Bobby Benjamin slipped into Tulsa quietly and unknown. And yet, he’s the man about whom the Louisville Courier-Journal, a leading Kentucky newspaper, wrote: “He has taken his place among the local royal family of chefs, whose dining rooms are full of people for whom groveling to snare a seat isn’t beneath them.”
What those lucky enough to have dined at Tulsa’s Lowood back in mid-June saw was an energetic man who plated dishes with superhuman speed and precision. And when we tasted the sharp flavors of those perfectly cooked ingredients, we knew he was the real deal.
There’s no royal family of chefs in Bell Buckle, nestled in the green rolling hills of central Tennessee. That’s where Bobby Benjamin grew up. The first job on his resume was dishwasher at the Bell Buckle Cafe at 13, but then he was promoted to grill cook and fell in love with the profession. In fact, the cafe’s owner still remembers him as “a really good cook and a great guy.”
Benjamin recalls: “We made the food from scratch, we made it from the soul. That’s where I got my base.”
The next decade found him cooking in Nashville. There, he worked beside a young Sean Brock, whose mission was to cast a spotlight on the refinement of southern Appalachian cuisine. Benjamin became enamored with country comfort food, and ten years later delighted diners at the Oakroom, Louisville’s most elegant fine dining destination. Benjamin’s love for southern staples ran deep.
But before the Oakroom were jobs with some of L.A.’s most respected chefs, including Wolfgang Puck and Gino Angelini. Angelini taught him how to make pasta, and to love it along the way. Incidentally, pasta has always been one of the highlights of Lowood’s spread.
“Pasta will always be a big part of the menu,” says Benjamin. Handmade pasta like that gnocchi is ready for your plate at Lowood. There’s also bright green reginette, handmade with crispy smoked bacon, arugula pesto and a farm egg yolk. Another pasta (a marvelous cacio e pepe) is flavored with bourbon barrel smoked pepper, a nod to Louisville, where Benjamin’s career really took off.
At the Oakroom, Benjamin felt hemmed in by diners’ expectations. Later at La Coop, a more casual Louisville bistro, he found his own voice. But Benjamin’s cooking made an exponential leap at Butchertown Grocery. That’s the place where, the food reviewer gushed, you might have to grovel … and the food is worth it.
If you’d asked Benjamin about his talent right about then, he would have given all the credit to his staff. He regards them as family, and family is sacred. He would have praised the local farmers, and told you how lucky he is, how happy. And if you were fortunate enough to know Benjamin, you’d know he meant every word.
“I went to the farmer’s market Saturday,” Benjamin says a few days later. “I got some incredible bok choy from Tria Yang’s farm in Vinita. I want to get people to taste it in a different way, so I’m pairing it with turkey on a sandwich, using lime juice and mint. It’s gorgeous, it’s divine, it’s an entrée plated on a sandwich.”
It’s a joy to see Benjamin excited about food.
“We’ll be having a lot of daily specials at Lowood,” he says. “What’s exciting about our kitchen is it will be collaborative, a team effort. Chef Travis (the saute chef) will invent specials, chef Curtis (a veteran of the grill) will invent specials, and I’ll invent specials too.”
Bobby Benjamin’s Pasta Dish
YIELDS 4 SERVINGS
5 OZ OO FLOUR
2 OZ SEMOLINA FLOUR
2 OZ GRANO ARSO FLOUR
20 OZ FENNEL
12 OZ YELLOW ONION
8 OZ CELERY
2 OZ PARSLEY
3 EA LEMONS
3 EA ORANGES
1.5 OZ GARLIC, FRESH
1 OZ SUN-ROASTED DRIED MIRE POIX
0.5 OZ HUNGARIAN PAPRIKA
0.5 OZ CORIANDER SEED
0.5 OZ FENNEL SEED
1 OZ WHOLE CARDAMOM
2.5 HALIBUT BONES
Begin with 2 stock pots and 1 sauté pan.
Fill the pot with water and salt aggressively – should taste similar to ocean water.
The second pot will need to be used the day prior.
Add all ingredients in the pot under sauce. The next day, strain and reduce by half.
After the sauce is reduced by half, place to use for the sauce.
To bring the dish together, begin cooking the pasta in salt water. At the same time, start the sauté pan at medium heat.
Add ½ minced shallot and 1 tsp of chopped garlic; cook for approximately 1 minute, and deglaze with the sauce.
Add shrimp and pasta and reduce on high heat by half the volume.
Garnish with fresh basil.