Local Chef, Local Food

Profile on Ben Smart: Top 50 Young Chef in America, co-owner and manager of Big Grove, and graduate of City High

Q: What sparked your interest in food and becoming a chef? A: I’ve kind of always had an interest in food, ever since I was really young. I remember when I was in elementary school, I would come home, and instead of watching cartoons, I would watch PBS Great chefs, Great cities. 

Q: What inspired you to begin experimenting with food? A: My dad always cooked at home. We were always cooking for ourselves and cooking from scratch, and [cooking was] just part of my upbringing. I absolutely take influence from home, I cook at home a ton, especially when I was younger, and I had more time. [Home is] where I think it’s safe to experiment and fail.

Q: What was your trajectory to working in the food industry? A: I went kind of a traditional route of school and went to the University of Iowa. When I graduated, I was up against getting a real job. But, I really felt like I needed to make a change. If I was going to go for it, now’s the time. So I kind of scratched the degree, and then went back to culinary school, here at Kirkwood.

Q: What drew you to begin working at Big Grove? A: Originally what drew me to [Big Grove] was the small town it was in, Solon, Iowa. It was an opportunity to say, Zig, when other people were zagging and do something totally different. 

Q: What is working at Big Grove, and the food industry in general like? A: It’s a very hard job. It’s long hours on your feet. You’re working nights and weekends when most people have their free time. But working with those people and creating those friendships and connections and knowing that you’re here to support the person next to you, it’s amazing how strong those bonds are when you have the right team. That’s the most exciting thing. That’s what drew me into being in a kitchen in the first place and sort of kept me there for 20 years.

Q: Where do you gather inspiration for your work? A: I love the idea of taking everything that I’ve learned in fine dining restaurants in bigger cities and apply it to what we have here in the Midwest, you know, take some of the fancy, superfluous garnishes and things that make food feel pretentious, and strip that down.

Q: What has your career in the food industry taught you? A: It’s not just about cooking. It’s [about] discipline, teamwork, and accountability. All [these] life skills and traits that are important to being a good human are under a microscope when you’re in a kitchen because you are relying so much on the person next to you. I think everybody should spend time [working] in a restaurant because I think it gives you so much respect and empathy for people.