pisses you off, and then for the next thirty days you try to clear every point off the list, one by one.

SmSh: Have you ever cleared a list within 30 days?

F.P.: [Laughs] No.

SmSh: How long is your list right now?

F.P.: Maybe half done. But the problem with the list is that I always add more things to it...

SmSh: What kinds of restaurants would you like to see more of in Shanghai?

F.P.: What I'm always looking for ... is a chef or owner outlet where he's always there doing his thing. You may or may not like it, but at least the place has a personality, an identity.

SmSh: Who do you think does that well here?

F.P.: Brad [Turley, Goga and Hai] is doing great. The feeling is there. The guy is there with his personality, with his flower shirt, and right away it's like, "Hey dude! Have a beer with me!" And then he cooks whatever he feels like cooking for you. We need more places like that. Not these people that just want to do 20 concepts, 20 outlets. Here people are surprised if you do one concept and you don't plan to expand it. I don't know why. I mean, it's never happened in Europe.

SmSh: What would you like to see less of? I'm guessing its this idea of a scalable concept...

F.P.: Yeah. Of course it’s also very tempting when you have a business that's doing quite well, and you've got people coming up to you saying, "Hey! I have a good location for you." But you have so much to do already with one place. You can lose your identity, and right away you'll be diluted. Your customers will say that it's not the same, and it'll be true. I mean, the only way I could develop in the way that I have is having all of my concepts right next to each other. If you have to go from here to Jing'an Temple, you're dead because you're not there... You have to be there. You have to know what's going on in your house.

SmSh: What's the biggest mistake that foreign restaurateurs make in Shanghai?

F.P.: Just going too fast and thinking too much about R.O.I. [return on investment] and not putting enough passion into it.

SmSh: Do you have any plans after the new bakery is up and running?

F.P.: I'm always thinking of new things I'd like to do. I would love to do a burger joint. I think a really cool burger joint would be great. So far it's just a crazy idea... That's one thing, or...uhh... Tacos! I love Mexican food. It's fantastic. These are just things I think about. Maybe one day...

SmSh: Finally, if you'll excuse the cliché, where do you see Franck in five years?

F.P.: Easy. Just here where I am now...