Chef Ben Kramer follows a straightforward, two-step process when it comes to cooking—start with the very best ingredients you can get your hands on and do only what’s necessary to bring out their very best characteristics.
What might seem like an overly simple food philosophy has recently become very stylish as more and more people become aware of where their food is coming from. When the University of Winnipeg wanted to move away from commercial food services in the summer of 2009, it turned to Kramer to lead the charge. As executive chef of Diversity Food Services, Kramer now oversees three on-campus restaurants and a demanding catering schedule.
That catering schedule recently included high-profile events such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission gathering, where Kramer and his team pulled together over 3,000 lunches each day for residential school survivors, media and organizers. The G8 Interfaith Summit in Winnipeg forced Kramer to dig deep into his knowledge of vegetarian, Kosher and Halal choices for the international event.
“The quality of your ingredients has everything to do with how they were grown and how far they have traveled,” says Ben. To that end, his list of favourite ingredients can land on his cutting board within the hour. That list includes elk from a ranch just a stone’s throw from Winnipeg and mixed greens from a farm that produces greens year round in Manitoba’s challenging climate.
In April 2010, Kramer and his team from Diversity Food Services captured the Iron Chef Manitoba title after two days of culinary battles at the Centrex Trade Show. Kramer impressed judges with his creativity using eggplant, duck and rabbit to beat out seven other teams.
With Kramer at the helm of Dandelion Eatery in Winnipeg from 2006 to 2009, the bistro was named one of Canada’s Best New Restaurants in 2006 by the nationwide editors of WHERE magazine. Both Winnipeg daily newspapers awarded Dandelion Eatery four stars. In 2008, the restaurant captured the Vines Wine List Award as well as a gold medal at the Winnipeg Wine List Awards. The must-have diners’ guide, Where to Eat in Canada, includes Dandelion Eatery in the 2008/2009 issue. In the fall of 2009, Kramer made Western Living magazine’s prestigious Top 40 Foodies Under 40 listing.
As a youngster in British Columbia, Ben recalls picking beans and carrots in the family garden then labouring over the cleaning process at the kitchen sink. “My parents were foodies so I guess I served as sous chef for a long time,” he said. His food fascination was solidified during a family trip to New York. “I had a real wow moment when I tried pesto for the first time.”
Ben’s first job was in the movie business, on the food services side of course. “I washed dishes,” he said. “But luckily the chef saw I had some potential. Eventually I was cooking on location for television and movies.”
With his culinary arts degree behind him, Ben served as sous chef at The Waterclub Restaurant and Wine Bar in Victoria. He then joined the prestigious Med Grill, first as a sous chef and then eventually overseeing the kitchens in two locations. In 2000, he moved to Winnipeg.
In recent years, he’s seen a positive shift in the way people eat. “They are definitely making better food choices. Diners are becoming more and more educated.”
And that fits nicely into Ben’s own philosophy. “I’m dedicated to finding local and sustainable foods, that’s critical for me. And when I find these ingredients, I want to use them to their fullest potential. A lot of ingredients are overlooked just because they aren’t trendy.”
Ben’s popularity as a chef committed to local, sustainable and organic ingredients comes from his ability to always give his customers what they want. “These days, they want to know where their food comes from. They want to know that the choices they make are not having a negative impact on the world.”
His easy-going style makes him a favourite guest of Winnipeg’s live morning television show. When there’s a food event happening in town, Kramer is never far away, often acting as media spokesman. His innovative recipes have been published in numerous newspapers, books and magazines.
With an abundance of fresh, local and sustainable ingredients close at hand, Ben’s choice for a favourite meal—whether it’s cooking or eating it—is an easy answer. “My best meals are the ones I share with my wife and kids. That usually happens at the lake in summer. It’s a special time.”