After 10 years working in Portland’s kitchens, Ben Meyer embarked on a kind of culinary pilgrimage. In 2001, he worked his way across the country, from Portland to the Mississippi River, stopping to work on 31 different farms along the way. Six years later the same thing happened in Spain—only this time the transportation was by foot and the farms were vineyards and olive plantations.
Meyer’s journeys revealed a seamless combination of food, culture, farming and history that lead him to create a powerful philosophy—one that inspires his current Portland restaurant, Ned Ludd, which he co-owns with chef Jason French. “With great ingredients, you do the least possible and let them shine.”
Meyer took a break from chopping cords of wood and growing fresh produce to talk with Slow Food USA about the joys of an early morning farmers’ market trip, introducing offal to patrons and the inspiration that started it all.
SF: Have you ever taken a risk on a dish that ended up being a success?
BM: All the time. We work with whatever beautiful ingredients our farmers have. Sometimes we have to get creative to make use of those ingredients. This summer, when we had raspberries coming out of our ears, I made a marinade for chicken, which turned out to be one of my favorites! We called it “chicken in a red coat.”
SF: Have you ever created a dish that you thought would be a hit but didn’t meet your expectations?
BM: Dishes often don’t turn out to be exactly what we planned, but throughout the process we have a lot of chances to redirect them and make them work. Wild plum braised lamb was not what I hoped it to be, but with some crispy kale, and creamy polenta, it worked out quite well.
SF: How much of what you do is influenced by the time you spent traveling the country and abroad on your bike and by foot?
BM: My time traveling by bicycle gave me the opportunity to see hundreds of farms across America and Canada, which ultimately gave me a more intimate connection with the foods I cook. It also made me even more steadfast about buying direct from the growers and producers in my area. My time walking in Spain gave me a passion for ingredients and nuances, and simple ways to draw out the essence of an ingredient in its peak time and place.
SF: What ingredient (or ingredients) do you like introducing people to?
BM: Offal, because I think most people’s dislike come from social stigmas or badly prepared versions as a child. Kale, because it is my favorite vegetable, and I don’t think it gets enough attention.
SF: What is the first thing you buy at your farmers market? Do you go to your farmer’s market since you have a CSA in your back yard?
BM: I go to the market early, and I do a lap to see what looks inspiring, and what farmer’s looks best. Then I buy as much as I can carry, mostly vegetables and fruit. The CSA is different: we watch things mature slowly, so ideas come together over time. The market is about inspiration.
SF: What was your favorite dish growing up? Has that inspired you in the kitchen?
BM: My mother loved to make my grandmother’s chicken soup with handmade noodles (almost more like dumplings). I loved that quite a lot. We also spent most of the summer eating tomatoes from the garden, sliced, with nothing but salt and black pepper. Oh, and fresh sweet corn, boiled, with butter and salt.
All of these have inspired the food I cook. I try to make very simple food that showcases the ingredients at their peak. That is always my favorite food.
SF: What is the most inspirational book or author you have read about what you do?
BM: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage series of books. What he has done is truly amazing. I love to thumb through and find little gems of peasant cookery. I also love Cooking by Hand, by Paul Bertolli.
SF: What is the best thing that you’ve ever eaten?
BM: This summer I was back in the Midwestern US, where I grew up, and I had an ear of sweet corn that stopped me dead in my tracks. Every single bite made me coo. And the first time I ate a calcot with Romesco in Spain.
SF: What types of challenges have you faced opening a new farm to fork restaurant in locavore saturated Portland, Oregon?
BM: Getting noticed. We are lucky, in that it is a small place, so we didn’t have to put ourselves out there too much. We did what we believed in, quietly, and people found us. If you do something with honesty and integrity, people respond to that. If you try to always be what people want, they sense that. We are lucky that so many people here care about the same things we do, and want to help us support growers, ranchers and producers working with tradition.