Anne Kelt doesn’t consider herself a chef.
That might come as a surprise to the regulars at her Longview restaurant, Hick & Frog, named tongue in cheek to pay homage to her French lineage and her husband James’ West Texas ties.
“I’ve worked with the best and I fall so short of what they do,” she said matter-of-factly. “I just try to keep learning.”
She’s been learning for a long time. Although she claims she went to culinary school “late,” at the age of 20, between semesters of law school, Kelt grew up around good food.
As a child in Quimper, in the Brittany region of France, just a stone’s throw from the ocean, Kelt cut her teeth on her mother’s comfort food.
“We are all in the cooking business on my mom’s side of the family,” she explained. “My mom cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner. I never ate at school; I always went home for lunch.”
Lunch would be freshly caught fish from the Atlantic Ocean, paired with seasonal produce her mom would shop for daily. To this day, her mother goes to the market every day to procure the freshest ingredients, a trait Kelt has brought to her own restaurant.
“The key is to make your ingredients shine,” she said. “If you start with the best ingredients, you don’t need to mess with them too much.”
That’s one of the lessons she learned during her internship under fellow countryman and world-renowned chef Daniel Boulud, at New York’s legendary Le Cirque. Boulud famously served as the executive chef from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s and earned the restaurant a coveted four-star review in the New York Times, as well as the first of his six James Beard “Best Chef in America” awards. So when Kelt says she’s worked with the best, she’s not exaggerating. She also trained under Jacques Torres, another Frenchman famous for his pastry and chocolate work.
As monumental as those internships were, Kelt returned to France the following year to pursue her law degree. Then she joined an exchange program which brought her to Lubbock and Texas Tech University, where she met and fell in love with her
husband, James. Even then, the two were talking about opening their own restaurant.
“James said we’d call it ‘Hick & Frog,’” she said. “Frog is kind of a derogatory term for French people, but we thought it was funny. It was a name people would remember.”
The couple ended up in Longview in 1999.
Kelt was a personal chef for many years and worked in the kitchen at Enoch’s Stomp Winery. Anne and James have two children.
About two years ago, in March 2017, Anne turned her dream of opening a restaurant into reality when Hick & Frog set up shop downtown.
While the restaurant identifies as a bistro, “I basically cook whatever I like and I like lots of different things,” Kelt said.
That means she’ll serve such foods as sautéed scallops with miso corn salad, niçoise toast, or a warm goat cheese salad with beets.
The most popular items on her menu are the Croque-Monsieur, a French grilled cheese with fresh ham and Swiss cheese that is smothered in bechamel sauce; the Salmon Poke Bowl, which features rice, salmon, scallions, edamame beans, radishes, avocado, sesame seeds, and sesame dressing; and the Gochujang-Ranch Crispy Chicken Bowl, a complete meal of rice, panko-breaded chicken thighs, red cabbage, scallions, avocado, toasted sambal cashews and gochujang sauce.
Those three items stay on the menu, while other dishes rotate depending on what’s fresh and what’s in season.
“It’s comfort food,” Kelt said, simply.
One thing she finds comfort in is using the best local ingredients.
“We eat with our eyes first,” she said. “So the ingredients have to look good, taste good and be good.”
She buys a lot of her produce from Piney Creek Farms in Big Sandy.
“It’s all organic, right down to the seeds.”
Her beef and pork come from Iron Farm in Kilgore.
“They raise cows and pigs like they’re supposed to be raised: in nature. The animals wander around, they aren’t stressed, and that produces a better product.”
With only four people on staff – including herself – and 10 tables (with additional seating for eight at the bar), the quality of the dishes speaks volumes of the painstaking prep work behind the scenes.
“There’s two ways to make a chicken pot pie,” Kelt explains. “You can use refrigerated crust, rotisserie chicken and frozen vegetables. Or you can roast your own chicken, roll your own pastry, chop your own vegetables.
“I always favor the second.”
Open Tuesday through Saturday, Kelt is usually at the restaurants on Sundays and Mondays as well, prepping. She also spends time making decadent desserts, including Cherry Clafoutis (a French pastry studded with fresh cherries), Lemon Panna Cotta with fresh Strawberry Coulis and her signature Vanilla Bean Cheesecake with Pecan Crust.
“I love pastry,” Kelt said.
However, her favorite thing to cook is the “thing I haven’t cooked yet.”
“The food industry has evolved so much. Change is always a good thing,” she explained. “I like to keep up with what is going on and always stay curious and willing to try new things.”
That spirit embodies her favorite part of being the chef/owner of a local restaurant.
“It’s our job, as a chef, to educate people and show them different things,” she said. “I love that. Sometimes people come in
and want to turn around and leave because menu items are strange to them, or they can’t pronounce something, and I convince them to stay, and they like it.”
Kelt guarantees patrons will find something they like on the menu.
“It’s so rewarding to hear someone say, ‘I don’t eat eggplant, but I love the way you cook it,’” she said.
Kelt has teamed up in the kitchen with chef Brandon Eller, formerly of The Grove in Tyler and Jack Ryan’s Steakhouse.
“He’s the best chef I’ve had with me in the kitchen so far,” she said. “I couldn’t do this alone at all. I’m thankful for my hardworking staff and for all the regulars who come in and support us. This is the very best team.”
Ultimately, Kelt wants to “keep cooking” and coming up with dishes people enjoy. She wants to stay small. She wants every dish to be full of flavor, technique and simplicity, letting the ingredients stand out.
“Cooking for people is an act of love,” she said. “Feeding people isn’t only a physical phenomenon; it’s making people happy through food.”