I’ll never forget meeting Chef Ben Bebenroth. It was the Spring of 2013 and Spice Kitchen + Bar was announced as a finalist for Cleveland Magazine‘s Silver Spoon Award for Best New Restaurant. (Spoiler alert: they would go on to win that award.) I was working for the Arthritis Foundation at the time, serving as event lead on the Silver Spoon Awards Party, when the committee decided to ask Spice if they wanted to be featured in the VIP Lounge. Fast forward to going to meet with Chef Ben and his beverage director to discuss details — a 3pm meeting turned into a late afternoon happy hour with bourbon cocktails, housemade pork rinds, plenty of laughs… and just enough event planning.
That first impression has stuck and every interaction I’ve had with the Spice Headquarters team since has felt the same: welcoming, generous, full of laughter and delicious. You may remember I had the opportunity to enjoy their Whole Beast Feast earlier this year. I had been reminiscing about that meal when their team invited me to join Chef Ben to help harvest their first crop of asparagus at Spice Acres.
Spice Acres is a 13-acre sustainable family farm nestled inside Cuyahoga Valley National Park – a hop, skip and jump away from some of my favorite hiking and biking trails. I’ve had the lovely opportunity to visit in the past – namely for their you-pick-flower days, but never made it much further past those wildflower fields. When I arrived this past Saturday, Chef Ben arrived riding a tractor — I told him I didn’t need such a grand entrance! — to kick off the tour and harvesting.
Organic grown ginger root in one of the Spice Acres’ greenhouses.
Despite his training at Johnson and Wales University, I immediately felt that Ben was more comfortable in his work boots than a white chef’s coat as he prepped me with a knife and a crate as he showed me to the asparagus field with one of their farm dogs, Chuck, escorting us along. The Spice Acres team originally planted the asparagus three years ago and are incredibly excited about the first ever crop this year. Ben shared they had harvested more than 90 pounds of asparagus in the two days prior to my visit but there was still plenty for us to harvest that day.
While Ben offered how to properly cut the asparagus off the plant, we had an incredible conversation about many topics you could tell he was passionate about, like his recent speech to a group of city planners. He challenged them to think bigger and broader in regards to making better choices for their constituents and the planet. Between topics like the environment and consumerism, he’d throw in an incredible fact about the growing of the asparagus — like how the Spice Acres team set the foundation for the plants with a specific blend of soil and layers of wood chips and other materials to provide the best possible growing conditions from day one. He even encouraged me to eat a piece raw right there from the field. I will tell you it was the best bite of vegetable in my entire life — you could taste the thought and care put into this food.
Once done harvesting, Chef Ben took me on a tour of the rest of the Spice Acres property — this time, guided by the other farm dog, Hayley. (No, I didn’t get any non-blurry photos of the dogs. Yes, I’m the worst crazy dog lady EVER.) We came across Farm Manager Andrea harvesting more asparagus nearby rows of berries, including gooseberries, blueberries, red raspberries and more. It was a bit on the cool side, but really the perfect day to walk the grounds! A very special section was a plot of land recently dedicated to Ben’s grandmother, whom had recently passed away at the age of 98. She had shared gardening and farming with Ben throughout his childhood, so it was important to him to continue her legacy in this way.
Farm Manager Andrea in the field.
Ben took some extra time to show me the area where they grow their mushrooms. The team at Spice Acres grow four varieties of mushrooms, including shiitakes which I had the pleasure of learning how to pick that morning. They recently received several of logs from Killbuck Valley Mushrooms to add to their operation, which Ben was very excited to get up and growing.
An important thing to know about Spice Acres is that it is also a venue for “learning and lauding” food, which the team does through on-site workshops, events, school tours (they were hosting 60 Cleveland Metropolitan School District kids for a field trip in the upcoming days!) and innovative dining experiences with their restaurant, Spice Kitchen + Bar, and catering company, Spice Catering Co. staff. For example, a good deal of all that asparagus will be put to good use at the upcoming Plated Landscape dinner right at the barn on the Spice Acres property this Thursday, May 16th.
An outdoor pizza oven as part of the “food cart” at the farm.
LONG STORY SHORT: First impressions can be a make or break, but your ongoing reputation is just as important, and with this tour on Saturday, Chef Ben and his team maintained my belief it’s impossible to find a nicer, more welcoming team than those hard-working hospitality professionals on the Spice Headquarters team. Not only did I learn so much about farming, the environment and the impact of my own footprint on this earth, I went home with two bundles of purple asparagus – plus some shiitakes and chives. It all made for the perfect additions to our Mother’s Day dinner menu! My deepest appreciation to Chef Ben, Andrea and the entire Spice team for their continued hospitality and generosity!
Yours truly with Chef Ben and Farm Manager Andrea
STAY TUNED: I’ll get to enjoy the fruits of my labor as I’ll be attending this Thursday’s Plated Landscape dinner featuring this incredible vegetable. These events has been an item on my CLE culinary bucket list for a very long time, so I encourage you to consider buying tickets to join me that evening. More info and tickets here. A full list and schedule of this year’s Plated Landscape dinners are available on Spice’s website.
Disclosure: The team at Spice Headquarters invited me to a tour of Spice Acres with Chef Ben in advance of their upcoming Plated Landscape dinner. My thoughts and opinions are always 100% my own.