REIMS, FRANCE -- Benjamin Schrank, the chef owner of a small restaurant in Reims, France, speaks fluent English and has a slight French accent. The English isn’t surprising, given that Schrank was born and raised in Central Florida. The accent is curious, however, seeing that by his own admission until only a few years ago his French vocabulary was restricted to bonjour, merci and au revoir.
Schrank, 30, operates l’Autre Table, which occupies a corner space on Boulevard General Leclerc across from the park that stretches along the north side of the old city. He was classically trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and following his graduation he cooked at Cafe de France on Winter Park’s Park Avenue.
But it’s a big leap to go from cooking at a French restaurant in Florida to being an American living and cooking in the heart of the Champagne region. At the center of the explanation, as is so often the case, is a love story.
Encouraged by his employer at Cafe de France, Schrank, a graduate of Bishop Moore High School and the son of Edward and Susan Maldonia Schrank, began to plan his first trip to France a little over four years ago. Through the online social site MySpace, he sought out other users of the site for help, particularly French people. He began to communicate with a young Parisienne named Melanie Huberlant, and over the next several months they made plans to meet in a bar at the Paris airport. When he arrived, Schrank told Melanie that he needed someone to show him around the city. She was wary -- after all, they really didn’t know each other. And perhaps his multitude of tattoos and piercings were a caution. Then he said, “And all the restaurants are on me.”
They got married.
On a visit to Reims, the cathedral city that is home to numerous Champagne makers, the couple decided they would like to move there and open a restaurant. They took over the small space and renovated it, along with the apartment above it, where they now live, with the help of family and friends.
L’Autre Table (the Other Table) opened in 2011. Its motto is “cuisine Americaine reinventee,” a reinvention of American cuisine in the French style. The menu features such things as crab beignets, barbecue pork and chopped steak. But the star of the menu, and the item that is setting Reims abuzz, is the burger.
Burgers are huge in Europe right now, literally and figuratively. Schrank says his burger has been voted the best in Reims, and his restaurant has been visited by officials from the prestigious Michelin Guide, who have told him the 2013 issue will include a note about l’Autre Table.
The Schranks recently received a group of 24, members of the UCF Study Abroad program to London and Paris to write about food experiences. We had taken a day trip to Reims, an hour’s journey by train, to tour the cellars of GH Mumm. Following our glass of Champagne and a walk to centre ville to visit the impressive cathedral, we converged on l’Autre Table.
Wisely, we had arranged to visit between lunch and dinner. The small space, minimally decorated with some paintings by local artists but with large picture windows on both sides, could barely hold our group, let alone any other diners that may have stopped in. After some reconfiguring of the large wooden block tables and plastic-backed chairs, we settled in while Schrank went back to start cooking, and Melanie, who goes by Mele, and an assistant poured waters and took wine orders.
Understandably, the burgers came out in waves, something that befuddled many of the students because I had previously told them it was impolite to begin eating until everyone at the table had been served. But with others insisting, “Please, don’t wait,” they dug in. So did I.
The burger was presented on a square white plate sitting atop an open bun that was crusted with crunchy sesame seeds and toasted to a gorgeous golden. The thick patty was topped with grated cheddar cheese on its way to a melt, grilled onions that had begun to take on a caramely sweetness, fresh green lettuce leaves, and a thick slice of tomato, red onion and pickle, speared with a large pick. Slathered on the top of the bun was what some might have euphemistically called a special sauce, but which Schrank unapologetically calls by its name: ketchup.
The French love to disdain the American practice of using ketchup. A couple of nights earlier, at a sidewalk cafe on Boulevard St. Germain near the Sorbonne, a waiter gave a good natured lecture to the students who had requested ketchup for their frites. But Schrank is not only getting the French to accept ketchup as a condiment, he’s likely getting requests for extra.
That’s because he makes his own, and he makes it with an ample amount of red wine. The result is a thick puree with a deep, oxblood hue and a taste that has the expected tomatoey flavor but added notes of subtle fruit and tannins. Would it be wrong to swirl and swish the ketchup?
The burger was impossibly juicy, cooked to a red medium-rare, and held together loosely. The meat juices filled the mouth, and the cheese and onions each added layers of wonderful flavors. As is the trend with chefs globally, locally sourcing of ingredients is important to Schrank. He just has the advantage of having some pretty wonderful local sources from the French countryside.
A side dish of the ketchup was provided for the accompanying fries, which themselves garnered raves among the experts in the room. Schrank likely never makes the fries the same way twice because by his own admission he seasons them with whatever is nearby. When asked what was sprinkled on them, he rattled off a spice list that went on and on. Whatever, they glistened with the appropriate amount of grease, and the crisped jackets gave a delightful texture counterpoint to the soft potato inside.
Dessert was a large, warm chocolate chip cookie. If the burger and fries weren’t enough to instill homesickness in the students, surely the gooey, doughy cookie put them over the top.
L’Autre Table usually offers the lunch for 19 euro but the students were given a hometowners price of 15 euro, or about $18.20. We all felt we had gotten a terrific bargain. We were stuffed, and grateful for the walk back to the train station. Indeed, back in Paris, hours later, reservations for a group to dine that evening at Le Dome were canceled because no one was hungry.
Out of necessity, Benjamin Schrank learned to speak French, so fluently, in fact, that his English now has a noticeable accent. I asked his mother, Susan, if she hears it when she speaks with him. She does, and she marvels at his determination to teach himself the language. “This was a kid I couldn’t get through Spanish I,” she says.
Just goes to show what you can do with a little determination. And love -- for who you’re with and what you do. C’est bon.
L’Autre Table is at 79 Blvd. General Declerc, Riems, France. It is open for lunch and dinner Wednesday through Saturday. Here is a link to lautretable.com, which, curiously, does not have an English translation. The phone number is 011 33 3 26 05 24 78.