Israel-Born St. Louis-Based Chef Ben Poremba + Recipe
Ben Poremba emigrated from Israel to the U.S. with his parents when he was only 17. He began his journey in the culinary industry working as a private chef while attending the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where he studied philosophy. It was during that time that Poremba started his own catering company, and discovered a passion for developing new restaurant concepts. This entrepreneurial spirit produced an award-winning group of St. Louis-area restaurants including Olio, Elaia, Parigi, Nixta, Salume Beddu and La Patisserie Chouquette.
Poremba typically oversees the beginning of each new operation until handing over the reins to another chef, watching it evolve and become adopted by the neighborhood. A visiting wanderer might find a throng of guests gathered at Olio, located in a renovated gas station in McRee Town, or fine dining at Elaia, housed in what was once an abandoned residence, connected to Olio with a delicately crafted corridor. At Nixta, Poremba presents traditional Mexican flavors, resulting in dishes like crispy octopus in mole almendrado and braised-lamb tacos in smoky guajillo salsa. We sat down with Poremba to learn more about his process and philosophical approach to cooking.
Amidst all of your restaurant concepts, you also recently welcomed a new baby. How do you prioritize and make time for so much?
That is the hardest piece of the puzzle for me. I work a lot of hours, but I also have a team of managers who can take on a lot of work. You just find a way to make it work. It’s a balance of both worlds. I try to weigh in and help focus on strategy, but I also have a lot of help and support to run the operations.
How have you developed this pattern of creating successful dining experiences?
I envision a place with a feel and a kind of ambiance—something that I want. That’s the way I work. Then my strategy is to bring people in that I’ve worked with for a long time and put them in charge. A good example of that right now is Tello Carreon at Nixta. He has been with me for a few years, and it was a natural progression.
Are there any types of cuisines that you feel you haven’t mastered yet?
There’s just so much that creates inspiration, and there are always new things to learn. Right now, I’m really drawn to home cooking: traditional, ethnic home cooking, things that restaurants don’t do. Recipes that aunties and mothers and grandmothers cook, passed down or not. That inspires me, and I look to those kinds of inspirations for my restaurants. It happens everywhere I go.
That inspiration has transformed into some really successful concepts. What was your inspiration for the recipe you’ve shared with us?
It’s a classic for the season. It’s a light, velvety soup that somehow manages to be elegant and also simple. People tend to really love it. There’s something timeless about it.
You were an international student from Israel, studying in the U.S. What challenges arose from that experience?
There were all kinds of challenges, from language barriers to cultural shock. The first couple of years, I was unable to work because a student visa didn’t allow me to. There is just a laundry list of difficult things that happen when you move into a new culture.
But you were inspired to stay.
I love it here. In many ways, St. Louis is a very big, small town and it is a very small, big town. It’s community-driven, the neighborhoods are great, and in the creative world there’s a lot going on. It’s very forward-looking, so it’s a good place to be.
Keep reading for Poremba’s delicious, classic recipe for chilled pea soup.
Chilled Pea Soup
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup diced celery root
1 cup diced leeks, white part only
1 cup dry vermouth (preferably Noilly Prat)
1 lbs. frozen sweet peas
1 cup crème fraiche
Heat olive oil in a heavy pot. Add celery root and leek. Slowly sweat the vegetables on medium-low heat, until soft, for about 10-12 minutes (don’t allow them to color). Raise the heat and deglaze with vermouth. Add peas and enough mineral water to cover.
Bring to boil and remove from the stove. Puree until very smooth (if soup is too thick, add more mineral water). Season with plenty of salt, white pepper, cayenne and lime juice. Chill for at least two hours. Whisk in the crème fraiche.
Herb and Seed Salad
1/3 cup basil
1/3 cup mint
1/3 cup dill
1/3 cup flat-leaf parsley
1/3 cup toasted pepita seeds
1/3 cup toasted sesame seeds
1/3 cup toasted sunflower seeds
1/3 cup nigella seeds
1/3 cup lime juice
salt & pepper to taste
Using kitchen shears, cut the herbs into small pieces. Mix seeds and herbs in a bowl. Dress with lime juice and season with salt and pepper. Pour soup into individual bowls. Garnish with a handful of the herb salad. Drizzle with high-quality olive oil. Serve.
This story originally appeared in ALIVE Issue 4, 2017. Purchase Issue 4 and become an ALIVE member.