Community Table: Abra Berens

Rose Truesdale

Community Table is a Home Chef interview series dedicated to real people who celebrate food — from farmers, chefs, and food photographers to those cooking with love in their own kitchens.

Our first guest: Abra Berens, the Executive Chef at Local Foods Chicago and co-founder of Bare Knuckle Farm in Northport, MI.

Abra Berens
Photo by Nick Murway for The Chicago Reader

Tell us your food philosophy.
I believe we should cook what is around us. That naturally links to the local and seasonal conversation that has been happening since Chez Paniesse and Ms. Alice Waters took hold. But that also means cooking from what is in your fridge, your pantry and not throwing it out. I also believe that food should nourish both our lives and our bodies. Sometimes that is a perfect set of vegetables and supremely boiled egg and sometimes it is eating cookies for dinner.

How has your culinary training and personal background shaped said philosophy?
I started cooking at Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor where the focus was on traditional, peasant and high quality food. I couldn’t have learned more quickly that “you really can taste the difference” in the quality of ingredients and the care in production. From there I went to school at Ballymaloe Cookery School in Co. Cork Ireland, a cooking school situated on a 100 acre organic farm. It was there that I knew I wanted to make food that is intimately linked to its production. To honor the work that goes into growing and raising food that I have the privilege of cooking. I’ve been lucky enough to always have jobs at restaurants that feel the same way.

Photo by Chelsea Ross at Bare Knuckle Farm
Photo by Chelsea Ross at Bare Knuckle Farm

Who are your culinary idols? What about them inspires you?
Myrtle Allen was a farmer’s wife who needed to help her family earn money. So she opened a guest house that served Irish country food. From those undecorated intentions she became the leader of the farm and food revolution in Ireland. And she had the good judgement to hire Darina O’Connell who ran her kitchen and then married her son and started Ballymaloe Cooking School helping to teach several generations of cooks to work close to the ground.
I am also so inspired by Edna Lewis who worked to create awareness of traditional Southern food while simultaneously breaking down the bondage to women of color that Southern kitchens represented.

What’s been the greatest challenge of your career so far? Tell us about that point in your life.
I have been blessed that the biggest challenge of my career is how to make it a sustainable career. You don’t earn much money as a line cook and it is hard on your body. Same for being a farmer. So the challenge is how to take this job that is so magical and make it a career both financially and with longevity. But those are really good problems to have!

Photo by Chelsea Ross at Bare Knuckle Farm
Photo by Chelsea Ross at Bare Knuckle Farm

Name a dish that’s particularly meaningful to you. Share the story of that dish.
There are three. The dish of hamachi, olive sorbet and slow cooked quail egg that I had at Charlie Trotter’s the night before I moved to Europe for school. It was the first time I’d ever had a tasting menu and I never knew food could achieve that level of artistry. The first time I served my father pork and vegetables that I grew drawing upon the farming history of his family and honoring my mother who was the most amazing cook to learn under. And today the chicken and dumplings on the menu at Stock. It was another cook’s idea, my training that knew how to surmount the challenges to execution, and is the best example of expanding the Midwestern traditions of my roots and making it more contemporary and refined.

What upcoming projects do you have simmering?
I am currently working on my first cook book that will be a practical guide to vegetables. The goal of the book is to give foundational knowledge on how to prepare vegetables and then several jumping off points on how to riff on a recipe and make people more confident cooks in their own homes.

Photo by Chelsea Ross at Bare Knuckle Farm
Photo by Chelsea Ross at Bare Knuckle Farm

Anything else we should know?
The most important thing you can do to become a better cook is to cook as often as you can and work to make yourself confident. Don’t be intimidated by the chef culture. Some of the best cooks in the world are the people cooking with care and excitement in their own kitchens. And above all remember to appreciate those you are cooking for– especially yourself.

Learn more about Abra here.

Photos by Nick Murway for Chicago Reader and Chelsea Ross