Chef Abra Berens honors and expands midwestern food traditions

Chef Abra Berens (photo by Alison Green)

Chef Abra Berens got her start cooking at Ann Arbor's legendary Zingerman's Deli during college. After cooking school in Ireland on a working farm, she returned to the Midwest, cooking, baking, and then starting her own farm with a focus on. Today, Abra is the executive chef of Stock Cafe where she cooks Midwestern food that highlights the culinary traditions of the region.

Abra with her husband, Erik


Where she’s from: Western Michigan
Grew up with: mother, father, two older sisters
Education: Bachelor’s degree in english and history from the University of Michigan
Where she lives now: Chicago, Illinois
Growing up she wanted to be: possibly working for the UN
Now she’s: executive chef at Stock Cafe in Chicago

Tell us about yourself growing up!

I grew up on a modern, industrial farm. We mostly grew pickles. We always had a big garden. My mom and my grandma still canned. I feel really lucky that I saw it happening, so I was never scared off by it.

My dad and my mom were both anesthesiologists. My dad was also farming at night for most of my childhood. We ate dinner at nine and ten o’clock at night after he got home from working at the farm. Food became this thing that we all gathered around. I was very lucky that my family made enough money that it was understood that we would go to college, but when my dad was in anesthesia residency we were really tight for money.

I grew up in a very pro-woman household. It was three girls then my mom and my dad. Every year we would go out to Grand Rapids to a fancy dinner. I distinctly remember one time we were sitting down and the maître d’ said to my dad, “Oh, a man and four women,” and my dad was like, “Yeah, I know, I’m so lucky. Can you believe the luck that I have?” And that very quick undermining of misogyny was how I was raised. My mom overcame a lot of that where she grew up and in her family, so she was like, be damned if her girls would take anything, and luckily my dad felt the same way.

How did you get started cooking?

I went to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and the summer between my sophomore and junior year I stayed in Ann Arbor and needed to get a job. I started cooking at Zingerman’s Deli. I started taking sandwich orders and delivering trays and ringing people up.

Then I really wanted to learn how to cook. I’d ask the chef, “Roger, can you teach me how to make chicken paprikash? Roger, can you teach me how to make matzo ball soup?” He said, okay, well let’s just do it at work. I started coming in on my days off. For a long time I was in the kitchen part time and part time front of the house, and then switched over to kitchen full time.

I thought maybe I might want to do this the rest of my life, but I had also gotten into the Peace Corps. My degrees were in history and English but I did a lot of epidemiological work, and so I thought I would want to work for the UN. Roger said, “Well, you should check out Ballymaloe in the south of Ireland. It’s on a 100 acre working organic farm. You’ve already shown some interest in local food and local agriculture.” I went and it was a three month program, and that’s where it all crystalized.

I knew I liked restaurant culture, but I knew also that I wanted my food to be representative of a place.

How did Ballymaloe Cookery School shape your ideas about cooking?

I knew I liked restaurant culture, but I knew also that I wanted my food to be representative of a place. The cooking school is very integrated to the farm work. We had chores or tasks each day, everything from cow milking to picking salad greens to picking herbs to making stock.

There were so many things that we didn’t learn how to cook at Ballymaloe because they weren’t in season. I was there from September to December, so for example, we didn’t cook with green beans. That seemed really striking to me that there’s this very well respected culinary program that’s excluding nine months of ingredients.

What did you do when you moved to Chicago after cooking school?

I really wanted to dive in so I got jobs both baking and doing savory cooking. I worked at Floriole Bakery when it was still just at farmer’s markets. I sold pastries at Green City Market. That’s where a lot of my food community in Chicago came from, because you were actually seeing the chefs that came to the market to buy things. Then I would bake a couple of days a week. Rob Levitt from Butcher & Larder was the first person to hire me in Chicago. I worked mostly garde manger and did savory cooking with him.

Then I left to go work on my friend’s farm for a month in the summer of 2007. When I came back, I got a job at Vie working for Paul Virant who is an amazing mentor and man. His fingerprints are all over my food. We did so much canning and preserving. There would be times where we would go to the upstairs pantry and storage area, and figure out what we were going to make based on what was in the jars. That was the impetus for how the dishes were built, and that’s something that really made sense to me. It gave the okay to plan a menu that way and not to think of the most dramatic dish you could.

Why did you decide to start Bare Knuckle Farm?

It was that desire to have my food be of a place. I had been talking with my husband Erik about these ideas. Then he went to Ann Arbor and had a beer with Jess, [who became] my business partner. Jess had just started farming for Zingerman’s. He said, “I think this is what I want to do with my life.”

Erik put us in touch and we decided to try it. It was a leap of faith. Jess’s family had some land [near Traverse City] between two cherry orchards. It wasn’t being used and his family said, “yeah, sure. Try it out.” Our farm really benefited from his family’s access to land and their willingness to support that idea and those visions.

Abra and her business partner Jess (that's him just behind her) started raising pigs their second season on Bare Knuckle Farm

What did you grow? What did you do with it?

It was mostly a vegetable farm, everything from baby Hakurei turnips and peas in the spring to tomatoes and eggplant and peppers all the way over to squash and parsnips and celery root. Then the second year we added in pigs. The last couple of years we’ve had four different farmer’s markets a week in the height of summer. It tapers off in the colder seasons and Jess does a winter market.

My role at the farm was initially to help get the farm going, but I was always going to do a prepared food side to it. For two years we did dinners. People would arrive, do a self-guided tour through the garden, end up in the barn, and we’d do a five-course meal based exclusively around what was grown on our farm or neighbor farms.

How did you join Local Foods?

From 2009 to 2014 I would move to Michigan in the spring and then move back in the fall and cook in Chicago all fall. It ended up not being sustainable. My husband’s work is here, and the farm is six hours away. I felt I was a part of two communities but not really a part of either one. It made more sense, fiscal sense for us to be in Chicago.

I needed to find an employer who was excited that I had this farm and who had food that would replicate the access that I had with my own farm. Local Foods was the perfect fit for that. Rob [Levitt] and I had stayed friends since he hired me in 2007. He brought me in. Instead of going through market boxes or the garden fields, I’m walking through a warehouse that is a curated selection from 150 farmers in the Midwest and then make our menu based on that.

The two goals of the café are to honor and expand Midwestern food traditions and emphasize our Midwestern-ness, and two, to mitigate waste in the business.

You’ve been the executive chef since Stock Cafe started in 2015. How have you shaped the menu and the type of food you want to serve?

The two goals of the café are to honor and expand Midwestern food traditions and emphasize our Midwestern-ness, and two, to mitigate waste in the business. It’s mostly a lunch place so sandwiches, and pasties were a big thing that I wanted to do. We also wanted to have some full-meal plates.

I’m so passionate about food waste because now having farmed, I recognize how much time and labor goes into each head of broccoli and each bag of onions. It feels disrespectful to the people who did that work, growing it, shipping it, storing it. Working at Local Foods we’re right up against a warehouse and you see the guys coming in at five AM and they leave at four in the afternoon. The purchasing team is here 12 hours a day to be sure that they’re doing right by the farmers. If I don’t do right by them it trickles down the line.

At the farm I saw how prepared food could salvage food that still tasted great but you didn’t feel confident selling to someone in their house. That’s what we brought here. Every day the market staff goes through their produce section and pulls anything that’s not perfect, and we get first dibs on that. Oftentimes it’s like, a head of kale that’s a little bit wilty or a tomato where the stem bruised one section of it. We’re able to salvage that.

The warehouse deals with fewer items but larger volume. They’ve made these commitments to farmers ahead of time to buy ten cases. They sell eight of them, and then they’ve got another ten cases coming. What happens to those two cases? We get to absorb all of that and be sure it gets used.

What other things do you do as the executive chef?

I manage the food and the people. And I try to manage myself a lot. There’s four cooks and three dishwashers. We just got health insurance, so being sure that everybody on our team knows what their deductible is going to be, what’s going to get taken out of their paychecks and when. Being sure that everybody is getting their breaks, or that people know where the business is going as a whole unit.

There’s three departments in the public market part of Local Foods, so I work with the three other managers. I also manage the relationship between the different departments. Rob came up to me today and was like, “Hey, we’re going to have a bunch of extra chicken drumsticks. Do you want those to make soup?” Sure. Where do I pick them up? Where do I put them? Being sure that I do all of that work so that the cooks can just focus on cooking and giving great customer service.

How do we create an environment where people can pursue their passion for food but also not give up the rest of their lives?

How do you create the atmosphere and work culture you want to have in the restaurant?

How do we create an environment where people can pursue their passion for food but also not give up the rest of their lives? Local Foods is a lesser stress environment because it’s not fine dining. We’re in a grocery store. We’re still trying to make food that’s at the same level of quality in terms of the ingredients and the technique, but it just is presented very differently.

When we first opened it was full throttle for the first handful of months. I got to a place where I was working so much that I wasn’t being the strongest leader. I have to not feel bad not being here 60 or 70 hours a week. I tell the cooks my goal is to be here 50 hours a week. Now we have enough people and everyone is trained well enough; we’ve had the time to build systems. I try to be here five days a week, not more than five days a week. People generally do either five eight-hour shifts or four ten-hour shifts, and they have a say in which they prefer. That model of trying to really be sure that cooks aren’t burning themselves out works for this environment, and I’m really thankful for that.

We have an open kitchen and we don’t really have a back prep space. That was a really conscious decision on my end. It took a long time to sink in that as a leader in a business your actions set the tone. I’m really bad at taking breaks because if I sit down on a barstool after I’ve been standing for five hours I feel tired and I don’t want to go back to work. But I realized that that was actually creating an environment where nobody else felt comfortable taking breaks.

What keeps you excited about cooking and running a restaurant?

Right now I’m most excited about seeing how the cooks who have been here for a while are starting to drive the menu items in this way that’s really, really awesome and super fun. Saying, “okay, here’s the deal guys: we’ve got kohlrabi and purple cabbage and watermelon radishes and the MightyVine tomatoes. Those need to go into the small plates,” then to see what they come up with. We’ll do tastings of stuff and figure out as a group what we like about it and what we don’t. That collaboration is really exciting.

I want to expand how people view Midwestern food. If people think that they’re going to come to Chicago and only be able to get hotdogs and deep dish pizza and meat and potatoes then that becomes not a draw. But thriving farmer’s markets, a thriving dairy scene coming out of Wisconsin, the grains that are coming out of Minnesota led by their wild rice, are all things to celebrate and hopefully are reasons why people will want to come and explore this part of the country.

What fills your time out side of work?

We got a dog recently. No one ever really talks about the amount of time you’re going to spend putting your face on the dog’s face and cuddling with your dog which I feel like is where most of my time goes now. Playing with Zuma is really, really wonderful.

My husband and I also started getting the [New York] Times on Sundays about two years ago, so we spend a lot of time doing the crossword together. We’re also subscribers to Vanity Fair and The Atlantic. I like those mixtures of good writing with a little bit of Hollywood glossiness. Helen Rosner at The Eater has been editing really great long form stuff that’s all over the place in terms of food culture and the politics of food.

you know if something tastes good to you. Believe in that. 

What advice would you give somebody who’s interesting in cooking and sustainable eating practices?

If people want to become professional cooks, it would depend on where they are in their life cycle. If they’re coming straight out of high school, explore, really spend time, do it slowly, explore places and see if it’s something that really sticks with you. If they are career changers, try it out first. It’s a very different lifestyle than a lot of other industries.

At home, be confident. Be bold in your actions and do the work to figure out what it is you want to make for dinner that night. Know that you’re in charge, not the cauliflower. The worst thing that’s going to happen is it’s going to taste terrible. Does it taste good to you? You might not know how to change it if it doesn’t taste good to you or how to replicate it if it does, but you know if something tastes good to you. Believe in that. 

How does your life compare to what you thought adult life would be like as a teenager?

I don’t know that I had a clear vision for what my life would be like as an adult. I thought that there was a time where you transition from being a kid where you don’t have a lot of agency to being an adult where you know everything. I’m realizing that no adults, including my parents, really knew what was fully going on. Everyone is doing their best.

I remember saying I want to be the first female president. I didn’t study all of the stuff that you study to do that or take any of the steps to get there. Instead I started working in kitchens.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Check out books Abra loves!