Thoughts on food, farm, and family from Chef Ben Bebenroth

Editor’s note: I caught up with Ben after a long spring day spent welding a manure spreader back together, and asked about his relationship with local food, his mission at Spice, and the transformative power of turnips. Here are his thoughts, condensed and edited only slightly.

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Chef Bebenroth cooking in nature’s kitchen.

I’ve always been a gardener, a forager. I was bringing that stuff into whatever restaurant job I had — chilies and herbs from my garden, ramps from the woods. Some places would let me use them in specials. Others were like, if it doesn’t come with a receipt, we can’t use it. Those jobs didn’t last long.

When we started the [Spice of Life] catering company, we were living in a tiny bungalow in Parma with a small garden, and we incorporated that into our recipes. The garden grew with the business. First a raised bed, then an acre out back when we moved to a new place in suburbia. Then one year I dug up the front yard too, and planted three thousand heads of garlic, and currants along the side. It was taking over the house. The whole basement was full of plants, leaf mulch in driveway. Jackie told me, this has to end. And then one day I ran into Darwin Kelsey [of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s Countryside Conservancy, which manages the farms in the Park] at a farmer’s market. Brother Bebenroth, he said, I may have a farm for you. So we baked some Christmas cookies, got the kids and went over to see Alan, the owner at the time. Saw the house and made the decision: we were moving to the farm.

I cook from the perspective of zero waste. That’s what drives the farm, that’s what drives my cuisine. I’m trying to cook with no byproducts, not filling the compost bin with stems. That’s not necessary. There’s no waste in a good garden, and I approach the kitchen in the same way. My carrot peels go into the stock pot. Swiss chard stems get quick-pickled. There’s a home and a purpose for everything. Harvesting what the forest has to offer, you appreciate the fact that the dying tree gives way to the living mushroom. And that gets into your breath and your heart and your life.

The future of food is a race to the past. It’s about how food used to travel, be preserved, be consumed locally, and the celebrations around that. Food-centric societies where everything tastes different a hundred miles away. And we’re getting there. We’re getting great cheese from Columbus, tortilla chips from Athens — that’s a hell of a lot better than San Jose. We’re getting there. Today’s local is tomorrow’s import.

At Spice, I’m not in the kitchen as often as I used to be — I’m the motivator, the inspirational team leader. Turning my cooks into chefs, activists, sustainable-local thinkers, and trying to facilitate that change in diners — that’s more important to me than turning a turnip into a turnip gratin. Can a plate of food on a Saturday night do that? One at a time, I think it can.

When I was a kid my parents sent us to an Amish work farm, and they had this saying, if we were out talking about the mall or something, they’d tell us, ‘stay on the farm.’

I may not be in the restaurant kitchen tonight, and I feel bad about that. But I’m here watching the sunset with the dirtiest hands I’ve had in months, and it feels so damn good.