Downtown Chapel Hill

Downtown Blog

Business Spotlight: Elaine's on Franklin

southern fried n.c. softshell crab w/ purple cabbage slaw, millarckee farm’s arugula & tabasco aioli

southern fried n.c. softshell crab w/ purple cabbage slaw, millarckee farm’s arugula & tabasco aioli

Unless you were raised in the kitchen of your provincial French grandmother, you are bound to be impressed with the creative artistry that Chef Bret Jennings brings to classic dishes at Elaine’s on Franklin.  His cooking is refined, yet earthy; stylized and complex, yet soulfully satisfying.  There are no gimmicks, no attempts to fuse clashing cultures, no surprising combinations that do not quite work.  Bret serves you the food that he loves to eat, food that is traditional, ethnically sound, and worthy of a seal of approval from his grandmother.

In addition to family influence, an extensive and varied restaurant background informs Bret’s cooking.  After college at NC State he took over the Glenwood Grill in Raleigh.  Then came the first of two stints at Magnolia Grill in Durham.  Six months in a remote Mexican village without basic utilities taught him resourceful use of chilies, beans, cilantro, and salsa.  He learned tapas in Spain, pasta in Italy, and sausages in Germany. At Kinkead’s, Washington DC’s enormous fresh seafood restaurant, he learned to cut whole fish.

But the French influence is strongest.  He ran a small restaurant in Toulouse in southern France for four months, where everything served came from the surrounding farms and sea.  He credits a two-week “stage”, essentially an unpaid apprenticeship, at Taillevant in Paris with changing his life.  Among the most exclusive and expensive restaurants in the world, Taillevent required an attention to detail, a respect for ingredients, and a professional pride that Bret found an astonishing revelation.  He learned to clean shellfish, to butcher whole lambs, and to make stocks for sauces to order.  Taillevant taught Bret to oversee and perfect every facet of the dining experience, from the selection of local produce to the placement of silverware.

Bret’s favorite dishes involve wild game and fresh seafood. Smoked salmon and duck confit, are made in-house.  The menu changes daily, reflecting availability of local ingredients. Meats come from local farmers who care for their animals and raise them humanely.  Bret thinks of his staff as a family, and believes that happy cooks make happy customers.  Spend an evening at Elaine’s and see if you don’t agree.

By guest blogger Jarrett L.