DelecTable is pleased to welcome Ben Serum as our new Executive Chef. A world class chef, Ben Serum brings years of international experience and a wealth of creative cuisine and innovative cooking to Dinner Theater here at DelecTable. We had a chance to interview the Chef before he takes over in early April.
DelecTable: You have a very impressive resume, including Michelin Star restaurants internationally and in San Francisco, and most recently Executive Chef at the James Beard Award nominated Pig in a Fur Coat here in Madison. Given your estimable success, I am curious what attracted you to the culinary arts?
Ben Serum: I don’t really have a glorified answer for that. So, I guess I got into cooking out of necessity. You know, pay the bills, but then eventually you find products and places that spark your interest and get you to dive deeper and deeper. All right, for me, I guess it was when I went to Europe. That was when I really first started falling in love with the many possibilities in cooking.
DT: What do you plan to bring to DelecTable?
BS: My plans are to focus on local farmers by utilizing the skills I have honed over the years and to really dig back deeply into my hometown. In other words, to showcase what makes Wisconsin unique and Madison so special.
DT: So, you grew up here?
BS: Yes. I left in my early twenties, after a brief stint in culinary school, and went to Europe and Norway, where my father lives. I cooked in a couple of restaurants, even opened a few. Culinary school was helpful in that it taught me what NOT to do. It gave me permission to fail, which is a valuable lesson. Ultimately I proved to be more of a “hands on” learner, and ended up learning from some of the best chefs in the world, and that’s how I learned to succeed.
DT: There were several award-winning restaurants you were associated with, did you think you contributed to those awards?
BS: Of course. Every one contributes, from the dishwasher and all the way up. I was part of the number one restaurant in the world, Noma in Copenhagen, and I take great pride in that. We had two Michelin stars at that time. Winning Michelin stars at Quince in San Francisco was a lot of fun. We went from a one star to a two star while I was there. But don’t be misled, I am certainly not in it for the awards, but the knowledge. I’m now in a place in my career where I can give it back.
DT: What chefs do you find the most inspirational today?
BS: I was lucky enough to work with José Andrés in Oakland when the pandemic started. We were feeding all the first responders’ dinners. This was under his foundation World Central Kitchen, for which he won the National Humanities Medal. Amazingly, that work really did help our business as well. The work that José Andrés does, really is inspiring. When you get to that plateau as a chef, when you get to that top pinnacle of the industry, to be able to be able to filter it all back down, well that’s what it’s all about.
DT: Out of all the places that you have worked, where do you think you learned the most? If you can pinpoint that, or do you think it was a steady ladder of learning?
BS: I think you got it right on both counts. I think I really started digging into my career when I was working at Vulkana, which was a whaling boat remodeled into a spa and restaurant, and I was able to have complete control over 16 people’s experience working with all the local ingredients in Northern Europe and in Northern Norway. Once I left there and went to Noma in Copenhagen, it really showed me what the soul of cooking should be; what the soul of food should be. I guess from there I was kind of bopping around a little bit. And then three Michelin star Quince in San Francisco showed me a lot. But it also showed me how to make the restaurant “machine” work. How to execute at a two star level, and how to really work professionally. I guess what they taught me was “how the sausage is made.” Ten Bells in London, which I helped to open, has transitioned into Clove Club, with two Michelin stars that is one of the perennial top 50 restaurants of the world. I guess the last few years of my career, mostly at Monsieur Benjamin, (owned by Cory Lee, who’s sister restaurant is 3 Michelin star Benu), which was a French bistro, run by myself and Jason Berthold. I credit him as my finishing chef, who really showed me how to execute all these things, all these things that I’ve learned and picked up from here and there. He helped me funnel all those ideas together, and to focus them onto a plate. Monsieur Benjamin was always an Essential 38 list member of San Francisco. Also my work with Mark Liberman opened my eyes to the simplicity of food.
DT: Clearly, sustainable practices are very important to you. And I’m confident that those principles were paramount in your decision to come to DelecTable. How do you plan to implement those practices?
BS: Definitely. That’s as simple as working directly with the farmer and cutting out the big guy. You don’t want commodity pork loin that’s sold to the grocery store; you want to eat something that somebody has put love into. And that story really does come through when you see the final plate. Instead of looking at a spreadsheet that my vegetable company gives to me and tells me this is what they have, I just text with Gretchen (Hickory Hills, Spring Green) or Geoff (Valhalla Hills Farm, Blanchardville) and see what’s growing. I actually helped write his crop list for the upcoming year. He’s probably the most interesting person I’ve met since I’ve been back in Madison. His willingness to work directly with me and seeing my frustrations on the produce that I was receiving from the large companies and he immediately went through and wrote a crop list for the coming summer. So I already had basically had my menu planned out. When I was saying, “Okay, I don’t have enough chicories, I don’t have enough pole beans, I don’t have enough shelling beans,” or whatever and he’d say, “okay, let’s just plant a bunch of them.” So that was really cool to meet somebody like that, and I plan on working with him for the next 20 years here in Madison.
There’s a different way that a chef can run a kitchen. He can run it, you know, by the books, he can run it by the spreadsheets, he can run it just by what’s cheap. Or you can run it with the same bottom line, but with completely different products and a completely different setup, where instead of going to the usual corporate purveyors you just talk to whoever is growing the produce you need.
DT: You run a restaurant in the reverse of what is usual, i.e. instead of writing a menu and then finding a purveyor, you talk to the farmer to see what’s seasonal and then write the menu.
BS: You’re 100% right there. I never really thought about it that way. But working with Mark Liberman from Mago, and AQ, he kind of showed me, he can open my eyes to how you can do it differently.
DT: This approach sounds very eco-friendly.
BS: DelecTable can easily have the lowest eco footprint in Madison. Especially with me cooking for 60 people on a weekend, when a lot of restaurants are doing 200, 400, 600.
DT: Now, onto more general questions. What is your favorite cuisine?
BS: I’d have to say French. I know it’s a cookie-cutter answer, but really refined French food is the best. I have based my career on modern Scandinavian, and then French and Italian cuisines.
DT: Do you have a signature dish?
BS: Signature dishes happen every weekend.
DT: Do you have a moment that stands out in your culinary career?
BS: No….I have multiple moments.
DT: Great answer. I’m sure there have been plenty of “comical” moments in your career. Would you like to share one?
BS: Unfortunately, I don’t have any “PG” stories…think “Kitchen Confidential.”
DT: If you had to choose only 3 kitchen tools to work with, what would they be?
BS: A chef’s knife. A grill; I’ve always loved a wood fire. And a small off-set spatula is really nice.
DT: Are you comfortable with the “theatrical” aspects of dinner theater?
BS: Yes. I think they are essential to what we do. It is imperative when sustainability is paramount in our cuisine. It’s one thing to put green beans on the menu, but it they come from Mexico, it defeats the purpose. Here we can explain that the beans come from Valhalla Farms and talk about the farmer and the process. And, the last 3 restaurants I worked in San Francisco and the Bay Area were all open kitchens, which was “designed in” for the performance element.
DT: Do you have a cooking philosophy you will be exploring at DelecTable?
BS: Absolutely. “What Wisconsin cuisine can be.” Currently everybody’s doing it a little bit, and talking about it, but I’d like to actually “walk the walk.”
DT: Now, is there anything you’d like to add that we haven’t covered?
BS. I’m just excited to get the ball rolling and showcase what Wisconsin has to offer.