Today marks the 300th edition of this weekly column and the launch of a new monthly feature that will celebrate local chefs.
There are many talented chefs working in the region, and one in particular stood out as the obvious candidate to be highlighted first. It is with pleasure (and pride) that I introduce you to Chef Ben Walker.
Tony and I first met Ben in 2002 when we hired him to be a dishwasher at our former restaurant, Sarello's. Ben was just in high school then, and over the next 13 years, we watched him work his way up the ranks of our kitchen, advancing from dishwasher to prep cook, line cook and sous-chef until reaching the rank of executive chef. In that time, he also achieved his bachelor's degree in art education from Minnesota State University Moorhead.
When Sarello's closed in 2015, Ben took his talents to Maxwells in West Fargo, where he works as a sous-chef. Fortunately, Tony and I have been able to continue our professional relationship with Ben, who has served on our culinary team for the annual Banquet in a Field event.
In a recent conversation, I asked Ben what keeps him coming back to this event.
"I love collaborating with you and Tony and having the opportunity to do something different from my daily routine," he said. "The Banquet is so innovative, challenging us to use ingredients in new ways. It's refreshing to work outdoors and be able to meet the people who produce the foods we cook with every day."
Ben is a talented artist with a passion for sculpture, and his Quick-Pickle Plate emerged as one of the standout dishes at this year's banquet. I know this because everyone I talked to at the event was raving about it - from the beautifully sculpted presentation of summer colors to the wonderful pickling brine, Chef Ben had everyone going crazy. Over vegetables.
Dazzled by his creativity, I asked Ben what keeps him motivated to continually bring his passion to the plate.
"I love serving people and seeing their reaction when they enjoy my food," he answered. "For me, it's all about playing with the food and allowing myself to be creative, while still having fun."
Ben credits Maxwells co-owners Mike Wald and Ramon Sosa for creating a supportive work environment for him and his colleagues.
I asked Ben where he hangs his hat when he's not enjoying the fine food at Maxwells or cooking for his wife, Nicole, and his toddler, Daisy. Duane's House of Pizza is his top pick for comfort food, and he said he heads to Luna Fargo for finer dining.
Ben's creativity knows no bounds and is matched only by his fierce work ethic. Thankfully, his Midwestern background keeps him grounded.
"'Perfect' is not a word that belongs in the kitchen," he said, describing his creative process.
For a chef, that kind of sensibility sounds almost like a recipe for perfection.
Chef Ben's Quick-Pickle Plate
Makes: About 2 to 3 cups of pickled vegetables
4 cups apple cider vinegar
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup kosher salt
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
2 to 3 cups of assorted vegetables
Radishes, sliced in rounds or quarters, at least ¼-inch thick
Garden carrots, quartered lengthwise into sticks 4 inches long and ¼- to ½-inch thick
Green beans, whole, tips removed if desired
Bell peppers, cut into ½-inch wide strips
Brussels sprouts, whole or halved
Beets, diced or sliced
Garlic, whole or sliced
Cucumbers, sliced or diced
Green tomatoes, sliced
Onions, sliced, or whole if small
Put all the brine ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sugar and salt are fully dissolved into the liquid. Remove from heat.
Place the vegetables in a heat-proof container. Pour the brine in, using all of it to ensure the veggies are fully covered. For best results, refrigerate overnight or at least 4 hours before serving. Most vegetables will keep well for several days up to 1 week.
Recipe Time Capsule:
This week in...
• 2016: Sarah's Panzanella Salad
• 2014: Sarah's North Dakota Sun Brittle
"Home With the Lost Italian" is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owned Sarello's in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at email@example.com.