As part of the Got to Be NC Competition Dining Series, Triangle 2015, I had the pleasure to interview the talented chefs from the four Raleigh restaurants participating in the competition and learn more about their experience, why they think they have what it takes to win, and other fun tidbits about them.
Chef Benjamin Harris, a native of Raleigh and 2005 graduate of Millbrook High School, became the executive chef at Midtown Grille in trendy North Hills late last summer. Chef Harris has worked at various restaurants in Charlotte and Charleston, S.C. He served as chef de cuisine at the highly-rated Poogan’s Porch in Charleston and later as executive chef at Charleston’s Republic Garden & Lounge when it opened in 2012, where he also garnered positive reviews.
Chef Harris’ dishes are inspired by his Southern roots as well as from his grandmother, and are prepared with seasonal offerings from local farmers and vendors. He strives to source his ingredients from the area and makes frequent visits to the State Farmer Market every week.
I sat down with a most enthusiastic Chef Harris earlier this week to learn more about his culinary background, cooking style and how he plans to prepare for this competition. And I left quite impressed with this young, charming and talented chef.
Kel’s Café: Tell us about your culinary school experience at Johnson and Wales in Charlotte.
Chef Harris: I attended Johnson and Wales for half a year and figured out quickly it was not for me. I grew up in the restaurant industry and it’s what I’ve always done. But the bills start piling up when you’re paying $60K for school and even when you graduate, you’re still going to be making $9.00 to $10.00 an hour for the next four or five years, depending on how talented you are. But it worked out for the best and I got to work for some nice people in Charlotte before I moved on.
Kel’s Café: So then you went to Charleston, my favorite food city in the South, maybe my favorite food city in the U.S. Tell us about your time there and, especially, how in the world could you ever leave?
Chef Harris: Charleston was excellent! It really was. I’ve taken things away from Charleston that you can’t go out and buy. I worked with many great chefs, and even some of the chefs I didn’t work with directly I got to do several events with, since Charleston is such a great culinary city. So I may not have worked for Sean Brock, executive chef at McGrady’s [Insert from Kel – One of my favorite Charleston restaurants!], but I got to stand next to him and watch him plate up one of his fabulous creations. Charleston was great, but I felt like a small fish in a BIG ocean and it was going to be really difficult to take my career to the next level.
From there, my now wife (I just got married three months ago), she and I moved to Hilton Head Island for about 10 months to do some consulting work. I helped SERG Restaurant Group to prepare to open the biggest restaurant on the island, Poseidon Coastal Cuisine.
Kel’s Café: So then you moved back to Raleigh.
Chef Harris: Coming back to Raleigh was a matter of great timing. I’m from a big family and my older sister and younger brother were both having children, so it was a perfect time to come home. And now my older brother and his wife are expecting! Plus, Raleigh is on a culinary upslope, which makes it a perfect time to come back and be a part of it. And I was so excited to be offered the executive chef position at Midtown Grille.
Kel’s Café: Growing up you worked in your grandmother’s garden – what is your favorite vegetable?
Chef Harris: Tomatoes at the beginning of the spring — you can’t beat them. I love okra, in any form. You either love it you hate, and I love it! Field peas, pink eyes, it’s all good.
Kel’s Café: What is your signature dish?
Chef Harris: One of the dishes I’ve always gone to is grits. Grits are really popular here, but I like to do them differently. It was one of the first things I put on the menu when I started. We do it in a fresh way, were you take the corn and cut down the kernels to split them and with the back of your knife you grate them off. It’s almost like the way you do creamed corn. You cook that down and the natural starches will thicken it as it comes to a boil. You add a little butter, salt and pepper and it looks just like grits, but tastes like fresh, delicious corn. That’s what we use with our Shrimp and Grits at Midtown.
Kel’s Café: Tell us about your typical day as a chef.
Chef Harris: I’m an early riser and I like to get here before anyone else. I walk around the kitchen and make sure everything is just right when I first arrive. I like to have an hour or two in the office before anyone else is here. I normally get in around 9:00 and start prepping between 10:30 and 11:00. I help through lunch and then prep for dinner until 3:00 or 4:00.
I think it’s important for every chef to take some time to relax for a minute before the dinner service. Take a minute, go for a walk, clear your head. I normally take an hour, and that’s also when Max (Trujillo, Midtown Grille’s general manager) and I sit down and talk about any upcoming events or special guests for the evening.
During dinner, I plate everything and see all of the dishes before they go out to the dining room. I usually leave between 8:30 and 10:00 at night. It’s a long day, but that’s what you sign up for as a chef.
Kel’s Café: How many days a week do you work?
Chef Harris: Normally six.
Kel’s Café: How will you prepare for the Got to Be NC competition and what will make you a winner?
Chef Harris: I’ll get a good night’s rest the night before. It’s a hard question to answer because I don’t think you can do much preparation beforehand. I have a great team around me and we’re just going to go in and let the ingredients speak for themselves without getting too whimsical or off the wall. We are cooking for 150 people, so what we make needs to make sense for a lot of palates.
Kel’s Café: Who are you bringing with you to the competition?
Chef Harris: Actually, our longest tenured employee, Andres Lopez, has been at Midtown since it was Cappers and he’s never participated in a competition like this, so we’re so excited he’s part of the team. We also have a new sous chef, Bryan Squires, who is coming to us from Second Empire and Herons [Insert from Kel – Two of my favorite Raleigh restaurants!] This will actually be the first time we’ve cooked together, so that will be fun. We have a good chemistry and he is so talented. I’m looking forward to it.
Kel’s Café: Are you familiar with your competitor, Chef Gerry Fong of New Bern and winner of 2012 Fire on the Dock series?
Chef Harris: I’ve done a little research on Chef Fong and know he’s done this competition a couple of times, so he’ll have a leg up on me having that experience. I look forward to meeting him.
Kel’s Café: Okay, let’s shift gears. What’s your favorite cooking tool?
Chef Harris: A cast-iron pan, hands down. It’s funny — my grandmother, who taught me how to cook, well she’s getting a little older and has started asking what we want when they pass on. I tell her I don’t want to have this conversation, but when she presses I tell her just let me have her cast-iron pans, that’s all I want. And then end of conversation.
Kel’s Café: What is your favorite local restaurant?
Chef Harris: It’s hard to beat Stanbury — Stanbury is great. Max and I recently took our wives to Sono, the Japanese restaurant in downtown Raleigh, and it was great, too.
Kel’s Café: What do you do for fun on your one day off?
Chef Harris: Spend time with my new wife, play golf, go to the beach, take our little dog Charlie to the dog park. But definitely golf. I love golf.
Kel’s Café: What advice do you have for up and coming chefs?
Chef Harris: Put in the hours. Stand behind the line. There’s always pressure for chefs to be out in the dining room and I’m not saying that’s not important, but until you know your menu is being executed correctly, be behind the line. Be plating, be prepping — nobody can replace your eyes.
I thank Chef Harris for spending time with me and wish him the best of luck in the competition. Charleston’s loss is certainly Raleigh’s gain! I look forward to trying his NC Shrimp and Grits next time we dine at Midtown Grille. Unless I get the Pork Osso Bucco, one of my favorites, instead. But I must try those fresh corn grits. Decisions, decisions!
*The awesome food photos of Chef Harris’ creations are courtesy of Felicia Perry Photography. Thanks, Felicia!
Eat, drink and be merry!
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