Frank Ferrante allowed a film crew to record his transformation from obese drug addict to clean, serene grad student. Now he’s coming soon to a theatre near you.
Josey Duncan | September 2008 issue
One cold, rainy evening in 2006, Frank Ferrante wandered into Café Gratitude in San Francisco looking for a cup of coffee. Soon enough, Ferrante learned this place didn’t have coffee, but only served raw food.
“Raw food?!” Ferrante says, recounting that fateful night from the corner table of the restaurant’s San Rafael outpost. (Café Gratitude has four locations in the Bay Area of California, including two in San Francisco.) “I didn’t get it.”
What he did get was way more than he bargained for and includes May I Be Frank?, a compelling documentary (read more about it on mayibefrankmovie.com) starring none other than Ferrante himself undergoing a physical and spiritual transformation.
It all started during one of his first visits, when Ferrante attracted the attention of a server who, after learning about his customer’s situation, asked if he’d like to transform his life—on camera—using the wholesome food and spiritual fare the aspiring filmmaker had been raised on. Ferrante agreed.
Growing up in the 1960s in a working-class Brooklyn neighbourhood had been a challenge for Ferrante, a self-described artistic outsider more interested in literature than sports. When he discovered amphetamines, the rush made him feel “so present” he thought surely this was the secret to getting through life. “I wanted to design new bridges and write operas—all by Friday,” he recalls. Ferrante got into LSD. Then he tried heroin, and the dark times began.
As a junkie, Ferrante was arrested several times, and twice ended up in mental institutions. He tried to clean up with methadone, and ended up dependent on Valium. At one low point, Ferrante swallowed a bottle of pills and jumped in front of a subway train. But confused by the drugs, he hopped onto the wrong tracks. Unscathed, he was pulled back onto the platform, and went into treatment. He never touched a needle again, but for a decade Ferrante abused alcohol and cocaine. Eventually, he got sober for real in a 12-step recovery program.
But Ferrante was still miserable. Diagnosed with hepatitis C, he’d become resigned to a rigorous regimen of pills and injections that left him depressed and exhausted. His interactions with his ex-wife and children were strained. His relationship with his girlfriend had ended. And he weighed in at almost 300 pounds (136 kilos). Not very healthy, in body or mind.
So when he saw how friendly everyone was at Café Gratitude, he made it a habit to go. He’d sit at a shiny silver table behind the picture windows, or on a warm day, in the foliage-filled backyard garden, the smells of quinoa and kale mingling with the low din of voices and squeals of traffic.
Ryland Engelhart—son of cafÉ Gratitude founders Matthew and Terces Engelhart—noticed Ferrante right away, and was drawn to his “big, masculine personality,” which reminded him, Engelhart says, of some of his uncles. “Beneath the bombastic voice, I just saw this huge, loving heart,” says the former server, now the manager of the San Rafael establishment.
Before the café, the elder Engelharts had created a board game called The Abounding River. The colourful board is divided into six regions: creation, abundance, generosity, gratitude, love/acceptance and work. The die is rolled, and you move your pieces the appropriate number of spaces and grab a card from the deck that corresponds to the region where you’ve landed. Each bears a question you answer aloud to the group, which offers feedback you jot down in your logbook. Each card is different, but all ask you to make the negative perceptions you harbour positive.
Intended to inspire meaningful discussions, the game was designed to be an accessible way for Matthew and Terces Engelhart to share their philosophy: that we can manifest our own realities, that everything is unified and that money and resources are abundant. They wanted to start a restaurant based on this idea, and having recently adopted a raw food diet, the couple combined the two concepts.
Even though Café Gratitude has added coffee (and beer and wine) to its menu since Ferrante first wandered in, the eatery is far from being a typical restaurant. The walls are covered with art; garlands of tangled Christmas lights sag off the roof; the tables are equipped with the Abounding River game; and white lettering on the picture window asks passersby, “What are you grateful for?” The distinct smell of steamed grains and green vegetables mingles with savoury scents. Servers are widely noted in reviews to have a “spacey” air about them, and their demeanour adds to the overall strange vibe.
Just take a look at the menu. For one thing, the “seafood” in the sushi bowl is algae (nori), and to order it you must affirm to your server, “I Am Accepting”—yes, that’s the name of the dish. If your server says, “You Are Mahalo” while putting your food on the table, you’re getting pizza with pineapple on a buckwheat-sunflower seed sourdough flatbread crust. By stating “I Am Cherished,” you’ll cause a slice of sweet cheesecake to be brought to your table—only the cheese will be made with cashew nuts. If you’re not in the mood for affirmations and praise, you should probably find a different spot for lunch.
In addition to organic, raw, vegan cuisine, the café’s defining feature is its question of the day. During one of Ferrante’s first visits, customers were asked what they wanted to accomplish with the rest of their lives. During those initial meetings, conversation between the fiftysomething Ferrante and the twentysomething Engelhart turned to Ferrante’s desire to fall in love again—a goal he felt was unrealistic given his weight, his terrible body image and the fact he felt like death was just around the corner.
Long interested in doing a sort of reverse Super Size Me, in which an unhealthy person is healed through good food and a spiritual practise, Engelhart realized he’d found the perfect test subject and invited Ferrante to be transformed. Vulnerable and feeling intuitively that this might be the answer he was looking for, Ferrante agreed. “I really didn’t think much about it,” he says. “There was something inside of me that just said, ‘Go for it.’ I just trusted them.”
Using The Abounding River Personal Logbook—a book version of the Engelharts’ board game, which promises transformation in 42 days to the “abundance view of life” through daily affirmations, writing exercises and activities (including laughing aloud)—they set out to make their movie. First step: Acquire a video camera. “Nobody knew what they were getting into,” Ferrante recalls.
To get an idea of what’s in the Logbook, take a look at Day One. We’re asked to explore what inherited beliefs about money might be inhibiting our feelings of abundance. We’re asked to “give some form of supply” (such as time or money), remembering that giving and receiving are the same. We’ll practise being responsible for our experiences by repeating a mantra about this with a partner, and write 11 times before bed that we take responsibility for “being the creator of” our own experience. And of course, we’ll laugh.
During filming, the guys decided to feed Ferrante a diet of mostly chlorophyll to cleanse him of toxins. Ferrante recalls, “The food was good. But there were things like the wheat grass that I despised with a passion. They would say things like, ‘Well, the reason it doesn’t taste good is because it’s a reflection of the level of toxicity in your body.’ And I would say, ‘Well, I’m surprised I’m not f***in’ dead considering how bad this stuff tastes.’”
Eventually, though, he got used to it.
“The essence of it all is that people transform when they’re being unconditionally loved,” Engelhart explains. “We’d start calling Frank out on it whenever he’d diminish himself in front of us or in public.” Frank interjects, “Oh man, it was so irritating.” But it was working.
Ferrante started to shed weight, eventually losing more than 40 pounds. He began to listen; he became willing and open and guidable. And they started to realize it wasn’t just Ferrante who was changing—it was everyone involved. Originally, Engelhart, joined by his friend Conor Gaffney, who’d attended film school, and his stepbrother Cary Mosier, wanted to be Ferrante’s heroes and transform him overnight. Life, however, doesn’t work that way. For all three guys, it was an exercise in surrender, as they were forced to relinquish their expectations, as well as to give up their own desires to serve Ferrante.
Ferrante weaned himself from the antidepressants he’d taken for 10 years, and quit his 10-espressos-a-day habit. During filming he got a call from his doctor: his hepatitis C was gone. “I was healed,” Ferrante says, crediting his new healthy diet. The crew mediated conversations between Ferrante and his ex-girlfriend, and helped him work through old wounds caused by strained relationships with his brother, his ex-wife and his daughter. Then the 42 days came to an end, and, exhausted by the intense process, they put the film on hold.
A year later, hooked again on pills and close to death, Ferrante went into drug treatment. “I had forgotten about the film and everything,” he admits. It started when, toward the end of the 42 days, Ferrante was prescribed Vicodin to combat some of the painful side effects of his hepatitis C medications. Afraid of getting hooked, he’d flushed the pills down the toilet. But later convinced by a nurse that he should take them, Ferrante gave in. What started out as a doctor-prescribed pain treatment plan escalated (after filming stopped) into a full-blown addiction. Within a year, Ferrante found himself hustling doctors for prescriptions that included morphine sulfate, oxycodone and Valium. He describes that year as “terribly lonely and isolated,” and his drug abuse as “misery maintenance”—he wasn’t partying. He had some intermittent contact with Engelhart, but didn’t reveal what he was going through. Attending his grad school classes was the only thing that kept him alive. “I became a recluse,” Ferrante explains. “I tend to be a social person and I was the exact opposite.”
During treatment for addiction this time, Ferrante wondered to one of his counsellors why he wasn’t dead yet. The counsellor—a greying hippie and recovering addict himself—responded, “The real question isn’t why aren’t you dead, it’s why are you alive?” This was Ferrante’s epiphany. “I only really now feel the effects of what happened then. What happened in those 42 days remained with me, but I still had to go someplace else—wherever that place was.” The seeds of self-respect and spiritual practise had been planted and this time, in treatment, Ferrante was ready for real change.
Once again clean, Ferrante returned to Café Gratitude. The movie was resurrected as planned—this time, with a professional filmmaker (Gregg Marks) to edit the raw footage and shoot some more. May I Be Frank? is an intimate portrait of Ferrante’s life, health and struggles. A heartwarming moment occurs when Frank reads us a letter he’s composed to his ex-wife, apologizing for his past alcoholic behaviour and asking her to visit him in San Francisco.
These days, Ferrante, 55, is still working on his master’s degree in humanities at San Francisco State, does volunteer work and has been clean of all “mind-altering substances” for more than a year. He looks healthy and his eyes sparkle beneath a full head of thick salt-and-pepper hair. “My life is good,” he says, smiling warmly. “It’s free of drama.” He adds, leaning in, “Probably because it’s free of a girlfriend too. I’m still looking for her.”
He describes his diet as “60 percent raw”—mostly salads, with chicken and fish on occasion. Spiritually, he practises a 12-step lifestyle, which involves going to meetings every day and turning his will and life over to a higher power. He’s also interested in yoga. “Addiction is similar to spirituality,” Ferrante muses. “If you’re an alcoholic, you have to drink every day to achieve that level of numbness you’re looking for. I have to rejuvenate my spiritual connection every day—you don’t just arrive, it’s a daily practise. You can’t win today’s game on yesterday’s pitches.”
Josey Duncan wrote about yoga for minorities in the May 2008 issue.