Dish: So why did you leave Sixteen?
Frank Brunacci: For the truffle business that my wife incorporated about a year and a bit ago now. We were approached probably two years ago—after I did the first Australia Day Market—by The Wine & Truffle Co. of Australia. They reached out by e-mail: “We are looking for somebody to distribute our product. The season [runs] from the last week of May to the last week of September.” My eyes just popped out of my head. I am a truffle lover. Foremost as a chef.
D: Had you had Australian truffles then?
FB: The Australian Trade Commission brought me truffle butter and a truffle oil four years ago. I’m smelling the stuff. It smells good, but it’s probably just an essence or whatever—that’s what I said four years ago. And then two years ago, when I got the e-mail from Wine & Truffle, [I talked to the Avenues chef,] Curtis Duffy, [who] said, “Yeah, I had them last year, and they are really good.” Phillip Foss said the same thing when we had a beer together.
D: Did you sign on then?
FB: I reached out to Wine & Truffle, [saying] “I also know a good 30 or 40 chefs here in the city who are probably truffle users. Truffle junkies.” Last year, they flew to the U.S. to meet with the distributor, and they met with me, actually, at Blackbird and they saw my energy and passion. I swear to God, I still had not tasted a real Australian truffle yet. They told me about the whole farm and where it’s going.
D: How did they get a truffle farm up and running where none had existed before?
FB: They studied the Périgord region in France, from climate to terrain. How many days of rain, sun, how many hills. They took the data and went back to Australia, [asking,] “Where in this country can we have the same climate and terrain?” So they found a place, Manjimup in Western Australia. They planted the hazelnut and oak trees. About 14,000 trees were planted back in 1993. They [injected] the trees with Périgord spore. The trees start doing things on the ground. Start making love to each other. Back in 2003, they got their first truffle out of the ground in Western Australia. They probably marketed 150 to 200 pounds. As the seasons progressed all the way to last year, they cultivated around 2,300 pounds. This year the forecast is to make about 7,500 pounds come out of the ground. They are looking to do 15,000 pounds. That would be the maximum.
D: And they wanted to hire you to distribute?
FB: They wanted four people in the U.S. to import and distribute. New York, California, Tennessee, and us. That was last year. My wife, [Lillian,] is so business-savvy and I’m so uncouth, but together we are the perfect couple. We started the business last year. When we got the first shipment, Lillian went to the airport to get it. I walked into the house, opened up the door, and this aroma hits me like, What the hell is in my house? It was the true Périgord smell. The aroma of Périgord was in my house, but it was from Australia.
D: Are there advantages to growing truffles in Australia?
FB: Wintertime in Australia, the conditions [are right] to bring in truffles. It’s weird, using what is normally a winter ingredient in the summer. The winter truffle is so unbelievable. Australia produces one truffle, that’s the Périgord. And the value is that it’s available off-season for us, which is on-season for Australia.
D: Back to the present, what are you going to do next?
FB: Wine & Truffle in Australia and me, we are going to find a location here in Chicago where we are going to produce a high-end retail ingredient [outlet], whether Parma ham . . . You finish work, you’re walking past this restaurant, this building. You’ve got three girls in the window, and they are making pasta, fresh. You can go in there and say, “I want to buy a pound of pasta, a quart of sauce.” You pick up your fancy hams from Spain and Italy, some cheese. Everything high-end. Once you’ve got your pasta and sauce, you can buy your truffles and go home and make a dinner that would probably cost you $450 for two [at a restaurant] for less than a hundred bucks. Probably less than $70.
D: Not a restaurant?
FB: Oh, we are. Truffles go in the front, and [then] your retail products, and then behind that, we will have a separate restaurant with maybe 35 or 40 seats. The price per head will be up there a bit because it’s all truffle-inspired.
D: Any other components to it?
FB: Next to that is a new concept that [might] be called Rolls. Quick service. A whole roll concept. A quick-service concept at lunchtime. You walk in, you have the retail, and then a restaurant, and one big kitchen that supplies all three.
D: Do you have a name?
FB: It’s not official, but I want to call it Dirt.
D: Where will you locate the business?
FB: I want a lot of high-end foot traffic. River North, South Loop, or Gold Coast. Maybe somebody who reads this thing can reach out to me.
D: But you’re staying in Chicago?
FB: I love Chicago. I really do. I love it because Chicago is the best city for food. We have the best chefs in the country. Our chef camaraderie is so strong. I haven’t seen it in any other city. We have a family here.