2016 Rust Belt Rising Star Community Chef Ben Hall of Russell Street Deli

2016 Rust Belt Rising Star Community Chef Ben Hall of Russell Street Deli
November 2016

Chef Ben Hall has deep roots in the Detroit food community: his father was one of the last workers on city’s kill floors in Eastern Market during the early 1970s. As a teenager, Hall worked as a dishwasher just down the block from the market at Russell Street Deli, literally learning the food business from the sink up. Now, he and friend Jason Murphy, whom he met at Russell Street, are partners and co-owners of the establishment.

The deli sources from several of its own urban farms and is now Detroit’s lead purchaser of organically grown produce—veggies they use to make an average of 5,000 gallons of vegan, gluten-free, low-sodium soup that they sell to specialty grocery stores, soup kitchens, and Detroit’s 55,000 school children each week. Plus, there’s always a $2 soup on Hall’s menu. 

Hall is a member of the Chef’s Action Network, a networking group of chefs from around the country who are working to change to the food system. He contributed to the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act, along with Restaurants Advancing Industry Standards of Employment, for whom he’s given congressional briefings related to the increase of the minimum wage and the tipped minimum wage. Hall teaches for the Cooking Matters program, as well as leading domestic soup classes as a fundraiser for Gleaners, a community food bank. He was also recently named to the Detroit Public Schools Culinary Task Force and James Beard Impact Programs.

Currently, Hall and Murphy have a new restaurant project underway in Corktown, the historic section on the western edge of downtown Detroit.

Interview with Rust Belt Rising Star Community Chef Ben Hall of Russell Street Deli

Sean Kenniff: How did you get your start?
Ben Hall:
I’m from Detroit’s east side. I started dishwashing at my mom’s bar when I was nine. I worked in the market [Eastern Market], and grew up with a knife in my hand, butchering chickens. I did a little bit of everything, and it was always easy to find a restaurant job. 

I went to six different high schools growing up. In high school in California, that exposed me to Mexican and Vietnamese food. Mole at 14 will shred your brain! 
I was working here [at Russell Street], and there was a chef in the 90s who was the first “fusion” chef in Detroit. He got us to go on gigs with him. He whipped restaurants into shape, and we rolled with him super hard. 

I owned a record store, Hello records, and sold it to go to grad school at Columbia in New York, where I studied sculpture. I lived in New York City for four years while my girlfriend was finishing her PhD. All the while I had this place, traded time with Jason [Murphy, co-owner of Russell Street], and then he went to Columbia. In 2012 I came back here from New York.

SK: Who’s your mentor? 
All my folk and family and friends. 

SK: How are you involved in the local culinary community?
What business are we in? Feeding people, and finding the sweet spot where we can sell and serve the most people the best food. I still work at the soup kitchen, and we start supplying it this fall. We’ve raised $100,000 for the local food bank, and a percentage of the soups will go to them. We’re looking into Walmart as well—who sells more food to poor people?

SK: You staff looks like Detroit. Tell us about your hiring practices. 
I’ve only said this once or twice and the first time I didn’t mean to say it: I’m sick of being the lightest person in the room or the darkest person in the room. The only way to make change is to make the room mixed. If all of the people speak the same jargon in the room, then you have a problem. Create opportunities for people.