What I Do: St. Louis restaurateur Ben Poremba
Chances are Ben Poremba has had a hand in at least one of your favorite local restaurants, and likely more than one. Co-founder of Salume Beddu, former executive chef at Winslow’s Home (now Winslow’s Table) and the now-closed Maryland House at Brennan’s, he is currently chef-owner of Bengelina Hospitality Group, which includes restaurants Olio and Elaia, as well as The Benevolent King, Nixta, La Patisserie Chouquette and specialty foods market and coffee shop AO&Co. Here, he talks about his professional and creative journey, where the restaurant industry is headed, and his great admiration for another local restaurateur, Zoe Robinson.
“I’m a mama’s boy; I’m the youngest of three. My mom [Rachel] was a professional caterer for many years and a culinary educator. I’m convinced that the cooking bug came from her.”
“My parents embodied the essence of hospitality. My dad [Jacob] was in business, and they traveled extensively. They’ve had friends from every continent in our little apartment in Israel, where I grew up. It just felt busy with guests all the time.”
“I remember my mom’s appointments and table settings and, of course, the food. But it was more than the food: It was just the whole approach to hosting and entertaining. And that’s still the biggest inspiration for me.”
“I started to cook [professionally] when I was in college. It started with a family, and then from the family to a little catering business. When I decided that I wanted to do it for real, then it meant that I had to go and experience it – traveling in Europe and going back to Israel, and really not doing what most cooks or chefs do, which is spend a lot of time in kitchens and doing line work. I did that too, once I decided that’s really what I wanted to do. But I really did it from the perspective of almost like an anthropologist. The food culture was more important to me than the professional cooking culture.”
“My title at the company [Bengelina Hospitality Group] is like the director of tiny details and the director of big details. Tiny elements would mean that the toilet paper in our bathrooms is wrapped in ribbon, that a planter is being placed there, or that we’re using this font for that menu – all the little tiny little details that I think sum up an experience. And then the big details: What’s our next restaurant? What’s our next strategy? What do we wanna do here?”
“Zoe Robinson and I are good friends, and she’s really inspired me. … She is what I call the restaurateur par excellence. Her ability to greet people as soon as they come in is just unbelievable. She’s really the stage designer. It’s what I aim to be. She’s the queen of little details – she doesn’t miss a detail when she opens the restaurant. And her presence on the floor is just calming and reassuring. People could be yelling at her and screaming at her and cussing at her, and she is just full of grace. I’m not.”
“When I opened Olio [in 2012] and I was trying to basically cook Israeli food, that term didn’t exist at that time. If it did, it only existed in the big cities. I think that I pioneered a little bit of that Israeli or Middle Eastern Revolution that is now everywhere. It’s ubiquitous.”
“The idea of restaurants is changing. … It’s changing from this all-encompassing operation to something a lot more focused and tighter. A lot of it is Covid-induced. But even before, we were trying to figure out … how to do what we do in a more efficient way. Restaurants [operate with] tiny margins; cash flow is everything. Covid accentuated all those underlying problems that we knew were there. [It’s] just forced us to stop and think about, how is it that even the most successful restaurants, when they close for three weeks, they’re completely out of money to pay vendors, completely out of cash reserves to pay their employees? It’s not sustainable.”
“I’m a lover of quality ingredients, that’s the reason I went to Italy and studied at the slow food university [University of Gastronomic Sciences]. I’ve started launching a lot of products, retail-able products. That’s the direction that I’m gonna go full force over the next couple of years or even the next couple decades. I have a local caviar line that we sell at our store [AO&Co.], batched cocktails that I do with Kevin Lemp at Four Hands brewery and 1220 [Artisan Spirits]. I’m doing a coffee from Colombia. … We’re doing canned seafood from Spain that’s gonna have my name on it. And other things: cigars with Kevin Brennan from Brennan’s – I’ve been a cigar smoker for years.”
“We recently opened a store that sells used home goods – we call it pre-loved goods – on Cherokee Street. It’s called the Commissary. It was supposed to be a commissary kitchen … and we decided, what the heck, let’s just sell a bunch of the stuff we have and … create another experience, right?”
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