Born and raised in Memphis, TN, the Barbecue Belt of the South, Ben cut his teeth in the restaurant business through a number of local restaurant jobs. Before ever picking up a chef’s knife, he spent years bussing tables, barbacking, shucking oysters, and washing dishes. But mostly washing dishes. He cleaned a lot of plates in Memphis. His first real cooking job was at La Tourelle Restaurant, a beloved Memphis institution that was a springboard for numerous local chefs. It was there that Ben was encouraged to consider the idea of culinary school. After applying and being accepted to the Culinary Institute of America, he did just that.
hyde park, ny
Ben began his eye-opening experience of culinary education at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York in April of 1984. It was a rigorous, but rewarding experience and the first leg of his culinary journey. It was here, particularly in his favorite class, Asian Cuisine, that he was first exposed to many of the ingredients and techniques that still intrigue him today. When it came time for his obligatory six month externship, Ben chose San Francisco for his destination. He landed at the Sherman House Hotel, a 15 room boutique hotel in Pacific Heights. There he worked under Master Chef, Paul Grutter, who’s focus was classical French cuisine. Here Ben gained hands-on experience with classical French pastries and worked extensively with chocolate. Upon completion of his externship, he returned to the CIA, where he graduated in December of 1986. But the draw of California was too strong to resist, and Ben soon found himself back in San Francisco.
San Francisco, CA
Ben returned to San Francisco shortly after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America. He landed his first job out of school working at Stars Restaurant for the legendary Chef Jeremiah Tower. Tower, along with Chef Alice Waters, with whom he worked at Chez Panisse, was one of the pioneering chefs of the California Cuisine movement. Stars was a profoundly influential experience for Ben. The daily changing menu with a focus on local, seasonal ingredients continues to inspire his cooking style to this day. Jeremiah Tower was implementing a Farm to Table philosophy before the term was even invented. During his down time, Ben explored and sampled the vast array of cuisine available in the Bay Area. He frequently found himself in Chinatown, seeking out the most obscure and authentic restaurants. This only furthered his interest in Asian ingredients and cooking techniques. After three years of intensive immersion in modern California Cuisine, Ben decided to take a break and do some traveling. After long deliberation and much research, he plotted a course through the realm of the Pacific Rim.
Australia, new zealand, & the South Pacific
What started out as an extended backpacking vacation ended up being another highly influential experience for Ben. Learning to navigate through different cities, towns, and rural areas, he meandered his way to Australia with stops in Hawaii, New Zealand, Tahiti, and New Caledonia along the way. Each stop offered new culinary intrigue. From the French bistros and bakeries in Nouméa, to the open air seafood markets in Tahiti, to the British style pubs in Aukland, and the burgeoning culinary scene in Sydney, Ben took it all in. Or as much of it as he could on a backpacker’s budget.
Two months into his trip, he found himself low on funds. He answered an ad in the classified section of the Sydney Morning Herald for a cook’s job on a horse ranch in Sofala (population 73 at the time). He spent his last few dollars for train fare from Sydney to interview for the position. Luckily he landed the job, and spent 2 1/2 months cooking for the staff of Chesleigh Homestead and for 25-30 guests on the weekends. In between meals he helped care for the horses and on weekends lead the intermediate horse ride for the guests. While the job offered very little in the way of culinary experience (lamb, corned beef, and sausages were the staples), it was a great opportunity to meet, cook for, and work with a wide diversity of people.
With his funds sufficiently replenished, Ben left Chesleigh Homestead and spent the next several months traveling by car, bus, and foot over the vast (really vast) stretches of road in the Outback and coastal areas of Australia.
Finding himself in Townsville on the north east coast and once again low on funds, he hitchhiked his way back to Sydney. With his travel visa nearly expired, Ben reluctantly returned to the U.S.
After a brief stint as Executive Chef of a restaurant in his home town of Memphis, Ben received a phone call from his former roommate from culinary school, who was recruiting crew members for a new hotel in Hawaii. With very little convincing, Ben moved to Hawaii and took a job at the Lodge at Koele on the island of Lanai. The Lodge is located in the bucolic, upcountry town of Lanai City, which at the time was the home of a large pineapple plantation operated by the Dole corporation. Ben spent three years working the hot line at this mid-sized but busy hotel, where seafood and local produce were the focus. Serving a roundsman position, he worked every station in the kitchen, but primarily the Sauté station, where most of the seafood was prepared. This tenure at the Lodge of Koele cemented Ben’s passion for working with seafood and Asian ingredients. It also drove home the important practice of utilizing regional, seasonal ingredients.
It was during his time in Hawaii that Ben, like any aspiring young chef, began contemplating the idea of opening a place of his own. After much contemplation, he came to the conclusion that, as interesting and educational as it was, the peripatetic life he’d been living was not really conducive to opening a restaurant. So he decided to say Aloha to the South Pacific once again and head back to Memphis to regroup and gather his thoughts for his next move.
Return to Memphis
With no real idea about logistics or location, Ben began drawing up a rough draft of thoughts and ideas for his ideal restaurant. Regardless of where he intended to end up, he knew that the first step in getting there was to reestablish himself in Memphis. So he worked a series of gigs as Sous-Chef and Executive Chef of several Memphis restaurants. During this time he established ties with numerous purveyors, local farmers, artists, and artisan food producers.
A fortuitous meeting with Thomas Boggs in 1997 set in motion a series of events that eventually led to the opening of Tsunami Restaurant. Thomas was a restaurateur in his own right, the owner operator of Huey’s Restaurants. He had recently entered into a partnership with the Half Shell Restaurant and was looking for someone to head up the kitchen there. Boggs approached Ben with the offer of taking over the reins in the kitchen. Ben was not initially interested in the job, having just quit his most recent stint to focus on the business plan for what would be his own restaurant. Boggs, however, was persistent, and he convinced Ben to meet with him to discuss his new business partnership, but also to hear about Ben’s concept. That meeting ended in a compromise on both sides. Ben agreed to manage the kitchen at the Half Shell for 6 months, and in return, Boggs would do whatever he could to help Ben get his concept up and running.
During that period, Boggs showed an increased interest in Ben’s concept. After reading the Tsunami business plan, Boggs had another proposal. A partnership in Ben’s restaurant. Boggs offered Ben his expertise in the business end of restaurant operations in exchange for part ownership. After some deliberation and negotiation, a deal was struck and a restaurant was born. On July 14, 1998, Tsunami Restaurant opened its doors for business.
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