From frog legs to frog eggs: Former French chef hops into new business
I first met Trey Bell when he was chef and proprietor of LaRue at its original Greene Street location in downtown Greensboro, where he cooked wonderful cuisses de grenouilles.
Trey, whom I refer to by his first name because he’s become a friend, is no longer a restaurateur. Now he works with smaller and more fortunate amphibians than the bullfrogs whose legs he used to brine, soak in buttermilk, dredge in seasoned flour and pan-fry in brown butter.
These are the gorgeous Dendrobatidae or poison dart frogs he breeds and builds habitats with the Charlotte-based startup FrogDaddy.
While the common name suggests a creature more deadly than delectable, note the proper descriptor is “poison” rather than “venom.” Unlike the Gaboon and Rhino vipers that Trey’s uncle breeds in South Carolina (where the trade in “hot” species is legal), these animals can’t kill you. At least not in captivity, where they feed on different arthropods than the ones from which they derive their toxicity in the wild.
I asked him about the appeal of owning poison dart frogs, and he said he gets that question a lot.
(Click here to see a video of Trey’s poison dart frogs feeding.)
“It’s kind of like how everybody used to have at least one friend with salt-water fish. Dart frog terrariums are becoming the 21st-century salt-water tank. It’s cheaper and easier to maintain a spectacular showpiece for your home, and with the plants that are an essential part of it, you have a whole ecosystem that can be immaculately landscaped.”
Trey had been a reptile (and other exotic animals) hobbyist since childhood, and in adulthood, he began to specialize in habitats.
“I was breeding other animals, and if my enclosures looked better than those of the guy next to me, and we had the same animals, mine sold better. So, I started building habitats for arboreal vipers, such as African bush vipers and eyelash vipers, naturalistic vivariums with live plants, and beautiful animals comfortable and healthy in them.”
He’d learned to safely keep dangerous reptiles, although he’s not dealt in “hot herps” since he moved from South Carolina to North Carolina. (He will be helping a local educational facility acquire and house one of the world’s deadliest snakes, but that’s something we can’t talk about in more detail until the facility is ready to announce it.)
When he was a kid in the Columbia, South Carolina, suburb of Irmo, Trey spent his summers helping his uncle Randy McKnight catch local snakes and breed exotic ones. These days, McKnight specializes in Gaboon, Rhino and Gabino vipers, as well as Gila monsters (the venomous lizards, despite their name, are actually far less aggressive and dangerous than the vipers). Back then, his menagerie was more varied.
“His bread and butter were Burmese pythons, boa constrictors and green tree pythons. On the ‘hot’ side, he had cobras and was one of the first to sell Gaboons. He would take me snake hunting on weekends, and we would catch copperheads and rattlesnakes, as well as harmless rat snakes and kingsnakes.”
In some ways, Trey’s outings with his uncle remind me of mine with my dad, who would take me snake hunting at Pope Air Force Base Park and Lake Rim in Fayetteville. But we never touched venomous species, and when I started acquiring more exotic reptiles from Tote-Em-In Zoo outside of Wilmington, they were ones I could safely handle, even the 8-foot boa I bought with my allowance when I was 9 years old.
I asked Trey if the fact that he grew up breeding and displaying his reptiles, rather than lugging them around as pets as I did, was why he’s gravitated to creatures better admired behind glass than held, even though they can’t hurt you.
“That’s a great question, and one I’d never thought about before, but I think you may be right.”
Trey has mastered skills rarely found in the same person. For one thing, he was a jock.
“I was tall; I was fast; I could jump. My coach looked at 6-foot, 135 [pound]- me and asked if I could do a backflip. When I did, he said, ‘okay, you’re a pole vaulter.’ I started in the eighth grade, and by 10th grade, I was a state champion and made the national team.”
Junior year, he made a world team.
“In 2000, I competed in Debrecen in Hungary, at the Youth World Championships, took 13th in the world, was No. 1 U.S. finisher, earning a scholarship to University of South Carolina.”
He began his restaurant career before that when he was 14.
“If you’re employed somewhere in walking distance, you can work 10 hours a week, although we fudged on that. I started busing tables at Zorba’s; then, they put me on salads and pizzas.”
He also began cleaning the kitchen off the clock. “They’d let me cook whatever I wanted. My boss, Jimmy, said I could have anything on the menu except for the fillet, so I bargained to be allowed to cook one. I’d been watching a lot of Alton Brown on Good Eats, and wanted to dry age it. It became kind of a science experiment in the fridge, this 6-inch cut of ribeye, wrapped in cheesecloth. I was still busing, not even in the kitchen yet.”
He aged it for 28 days.
“My boss Jimmy got very intrigued, and when it was done, it became this really huge deal. I got that piece out and trimmed off the pellicle, that little beef jerky layer that forms on the outside of dry-aged beef, and cut it into steaks and cooked it, and my boss said ‘you don’t bus anymore,’ and put me in the kitchen. That’s where this whole lovely life started.”
So why did Trey quit the profession he started over 20 years ago?
“After 15 years in the kitchen, then eight working at the executive chef level, stress and sheer time took their toll. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fun, an industry I’ll always love, but let’s just say that getting out was what my life needed, especially to maintain a marriage.”
Trey lives in Greensboro with his wife Cheryl, 100-pound Dogo Argentino (a form of mastiff originally bred for hunting boar) Gus, and cat Giga, who loves to be slung across her dad’s shoulders while he cooks. (Like many who previously considered themselves strictly dog people, Trey just had to find the right feline.)
He also has a 140-gallon tank of frogs, a smaller custom-built tank in which he’s testing his innovative new design, and is hatching a clutch of leaf-tailed gecko eggs.
I asked him about FrogDaddy, which besides frogs and their food and habitats, sells terrarium plants and mourning geckos.
“So, we focus on Dendrobates mainly, and the Oophaga pumilio that is the poster child of dart frogs,” Trey said. “We have at least 200 terrariums, with at least a pair of frogs in each. We build slide-front euro-tanks (meaning European style). I prefer a sliding front to one that swings open. When they slide, you don’t kill frogs. With the ones that swing open, they can jump out when you open it, and things can happen when you close it.”
Asked to describe a representative life cycle, he chose Adelphobates galactonotus, a species endemic to the rainforest of the Brazilian Amazon basin, but which FrogDaddy is trying to end the wild capture of via breeding populations.
“Typically, they lay five to seven eggs every seven to 10 days in eight or nine months of the year. Within a couple of weeks, you have tadpoles swimming in their own cups. Once they’re taking food, you can either house them in a group or keep them separated.”
In the wild, eggs would be laid in shallow puddles or the natural reservoirs (called “cups”) of bromeliad plants.
“I like raising them in groups because they learn to take food rather than just accept food, and if you can keep cannibalism to a minimum, the babies that hop out of those tanks are significantly larger than tadpoles raised solo. You get these stronger survivor animals that are rock solid when they come out.”
He said some species could take longer, but most mature in a year to 14 months. Their reproductive cycle begins with maturity. Some species can remain fecund and produce young for over 20 years.
He stressed that dart frogs are not tree frogs, which only live for about six years. “Dart frogs are mostly terrestrial rather than arboreal. And hunt and mate during the day. My wife would kill me if they sang at night like tree frogs do.”
How did he get started with FrogDaddy?
“I’d been in Greensboro a while, and had been reading about FrogDaddy founder Alex Menke online. When I found out he’s in Charlotte, where he’s a professor at Queen’s College, I reached out to him. Then I noticed him running four tables by himself at a show, with a lot of animals. So, I helped. I’m part of FrogDaddy now. We just signed a lease on a 10,000-square-foot warehouse outside of Charlotte.”
Menke confirmed this in a Sunday night phone conversation.
“Trey is operating as an independent contractor, but he is also pretty much the main core of our research and development, and a lot of our innovation, building certain structures and developing certain materials.”
Both Menke and Trey called the terrarium that Trey has been perfecting a potential game-changer, one without the pitfalls and unnecessary complexity that doomed the much-hyped Biopod, the “smart terrarium” that was supposed to revolutionize the industry in 2015. Menke called the Biopod, which his company had nothing to do with, “a very cool idea, but the software kept failing, and it took forever to set up, with you having to watch a 30-minute instruction video.”
The instructional video for Trey’s terrariums only lasts five minutes.
“It’s not overly expensive and is very easy to assemble,” Menke said. “It doesn’t require special tools or a special skillset, with no half-hour tutorial. It’s lightweight, can be shipped flat and can be customized before you ever receive it.”
Menke founded FrogDaddy in 2016, but William Newell, his business partner and a college professor, has been breeding dart frogs for 20 years, and exotic animals for 30.
“Bill came on the team about four months ago,” Menke said. “Last year, when it was just me, we barely had anything and barely did anything. This year, we’ve done a ton. And that’s because we have people like Trey involved in it. We are so blessed to have such immense knowledge and skillsets. I have a Master’s in ecology, and Bill has his doctorate, but Trey is this extremely jack of all trades, very gifted in a variety of things. He’s done unprecedented things for us, and he’s very valued.”
Trey explained how he came up with his idea for an innovative habitat.
“I have a membership at the Forge, where they have a laser cutter, and I have access to that and know how to use it, and I’d been having this design bouncing around in my head for a few years now. I finally sat down with a designer, and we put pen to paper, and he wrote it up for me. So, we stuck this piece of acrylic in there, and 15 minutes later, there it was laser cut. What has been rolling around in my head, which we think is game-changing, is about to be kickstarted. We’re still going through testing. I want to make sure I’m accounting for the hygroscopic properties of acrylic, with the high humidity, but so far, we’re over two months without a failure of our test model.”
He said it isn’t just for dart frogs, but any exotic reptile or amphibian, and that one of its most significant advantages is that it’s cheap to ship since it’s packaged flat and the customer constructs it.
“Something that would usually cost $60 to ship, I’m shipping for $7, and all the person has to do is put it together after watching a very concise YouTube video. There’s no Ikea-level of frustration. Because it’s cut on a laser, you can dry fit it; everything locks in. I can take one from flat to dry-fit in about five minutes with painter’s tape. Then it’s another five minutes or so to apply the liquid adhesive, which creates a chemical weld. We think this is game-changing.”
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.