Chefs in Canada: Nick Benninger, Waterloo ON

by Krlmagi

Chef Nick Benninger creates seasonally-inspired, locally-sourced food that draws from a wide range of cultural influences at Nick and Nat's Uptown 21 in Waterloo.

As a child, Nick Benninger’s mother told him that if he didn’t like what she was cooking, he could make himself his own meal. He did so and says, “It got me rolling and gave me an appreciation for the work that goes into food. It grew from there.”

He cites his mother as a major influence because she was a good cook. He started before the Food Network and celebrity chefs had become popular so he also mentions all of the cooks and chefs with whom he worked. He says, “I really liked the environment in the kitchen and I wanted to emulate the people around me.”

Chef Nick Benninger (right) at work plating.
Chef Nick Benninger (right) at work plating.

Benninger puts a heavy emphasis on making everything from scratch and using locally sourced ingredients at his restaurants. He says, “We do everything from scratch. If its not real, I don’t want anything to do with it. We don’t make compromises. We cook the food that we want to eat. We do as much local as we can at both restaurants. We bring in whole animals and break them down ourselves.”

 

He adds, “We try and do what we call Canadian food at Uptown so we have lots of different influences. At Taco Farm, it’s basically Mexican. We aren’t Mexican and no one on the team is Mexican but we do our best to pay tribute to the cuisine without trying to be too authentic. We make sure we’re having fun and the cooks are having fun otherwise you’d see it on the plate.”

 

Writing a menu starts with whatever is inspiring Benninger and his team. They draw from ideas they’ve read about or seen on television as well as eating in other restaurants. He says, “Secondly it’s seasonal so we look at what’s growing and what’s appealing. We wouldn’t want to put a French onion soup on the menu in the middle of July but we might put on a chilled soup. Watermelon’s in season so it would be a chilled watermelon soup. From there, we talk about textures, garnishes and what else is going onto the plate. That will help us map out the rest of the menu.”


He adds, “We create a balanced menu of different proteins and different vegetables. We’re trying to cook more with vegetables these days for various reasons. One being cost and another being health. Having said that we bring in whole animals so if I’m putting chicken on the menu, there’s going to be chicken liver paté and broth from that chicken.”

Cinnamon-sugared doughnut, salt cured foie gras, red currant coulis, house-made red wine vinegar gastrique
Cinnamon-sugared doughnut, salt cured foie gras, red currant coulis, house-made red wine vinegar gastrique
Dry-aged whole roasted pork loin, pork belly, pickled ramp-pork shoulder crepinette, sauerkraut, turnip puree
Dry-aged whole roasted pork loin, pork belly, pickled ramp-pork shoulder crepinette, sauerkraut, turnip puree

Having good relationships with suppliers is a large part of why Benninger sources local ingredients. He wants to get to know his suppliers and build close relationships. He says, “We have really close relationships with our farmers. We sit down in the spring and talk about what seeds we want to plant, if we buy a pig we talk about the feed it’ll have and even how it’s going to be killed. We get better products, better deals sometimes and they come and support us too. We even try to source our alcohol locally when possible.”

The predominant trait that Benninger thinks a chef needs is integrity. He says, “Creativity is important, hard work is important, leadership is important but if you don’t have integrity none of those things really mean anything. You can get away without creativity because there’s lots of places that you can draw creativity from but there’s nowhere to draw integrity from, you either have it or you don’t.”

 

His emphasis on integrity extends to the people he hires for his kitchen team. Benninger says, “I will bring someone in if they have no cooking experience as long as I think they’re an honest, hard-working person because the rest can be taught. You can bring in a really talented chef who can cut an onion really quickly and has hands like nobody’s business but if they haven’t got any backbone then they have no place in my kitchen.”

 

Motivation comes from the nature of Benninger’s job. He says, “Every single day is new, so if I came into work bored, twenty minutes into the shift there are three new challenges thrown at me. There are times at the end of the night where I ask myself what the hell I’m doing in this job but the next day I’ve forgotten I ever thought that because I don’t have time to think about it.”

 

He concludes, “I really enjoy what I do for a living. I enjoy being able to feed people and entertain people. It’s also a job I can be proud of and people respect it when you work with your hands. My kids think I have a cool job and it goes a long way that they think I have a cool job.”

Burnt mandarin, chocolate mousse, roasted white chocolate snow, coriander sponge toffee, sorrel
Burnt mandarin, chocolate mousse, roasted white chocolate snow, coriander sponge toffee, sorrel
Updated: 06/20/2015, Krlmagi
 
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