Chef Benjamin Lambert of Restaurant Nora

Chef Benjamin Lambert of Restaurant Nora
October 2010

Sure, there are chefs who are the children of accomplished home cooks and savvy gardeners, but Chef Benjamin Lambert’s family was on another level of dedication to the table. Growing up in northeast Ohio, foraging, hunting, and fishing were just a regular part of his life. He attributes his love affair with food to his grandparents, who were avid cooks who canned and jarred the local produce when it was in season. Today he may not have Call of the Wild style wilderness at his disposal, but he still makes his salumi at Restaurant Nora in Washington, DC in-house, proof that he has kept the lessons of his youth in this jungle of a different kind.

His journey toward the food industry began when he enrolled in The Culinary Institute of America at his mother’s suggestion. After graduating, he worked at Le Cirque 2000 under the watchful gaze of Sottha Khunn. At Union Pacific while working under Josh DeChellis, Lambert was inspired by the focus on a balance between sweet, sour, salty, and bitter in each dish. He took that lesson and replicates it to this day in each dish he creates. The tight quarters in the kitchen of his next stop, Picholine, would also be an important step. But it wasn’t really until working with Chef Jason Neroni at 71 Clinton Fresh Foods that Lambert feels he developed a professional interest in farm-to-table.

Lambert next worked at Town, his first large-scale restaurant in midtown under Geoffrey Zakarian. From New York, he moved to DC and took the position of chef de cuisine at Restaurant Nora. He turned out to be a natural fit for a restaurant that was organic and seasonal before those were buzz words. Lambert relishes the total menu development freedom that he’s earned, and the inspiration that Chef-Owner Nora Pouillon provides when they discuss the daily-changing dishes. He continues to promote, with Pouillon, the importance of local organic food in the capital city.

Interview with Chef Benjamin Lambert of Restaurant Nora

Will Blunt: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Benjamin Lambert: My mom told me it was a good idea; she said ‘why not try culinary school?’ My grandparents were great home cooks and I learned a lot from them. They did a lot of canning and jarring. I make all my own salumi here; a lot of that I picked up when I was a kid. But I wouldn't have been as successful had I not gone to school. The CIA really put me on the right path of being where I needed to be. They instilled a good work ethic in me, which was good because when I first went to Le Cirque every day every dish had to be perfect. I said ‘Wow! This is incredible.’

WB: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with and without a culinary school background?
In New York City I wouldn’t recommend school. But if you’re not in the area, like in a rural town, it’s a very good base to have. I went to school and learned that what my parents had always called a mango actually turned out to be a pepper. As for hiring, with or without culinary school, if you want to learn, come on in. My salad cook right now, he's been here for four months. He has no training—he just works hard.

WB: Who were your mentors and what did you learn from them?
From Rocco [DiSpirito] I learned about the use of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. At Le Cirque I learned to do numbers under Sottha Khunn. There I learned to be a professional chef. Picholine had a small kitchen; you learn discipline. When I worked at 71 Clinton Fresh Food I learned a lot about the farm-to-table thing, under Jason [Neroni]; it was really cool working with him—a good time. After I left I worked at Town, my first big restaurant in midtown; I was a chef under Geoffrey Zakarian. I still learn here, too. I’ve learned a lot about who I am here. I have total freedom. Here, Nora [Pouillon] comes in and it’s good to sit down and talk to her and get into the same mindset.

WB: What advice would you offer to young cooks just getting started?
Getting into this business is really hard if you don't have a strong work ethic. It's hard. Have a mentor. It doesn't matter if it's some cook that's a friend of yours, it just helps to have someone to guide you.

WB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
The whole mentality of the farm-to-table thing has really grown on me. And I don't believe in signature dishes here; I always just try to be creative and learn more every day. With the menu we try to be as healthy as possible; very little cream or butter.

WB: What are some of your favorite flavor combinations?
BL: I like classic flavors, but I like to add a twist. The Wild Alaskan Salmon [with Pea Purée, Caramelized Fennel, Grilled Hen of the Woods Mushrooms, Beet Tendrils, and Rhubarb Sauce] that you tasted today has mustard oil, peas, and mint. I like the combination of rabbit and lavender [in the Rabbit Porchetta, Frenched Rack of Rabbit, Bolognese-Stuffed Zucchini Blossom, Fennel Purée, Zucchini, Baby Carrots, Crispy Zucchini Blossoms, Chanterelles, and Rabbit Jus]. It kind of depends on the day. I like tamarind also, although we don’t use it here.

WB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
I do lectures at this school for continuing education so that people can see what a day in the life of a chef is like. I signed up for Obama's “Let's Move” campaign and I do a lot of events with Share our Strength. Nora's very big with [White House Assistant Chef] Sam Kass, and what they said was pretty inspiring and made me want to do something. I did an event this weekend for American Treasures, which supports artisan producers. I do anything I feel is worthwhile.

WB: Where will we find you in five years?
I'd like to have my own place someday, but I'm happy here. I've been here three years and I can do whatever I want. Farmers grow things I ask them to grow, I get just about everything I need, and I learn something new every day.

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