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Meet The Chef Who Treats His ‘Anti-Restaurant’ Like His Own Pad

Photo: Greg Rannells

When the idea of a restaurant formulates in my mind it goes straight to the dish. What’s the dish I always order when I go to a certain spot? What menu cornerstone makes my mouth salivate like a cartoon coyote at the sight of a blue-feathered cuckoo?

But what if the carte du jour was always changing at a restaurant? Imagine the menu will always change every day no matter what. That’s something Chef Ben Poremba experiences on the daily — and he LOVES it.

Poremba, owner of the Bengelina Hospitality Group, runs six different restaurants in St. Louis, Missouri. If you ask him which one of his spots mean the most to him, he’ll gladly tell you it’s The Benevolent King.

His customers fondly refer to it as the anti-restaurant.

What’s the Anti-Restaurant?

Photo: Greg Rannells

The “anti-restaurant,” a nomme de guerre created by his customers, refers to how chef Poremba runs the Benevelont King.

“I wanted to open a restaurant that’s basically the food I cook at home,” he explained.

The ever-changing menu is created by Chef Poremba every day, where his impulses dictate the offerings. He describes the take on Moroccan cuisine as whimsical because that’s where the dishes stem from — a whim.

When he decides what he wants, he’ll come in that morning before service begins to print out the new menu for that service.

Like his own home, Poremba hangs pictures of his son along the walls of his restaurant. On another wall, there is a rack that stores the restaurant’s equipment like blenders and meat grinders.

“[It’s] just kind of like a home where it’s like your domestic kitchen design,” he said. “I will put produce on the pass, and there’s a spice shelf right in the middle of the restaurant.”

Poremba even says the lounge area at the Benevolent King is nearly identical to the one in his living room.

“Everybody sees me, I see everybody, people will just come up and talk and I can shout to guests from the kitchen to across the room,” he laughed. “Unfortunately, or fortunately, they get my best days and not so best days!”

Before each service, he and his general manager battle over who controls the music.

“I created a few playlists that I love that include anywhere from traditional Moroccan music, to contemporary Israeli music, American pop, electronica, salsa — it’s just one big party and it’s very personal,” he explained.

Photo: Greg Rannells

Running a restaurant where the menu is never the same day-after-day has to be tough though, even if it’s an outlet for Poremba’s culinary expression.

“From the service perspective, it’s driving the staff crazy. The food can have different garnishes, and two orders of the same thing will often come out looking different depending on the time you come in. I want to keep it true to cooking at home. It’s all ingredient driven.”

For example, the other day Chef Poremba’s menu included a charred eggplant spread. Today, however, he felt like serving grilled octopus with a chermoula sauce.

With an incredibly small kitchen, the Benevolent King only has room for two chefs and a dishwasher. Poremba says it’s only about 100 square feet, laughing at the possibility of it probably being the smallest kitchen in America.

The restaurant’s structure is pretty different than the other, more traditional, restaurants Poremba opened. He admits it was tough handing the everyday reigns of the other spots over to someone else at first, but in the end it’s what made him happy.

“I missed cooking what I wanted to cook, the foods I enjoy for leisure,” he tells us.

Chef Ben Poremba

Photo: Greg Rannells

Born in Isreal, Poremba learned the art of crafting cuisine from his mother – who herself was a chef and culinary instructor for 40 years.

The Benevolent King is actually dedicated to Poremba’s mother who is a frequent visitor and “guest chef” at the restaurant.

“I love her food and her flavors,” Poremba tells us. “My mom decided she was going to help out. She’ll show up five minutes into service with an amazing eggplant dish.”

“I decided to stop by and you should serve this,” she’d tell him…which her dutiful son does.

Even though it’s grown from his passion, the Benevolent King is still a business. Poremba says the menu will still continue to evolve and change, but he’s working hard to implement a smoother structure for his staff. Regardless, he’s enjoying the hell out of his unfettered cooking experience.