Photo by Leigh Loftus
Sous Chef Valeria Benner doesn’t cook at home, still it sounds like she eats better than I do. All I know how to do is steam. Hard to mess up, except when you forget it’s even happening and all the water evaporates and the broccoli turns black and sticks to the pot so you douse it with paprika and black pepper and pretend you were going for Cajun which is kind of pathetic because no one else is home so you’re only lying to yourself.
Not that I’ve ever done that. Nor has Chef Benner, I’m certain.
Throughout her time in Chicago, Benner has moved from the acclaimed Pump Room at the Ambassador East Hotel to Lockwood Restaurant at the Palmer House Hilton. There she works closely with Executive Chef Stephen Henry who she calls an “incredible mentor.”
I spoke with Benner about Wisconsin food and Chicago dining and generally tried to make her feel sorry for me so she’d swing by and make me something edible. No luck so far, but the day is young.
Our Town Where do you find inspiration?
Chef Val Benner I find inspiration in the food itself: watching it grow from a seed all the way to putting it to bed for the winter. Gardening and farming are a passion of mine and the whole process of growing food and raising livestock really drives my passion for the food itself. I think every chef should get their hands in the process and experience it to truly understand and appreciate their art. Hell, I think every person should. Maybe they'd have a better appreciation of how their food gets to the table.
OT How did you develop your current menu?
VB Its basically a partnership between the local farmers and Lockwood. I keep up with what's looking good at the local farms and in my rooftop garden and then create the menu based off of that. I like to make sure we have a little bit of everything for everyone and that each dish is approachable. Each item on the menu has an element that may be new or interesting to the guest, which keeps it interesting.
OT Who are some chefs that have influenced you?
VB People often ask me this and I have to admit that I really don't pay a lot of attention to what other chefs are doing. I don't watch the TV shows, read their books, or go to "hot" or high end restaurants. I don't even know that many chefs, really. I think the only chef I honestly I aspire to be like is Ferran Adria (but what self-respecting chef doesn't?) My reasons aren't on the culinary end though; he has inspired people around the world to be creative and think outside the box and that will have a lasting and positive impact on the world. That's the kind of stuff I want to do - I want to change the way people look at food. I could write a book about my feelings on that.
OT What’s your favorite Chicago spot for casual dining?
VB It depends on my mood. I either catch tacos & whiskey at Bullhead Cantina, gorge myself on the Korean wonders at San Soo Gab San, or grab Dim Sum in Chinatown. I'm a bit of a family diner fanatic as well. I appreciate little mom and pop spots: I'm supporting local families and farmers and often the food is better than the popular spots... definitely better for the price!
OT It looks like you grew up in Wisconsin. As a fellow Wisconsinite, I have to ask what did you find to eat there? I feel like it’s improved since I was a kid, but growing up we pretty much had...German food.
VB I lived in Wisconsin for over 10 years and I did most of my serious growing up there (I was in Michigan until I turned 16.) I have to admit that I have been incredibly lucky in my food experiences there. I worked in the famous Mifflin Street Co-op and learned all about sustainability, organics, farm-to-plate, etc before any of it hit the mainstream (this was 1997 through 2003) I learned to wild-forage from all the amazing wild areas so I know how to find morels, fiddlehead ferns, asparagus, wild carrots, fraises... and the list goes on. I worked a block from the state capital in Madison and used to wheel my cart down to the Farmers Market (the best in the country!) twice a week and picked up whatever looked good and based specials and menus off of that. I also have friends and family who are hunters so I'd often have fresh venison, rabbit, duck and pheasant. On our farm we had beef, lamb, goat, chicken and pigeon. I didn't realize it while I was growing up, but now that I'm in the thick of my career, I now realize how incredibly blessed I am to have the life I do.
OT Say I can’t cook (which I can’t). Give me an impressive yet easy to make recipe.
VB Here's one of my favorite things to bring to potlucks and barbecues:
Baked Potato Salad: "Bake" some russet baking potatoes in the microwave by washing them well, poking holes in them with a fork and then cook for 4 minutes, flip over and then 3 to 4 more (or until they're squishy all the way through) Let them cool down and then cut them into bite-sized pieces with the skin-on. Mix in all the things you would have piled on top of a baked potato: sour cream, chopped up bacon, shredded cheddar, broccoli, chives, etc. If the "sauce" needs thinning, buttermilk works best, but milk or half & half works too. Make sure you taste it and add salt & black pepper until its perfect. Easy, tasty, and you don't even have to turn the stove on if you don't want to!
OT What’s your go-to dinner at home?
VB You're going to laugh at me, but I don't cook much at home. I live alone with my two dogs and cooking for one isn't worth the bother most days. So I eat a lot of exotic cheeses with wasa crackers, sardines, poached or boiled eggs, fresh fruit and vegetables and pickled everything. I almost always have some kind of tea in my hand as well - I absolutely love tea and crumpets with homemade preserves. If I'm having company I make coq au vin because all I have to do is throw it in the Dutch oven and then go drink wine with my guests. Add a baguette, fresh green salad and a white Bordeaux and life is divine.
OT How does your work as a theatre costumer dovetail with your life as a chef?
VB Its a hobby more than anything else because I just don't have time to do it as much anymore (being a chef is very time consuming!) I find time to put together about one piece a month and I do truly enjoy it a great deal. I study the time period and try to get as accurate as possible with modern methods, with the end product being a stunning ensemble and a piece of art. Since I've come to The Palmer House, I've been buying pieces for my improv theater events more than making them myself. I still enjoy assembling the ensembles and finding different pieces that work together for a complete look. Its not too far from cooking, really. I look at all the ingredients that are available and at their peak at the time and then piece them together so that the flavors, textures and colors compliment each other into an enjoyable dish that's fun, beautiful and maybe even a little surprising. Yes, they're quite similar, actually.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," (Soft Skull press) is available for pre-order here. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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