Brooklyn-born celebrity chef Franklin Becker has repeatedly turned food challenges into opportunities to cook smarter and help other people. He is determined to change the way people think about their meals.
His family's health issues inspired him to launch Little Beet, a healthier alternative to casual fast food. Today, Frankin focuses on Hungryroot, a vegetable-based food delivery service, and chairs Pop.Earth, a foundation helping families affected by autism.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you first get interested in cooking?
Oh my God, you’re really starting at the beginning! The truth of the matter is I started cooking when I was seven. Sadly, my mother had a stroke. When she was recovering, I was always her hand in the kitchen. At 14, I started doing prep work in the kitchen at Scarola’s in Brooklyn. I loved working there immediately. There’s a camaraderie…kitchens don’t function unless there’s a team. I played sports growing up as well so team-oriented, goal-oriented stuff is really what drives me.
Your career trajectory is fascinating. You’ve been a personal chef, worked at hotels, been on television…what was the most fun?
I would have to say I loved working for Bobby Flay at Mesa Grill. It was the early 90s and people really weren’t cooking that way, with the exception of Stephen Pyles, Mark Miller and a few others in the Southwest. The flavors were bold and the techniques were new at the time. As a cook, that was my favorite.
Creating Little Beet [was the most rewarding] because at the time it was a fresh take on fast casual. It was gluten free which, ultimately, served a niche that was necessary to fill. My girlfriend had celiac so I was able to provide her directly with a spot she could go to safely.
And Little Beet was inspired by your own personal health battles too?
I was diagnosed with diabetes at 27. My son was diagnosed with autism at 21 months. When my girlfriend was diagnosed with celiac, it was like here’s a 1-2-3 reason, I should make Little Beet healthier and gluten-free. It just fell into place.
What went through your mind when you received your diabetes diagnosis?
I obviously thought it was the end of my career. I wouldn’t be able to cook the food that I love anymore. But you just have to modify your diet. I started looking at food that we eat across the world and realized the Mediterranean diet, for the most part, is a lifestyle where everything counts on good fat, fresh ingredients and a lot of vegetables. I shifted the way I approached food. It really was a transition, and an easy one at that. I started cooking healthier.
[Now,] my health is 1,000 times better than it was. I am thinner than I have been in years and I live a healthier lifestyle and feel good about it. If you have diabetes, make sure to take it seriously.
How old are your sons now?
Sean is going to be 18 in December and Rory is going to be 15. It’s crazy.
Did you love taking Sean and Rory out to restaurants when they were younger?
I wasn’t really able to take Sean out to restaurants when he was little. Unfortunately, he also had ulcerative colitis and small bowel disease and a million other things through autism, so it was always challenging. And I wish my younger son was a better eater but he’s not that experimental.
So did you try to do things differently at home to accommodate them?
We fed our children gluten-free at home forever. My ex-wife had the idea of starting a company called Sean’s Food, which I guess was my first foray into pseudo-manufacturing. We created different pastries, cookies and cakes that were shipped from our home and satisfied different kids with autism. We would literally custom…If a kid was allergic to X,Y and Z, we’d take that out of the recipe. It was really challenging and difficult but the products were really good and packaged cute. Ultimately, I lost money.
You learn more from every failure than success. What I learned the most was that there really is a need for healthier additive free products. We are what we eat. It’s really important to monitor what we put into our bodies.
Do you think it’s easier for Sean and kids like him to have better access to healthier food
Absolutely! I think more and more people are experimenting in this area... what’s
going to end up happening is that... farmers are going to be forced to get rid of genetically modified treatments for their crops. They’re going to be able to get rid of all these things that are affecting our health. Unfortunately, I think a lot of damage has already been done. It’s going to take at least a lifetime to get back to real farming. I’m a big proponent of buying things that are grown responsibly and seasonally.
Any particular farm or product you want to give a shout-out to for the amazing work they’re doing on this matter?
The best work I’ve seen out there is at the Center for Discovery in the Catskills in upstate New York. It’s called Thanksgiving Farm and it’s run by chef Cesare Casella. It will come to a market near you but now its restricted. They have 1,000 acres and are pasture raising all their animals and growing everything organically. The most amazing part of it is they’re using special needs young adults to work there. It’s an unbelievable program that’s dear to my heart. I teach their chefs how to cook better using ingredients from the farm and I also do a fundraiser for them.
Is it easier now for special needs kids to get to go to a restaurant with their family and feel comfortable and expect menu options they can eat?
Yes and No. Look, people are critical of everything. They’re mean because you’re too fat, too skinny, too tall, too short. Just something different. When a kid or adult with special needs is having a reaction, people stare. As far as knowledge of special dietary restrictions, it’s so much better, but there’s still a lot of misunderstanding about cross-contamination.
How do you recommend people educate themselves better on the subject?
There are so many ways to educate yourself now. I’m not saying you have to be gluten free, if you don’t need to be, but try eating whole wheat breads instead of ones that are full of additives. You can eat whole grains and incorporate vegetables into your diet more.
I also chair a special needs charity called Pop.Earth. We have a program called Eat-able and it’s going to expand more. We do a lot of alternative care. We have yoga and reiki. All the programs are free or next to free. We do classes for parents to educate them on how to cook healthier meals for their kids. We also have classes that involve the kids.
What lessons do you try to teach the kids?
A good example would be a chocolate chip cookie. We know they want to eat a cookie so we don’t want to deprive kids. They already have enough to be deprived of…so, instead of using sugar, which hops them up and affects their behavior, we might use an alternative sweetener that has a lower glycemic index or lower impact on their system. Or little things like using an alternative flour in place of gluten or carob in place of chocolate.
We also make eating salad more fun for them. We’ll cut vegetables into different shapes. A lot of kids have textural problems. [But] If they see they can make a star or a circle from a vegetable, they’re much more inclined to try them.
Why do you believe an event like Tykesgiving is so important for the community?
It’s great because it is often difficult to go to a restaurant with a special needs kid. They have dietary restrictions, tactile challenges etc. and this gives them the opportunity in a judgment free zone. That’s awesome.
Family time, especially nowadays, is so important. It’s about more than eating. You converse and get to know one another. I think that any chance you have to foster that relationship with your children is time well spent and really important.