Culture Features Restaurants

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.

Culture Opinion

Are Food Deserts Causing The Decline Of Home Cooking In The US?

“See in my hood, there ain’t really much to eat. Popeye’s on the corner, McDonald’s right across the street.”

The above is a line from “Grow Food,” a 2016 viral song featuring kids rapping about urban farming. Since hearing about them and sharing their story, this quote has stuck with me, especially when it comes to the conversation of food security. Having just fast food around creates the prospect of cooking at home less likely, where you can control nutrition, portion size, and price.

We hear about that when it comes to food deserts, or areas of the country where there are little to no grocery options around. But a recent infographic from Porch may showcase just how little home cooking occurs in those areas.

Photo courtesy of Porch

Above is data on the states whose populations talk the most about home cooking on social media (in this case, Instagram). Based on hashtags gathered, the three states where dinner at home is more common are New York, Hawaii, and California. Of course, these are also three of the states with the highest costs of living, as Porch notes in their piece featuring this infographic.

That got me thinking: Why are people in areas with a lower cost of living cooking at home less?

The belief has always been that home cooking is lighter on the family budget than eating out. However, there are countless editorials online arguing for both sides, with one Business Insider article suggesting that rising grocery prices and a lack of preparation time lead to more dinners from restaurants.

The grocery prices argument makes sense to me, but a lack of prep time would seem to affect the more time-rushed communities of places like New York and California. And yet, they lead the way in terms of those talking about home cooking on social media.

Perhaps, the proportion of people who home cook isn’t related to income at all. Perhaps it’s food access, or a lack thereof, that plays more of a key factor.

To see if this was the case, let’s refer to the USDA’s Food Desert Atlas. You can view screenshots of this map, which shows food deserts in the contiguous US, Alaska, and Hawaii, below. A legend is on the first image to show what the different colors mean, “LI” standing for low income and “LA” for low access.

Food deserts might be larger in size in California, but there are much fewer of them than in regions like the Southern US. In fact, California, New York, and Hawaii have fewer food deserts, while areas where home cooking was talked about less often had significantly more food deserts.

Here’s an enhanced look of the South for a clearer picture.

You can barely drive anywhere in some states without finding yourself in a food desert. Alabama and Mississippi, for example, are nearly entirely covered on the above map and had the third and fourth-lowest available data on home cooking.

Combining the Food Desert Atlas information with Porch’s infographic presents an interesting scenario. Because food access is generally lower in places with a lower cost of living, it makes sense that there are fewer food deserts in California and New York. Factoring in the social media data suggests that regular home cooking, once the standard across the US, is relegated to areas with less food deserts.

This makes sense, considering that in food deserts, your most common option for dinner is likely going to be from a fast food chain, restaurant, or from cheap, nutrient-dense foods that are likely higher in calories than a homemade meal. But does an increased concentration of food deserts in a region really mean that people there are cooking at home less?

Perhaps, though there are some flaws in the data that challenge this argument. Porch’s data, while it is per capita, may not reflect the fact that people outside of California, New York, and Hawaii simply use social media less often. There’s also the fact that both North and South Dakota, the two states where home cooking hashtags were uncovered the least, have relatively few food deserts.

The presence of food deserts may even have nothing to do with homemade meals. If families in these areas are growing food at home, then the need for grocery stores and retailers nearby is moot. That could explain the correlation with the Dakotas, but low food literacy and the modern consumer’s disconnection from our farms suggest that this may not be the case either.

So does food desert frequency really correlate to less home cooking? To answer this question, we need to look and see what’s physically going on in concentrated areas on the USDA’s map, not just on social media. Is home cooking more prevalent than Porch’s data says it is in food desert areas, or is it really all about Popeyes and McDonald’s, like it was for the kids in the viral rap?

If we’re seeing spots of the country classified as food deserts really cooking at home less, it would signify a glaring trend for the world’s largest exporter of food. How could a country instrumental in feeding the rest of the world be unable to provide enough fresh produce and groceries for its own people? How have we gotten to a point where families have to rely on calorie-rich, heavy portions from restaurants, rather than their own nutritional knowhow and culinary skills?

It’s a discussion worth having as the issue of food deserts continues to gain more attention.