Ben Bebenroth grins as he slices the flank steak he just grilled for a big crowd of fascinated foodies. He’s cooking in the middle of a garden full of vegetables, raspberries, strawberries, grapes and peach and apple trees.
Every summer for the last six years, Bebenroth’s been part of Gourmets in the Garden, a series of outdoor cooking demos.
“I just love working with Botanical Garden. A hundred and seventy-five people out here watching me do naan and flank steak for crying out loud. I mean all these people are gathering around this concept of ‘Hey, we care about our food.’”
They care, too, about the chef.
Restaurant regulars wish him well
Fans ask for autographs and wish him success at Spice Acres, his new farm in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
“It’s a big gamble,” he confesses. “I mean, what could be possibly more risky than a restaurant? Let’s have a farm.”
Bebenroth’s table-to-farm transition is a natural. As one of the strongest proponents of locally-grown food among Northeast Ohio’s chefs, he hopes to set an example.
“Everybody wants to buy locally. Awesome. Well then, everybody needs to grow locally, too.”
Bebenroth has been gardening for his family and business for years. But now he wants more food than he can grow at home, or in the greenhouse behind his restaurant and the garden on its rooftop.
Sharing tips as he grills
The dish he’s demonstrating this evening, honey-glazed flank steak with grilled bread and chimmichurri, is on the menu at Spice Kitchen and Bar in Cleveland’s Gordon Square Arts District. Sure, he’s promoting his restaurant. But for those who want to do it at home he shares how to get the garlic to pop.
“After you get a little bit of a rough chop on this, we’re going to really start to bring the juices out of this garlic with a little bit of kosher salt.”
Bebenroth isn’t classically trained as a chef, but he has learned a lot in his 36 years. He is a former Marine helicopter repairman. He’s also been a dishwasher at Rockne’s where he started his culinary career and cooked at the Renaissance Hotel, Parker’s in Ohio City and Browns Stadium before opening his own restaurant and catering company.
He shares his background with the Gourmets in the Garden audience, along with his hopes for the farm. He plans cooking demos there, too.
Spice Acres is one of 11 Countryside Conservancy Initiative Farms. It’s a 15-year-old program bringing family farms back to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
“And now it’s our turn,” he says to a round of applause. “So we’re really lucky, and we’ll be moving in there Aug. 15th.”
He didn't grow up on a farm, but it was close
Bebenroth grew up next door to a farm.
“And it’s still one of the only farms left in Strongsville right now. They had horses, cows and chickens, the whole nine yards. It was just something that really stuck to me.
"And when we walked into Alan’s barn the first time when I was talking about this lease with him, that smell of stalls and hay -- it was like going home again. It’s kind of crazy. You know that never leaves you.”
Humble about all he has to learn
But he harbors no illusion about how hard it’s going to be.
“There’s a real steep learning curve with agriculture. I learned a lot of hard lessons and lost a lot of passionate product that I thought was going to be perfect and then wham, gone right before harvest. It’s something that you want to grow into.
"We had to earn the reputation that we have now and the trust of the dining public. And now we really have to earn agriculturally our street cred with the other valley farmers. I’m sure there’s a few of them out there thinking, ‘Oh man, this city kid doesn’t know what the hell’s going on.’ ”
Bebenroth will have help. He’s been making plans for the last five months with the farm director and labor manager he’s hired, both veterans of Cleveland’s urban agriculture scene.
Farm to bar
And the staff at Spice Kitchen and Bar is ready to pitch in, especially bartender Dave Rydell, known for his farm-to-bar craft cocktails.
“Oh, he’s really excited. He brought a bunch of people out to the farm tour on Monday. We just started discussing what types of different products we’re going to be utilizing. It’s one thing for Dave to walk through the greenhouse and pick a couple jalapenos and ‘Oh, I’m going to throw some tequila on this, and it’s going to be great.’ Now it’s a whole other thing to say. ‘OK, what do you want on this acre?’”
Ben Bebenroth of Spice Acres -- chef, restaurateur, caterer, husband, father of 8-year-old Sydney and 5-year-old Burke, and now a farmer, too.
How does he find the energy? Marine Corps calisthenics help.
“Oh yeah, every morning. I do a good bit of meditating, too, and stay pretty active with martial arts.”
And that’s this week’s Quick Bite. Next week we meet the Akron bakers who make cupcakes for LeBron James.