The story behind Olio’s famous egg salad

Susan Manlin Katzman of

Cheryl Baehr

Ben Poremba always knew the power food had to stir up memories in people, but he was not prepared for the reaction his father had the first time he tasted his egg salad. The chef and restaurateur had just opened his Botanical Heights restaurant, Olio, and his father had come in from Israel to check out his son’s professional accomplishment.

Poremba was busy in the kitchen the night of his father’s visit, so he was caught completely off guard when one of his servers came in to tell him that his dad was crying at his table. Poremba promptly left the kitchen and found that his dad was, indeed, in tears. Distraught, he asked his father what was going on.

“I said, ‘Dad, what’s wrong? Why are you crying?,” Poremba recalls. “He said, ‘You know, I never thought that I was going to have this taste again in my mouth. You just sent me back to your grandmother’s house.’ My grandmother had died a few years before and had Alzheimer’s for several years prior to that, so it had been a long time since he’d had her food. The thing is, I didn’t even have to tell him that it was hers for him to realize it. He was transported to a place in time.” 

In the eight-plus years since opening Olio, Poremba has developed a following for his egg salad, a recipe based on a dish his paternal grandmother used to make for the family. Though his mother’s Moroccan culinary tradition typically dominated the Poremba family’s food experience, there were a few dishes his dad’s German mother was known for: Matza ball soup, chicken schnitzel, potatoes and cabbage and a chopped chicken liver dish made with eggs and onions. The former was popular with the adult family members, but for the kids, Poremba’s grandmother would make the dish without the chicken livers, instead crafting the concoction out of hardboiled eggs, mounds of fried onions, schmaltz (or sometimes canola oil), a little bit of mayonnaise, salt and white pepper.

What made the egg salad so special, however, is that she ran it through a hand-cranked meat grinder to give it a smooth, even texture. Poremba and his cousins would eat it on bread every Friday, and it became one of his fondest food memories.

However, Poremba admits that it wasn’t until he became a chef that he grew to appreciate his grandmother’s cooking and the constraints that bound her in the kitchen. Growing up upper-middle class in an urban setting and destined for university, his grandmothers’ life would be upended when she was sent to a concentration camp during the war. There, she met Poremba’s grandfather, who hailed from a rural part of Poland.

The two married, had Poremba’s father in a refugee camp, and emigrated to Israel a few years later where they were given a small studio apartment with a nonexistent kitchen. The space was so tiny, the micro refrigerator was located in the bedroom area, and the kitchen consisted of a small, two burner countertop stove.

Still, she made it work, cooking weekly, Friday afternoon meals for the family that were an important part of Poremba’s childhood. He wanted to pay homage to her in some way when he opened Olio, so he chose her egg salad as they way to do so. As he explains, the secret to his dish is that he uses almost as much caramelized onion as egg to make it bind, a little bit of mayonnaise and some salt and pepper. He also runs it through a grinder, just like his grandmother, and sprinkles a little lemon zest on top to give it brightness. Right away, he knew he’d nailed the recipe, so he was surprised that no one was ordering it.

“We offered it in a little bowl with some bread, and nobody bought it,” Poremba says. “For the first month we opened, it was staff meal every day. I decided I needed to use the power of marketing, so I called it “famous” on the menu and underlined the word “famous.” Then, I made sure everyone at Olio knew the story behind it and would start gifting it to people to entice them. Once people tried it, it grew into a little cult. Now, we sell a ton of it. It’s our best seller at the restaurant and the market.”

Poremba is thrilled with the acclaim his egg salad has earned, even if it was a rough start. However, the best reviews he receives are the ones from his family that let him know he’s hit the mark – not only in taste, but with the memories he creates.

“Over the years I have been cooking, the best compliments I get are when I’m told, ‘This tastes a little bit like your grandmother’s’,” Poremba says. “To me, being able to take someone to another time is the definition of what a successful food experience is.”