Israeli chef Ben Poremba launches side-by-side restaurants to rave reviews

Chef and restaurateur Ben Poremba at Olio and Elaia, his new restaurants at 1634 Tower Grove Avenue, in the Botanical Heights neighborhood. Photo: Yana Hotter

BY MARGI LENGA KAHN, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Ben Poremba was born and raised in Ness Ziona, Israel, north of Rehovat and south of Rishon. He is the youngest of three children, with an older brother and sister. At the age of 17, Poremba moved to Italy to attend a master’s degree program in food culture. He traveled extensively throughout Europe, immersed in all things food. In 1996, he rejoined his family here in St. Louis, where his father’s job had taken him.

I first interviewed Poremba in the summer of 2009 just after he and partner Mark Sanfilippo began marketing their artisan-cured meats at local gourmet stores and farmer’s markets. Shortly afterwards, the duo opened Salume Beddu on Hampton Avenue in the Lindenwood Park Neighborhood. His dream then, Poremba said, was to eventually have a wine bar that would pair wines with artisan-cured meats. 

In November, Poremba opened two restaurants—Olio and Elaia—in a converted gas station and refurbished house on Tower Grove Avenue in the Botanical Heights neighborhood. Elaia is a fine dining “middle-terranean” restaurant offering both an a la carte and tasting menu. Olio, a more casual approach to similar flavors, offers an eclectic array of sandwiches, salads, daily rotisserie selections, spreads, and cured meats. Both have impressive wine lists and extensive arrays of cocktails, spirits and beers.

This spring, Poremba added a French bakery across the street. Partnering with Simone Faure, previously the executive pastry chef at the Ritz-Carlton, they created La Patisserie Chouquette, an elegant yet eclectic bakery.

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I began this interview where the last one left off.

Have your dreams finally been fully realized?

I’m always coming up with more dreams to realize. I would like for these two restaurants and the bakery to become a destination. People can come here, park their car, and have three different dining options. Ultimately, I would like to open more restaurants. For now, we’ll have to wait and see. I am a risk-taker; it’s in my blood. 

You credit your mother, who was born in Morocco, with instilling a passion in you for good food and a keen understanding for how to use spices.  Explain.

I like strong flavors, clean food that maximizes the use of spices and flavors that come from different culinary traditions. Much of contemporary fine dining borders on minimalistic, relying on the sheer quality of the ingredients to speak for themselves. I believe that the flavors of the highest quality meats and vegetables can be further enhanced with careful and modest use of the freshest herbs and spices. On the one hand, you don’t want to mess with locally sourced foods that are sustainable. However, there is the possibility to do both. 

One of the most popular items on your menu is the “famous” egg salad. What makes it famous, and where does the recipe come from? 

Nothing makes it famous. Calling it famous just draws attention to it. Not many people would consider ordering egg salad in an upscale restaurant. We serve it different ways and, on special occasions, we’ll dress it up by topping it with some white truffles or caviar.

The recipe comes from my German grandmother, who was actually not a great cook. We had dinner at her house on many Friday nights. I didn’t like most of her food, dishes like her schnitzel and kugel.  But then there was her egg salad. I loved it. She caramelized lots of onions and transferred them from the pan into a meat grinder along with hard-boiled eggs. She didn’t even mix it up. It was more of a tzibella (Yiddish for onion) salad than it was egg salad. She served it with a slice of bread and mayonnaise. I don’t remember why I put it on our menu. Perhaps I read something about what was considered the best egg salad in the world and realized that nothing could be better than my grandmother’s version! 

Have you incorporated any other family recipes?

My grandmother made pickled herring, which is also on our menu. While the recipe is certainly not my grandmother’s, it pays homage to her. Our pickled herring is not overly salty like so many others. The texture is great with just a bit of a bite, and it tastes so fresh. We serve it with pickled onions, potatoes, and a dollop of sour cream. 

Does your style of cooking and the flavors of the dishes you offer here reflect any particular type of cuisine? 

Yes. In fact, it’s in keeping with what is happening in Israel right now. Our food draws from many types of cuisines, particularly those along the Mediterranean Coast: Turkey, Greece, Italy, Spain, and North Africa. Those food traditions are inspired by olive oil, regional spices and staples such as chickpeas and locally grown vegetables. 

At least 10 courses are included in your tasting menu, and many of the courses change daily. Where do you get the inspiration for so many different preparations?

Our dishes reflect the best of what the market has to offer on any particular day, and everything else is based on necessity. If the kitchen makes a large batch of chicken confit, we will find interesting ways to incorporate that confit in different dishes. We talk about ideas for dishes at the beginning of the week. From there, it evolves. I read a lot of cookbooks and do a lot of tasting, as do my chefs.   

Are you committed to local farm-raised ingredients?

During spring, summer, and fall, locally grown fruits, vegetables, and meats will dictate our menu. Our commitment is, first and foremost, to quality. The highest quality ingredients are often those that are raised locally. If the consequences of that commitment are that I support local farmers, then so be it. During the growing season, our menu will be more vegetable-driven. 

Every element of dining at both Olio and Elaia has a very artistic feel- the food, the presentation, the atmosphere. What is your dining philosophy? 

With fine dining, you charge a lot of money. There needs to be a premium placed on the overall experience. The experience should include great food that is beautifully presented in a comfortably elegant or excitingly casual atmosphere. 

While many people still think about a meal at a restaurant as a single part of an evening’s entertainment, my goal is to make our restaurants the evening’s destination. Many times our servers, who are always well-dressed, will finish a dish tableside to add an element of drama to the dining experience. 

And because our location is slightly off the beaten path, we need to make sure that our customers feel their trip is worth it. We hope they will be intrigued by what they hear and read about us, and are curious enough to try us out. When they leave, we hope that their dining experience will encourage them to visit again, many times over. 

Each of the courses on your tasting menu at Elaia is plated on a dazzling array of dishes. What is the evolution of these dishes, and your interest in them?

I have been collecting unusual dishes for a long time. I enjoy hunting for unique tableware at antique malls, auctions, and estate sales. I got that from my mother, who is a great hostess. She creates a beautiful set design for every dinner party she hosts or caters.  Her table décor, flower arrangements, and dishes are all part of the theatrical aspect of what we do to create a memorable dining experience.

Did you ever consider opening a restaurant in Israel?

Yes, and I still do, though, perhaps not until I’m ready to retire. Restaurants like Elaia and Olio would succeed in Israel. There’s a great food scene there; however, most of it is more casual. We offer the fine dining experience: high-end food, wine pairings, and impeccable service. I think that Israelis would appreciate this commitment to overall quality and be willing to pay for this type of dining experience.