Meet Nick Benninger of TACO Farm

Everyone knows that the best parties always end in the kitchen. With our series, Kitchen Party, we’re sitting down with Feast On Chefs to get to know them, and the local foods that inspire them, a little better.

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Nick Benninger

Taco Farm

Waterloo, Ontario

Check out their Feast On Profile!

What’s your favourite seasonal ingredient?

I’d have to say I have a few, the harbinger of each season is always exciting. This first asparagus of the year… when you’re sick and tired or storage veggies. The first new potatoes, having a rich and creamy squash after a summer of fresh green type veg… It’s always great to get contrast and Ontario really gives us a chance to appreciate that as we have such swift changes in seasonal produce! When it comes to foraging, with out a doubt my favorite is the elusive May Apple. I live on the edge of a forest and have a bit of a battle going with the local squirrel population, they always seem to get to the ripe May Apples before I can so its a real treat when I can steal a few away, and such a crazy tropical fruit flavor for Ontario, I love it!

What’s your drink of choice?

On the hottest days, cold water. Most days, Black coffee. After work and days off, the coldest beer I can find. I’m really in love with the Ontario Craft Beer and Cider scene right now, so much great growth happening and so many great beers to try! When it comes to quite nights, I’ve always enjoyed Ontario Pinot Noir, I really love the dry and earthy style that we seem to do so well here full of funky barnyard type notes, Tawse and Norm Hardie to name a couple of great examples!

Most underrated ingredient?

Good vinegar! Good vinegar is such a great finish to almost any dish. I mean acid in general is so important, I always stress to young chefs to remember acid, when you think it needs more salt stop for a second and think about the acid level, usually it will do the trick and help a dish really pop, and having good quality vinegar in the pantry really makes that easy! I’ve been having some fun and making beer vinegar at work with last bits of a keg, really enjoying a vinegar I made from a dry hopped sour from Block 3 Brewery in St. Jacobs, very complex, great on braised meats.

Favourite restaurant?

Au Pied de Cochon will always be really special to Nat and I. I was on the cusp of letting go of my dream to open a restaurant of my own and settling into a more corporate gig, not a bad fate for everyone but for me it wasn’t the vision. We were in Montreal to celebrate a new phase in life where I may not work such long hours, maybe pull in a better pay cheque; maybe even get benefits! But deep inside I was a bit broken as I only ever wanted to work towards my own restaurant. Well, after an outstanding experience at Au Pied de Cochon the fire in both of us was fully lit again! We headed back to KW on a mission to open our own spot. Within 12 months we’d done just that, 10 years and 4 restaurants later, I’d say that meal was pretty important to us! Locally though, Cameron’s Seafood is a Chinese restaurant that absolutely spoils the region with some real deal food and amazing dim sum! It never disappoints!

Off-duty, what are you most likely to be cooking at home?

Depends really, I have a couple of kids at home, 8 and 12 years old so I’m not always just cooking for my own tastes. My wife is famous for her Brazilian food, rice and beans are a staple at our table. I’ll do my part and chip in with some grilled meats, pretty handy around a smokey BBQ. Most recently, I did some whole wild caught Whitefish on beds of oregano from the garden, cooked it at a gentle heat with some apple logs burning along side. Delicious!

What’s the best part of working with Ontario food and drink?

Getting to know the producers and building relationships with them face to face! It’s become such an advantage. Now, after all these years of doing so, we have such a team around us. when it comes to new things, new problems, new challenges; it’s such a relief to be able to lean on our producers for help, resources, answers, really whatever we need. Can’t get that from a guy 5000km away, growing your potatoes. Recently with our newest restaurant, Harmony Lunch we had the pleasure of leaning heavily on our relationship with Ontario pork farmer Fred at Perth Pork Products. We really worked together through an important recipe for Harmony, our pork burger. We had a whole lot of back and forth; changed cuts, grind, recipe tweaks, grind again and again until we had it perfect. can’t get that from your Sysco rep!

Why is Feast On important to you and your restaurant?

Feast On is the next step we needed a few years back, when it got started. Local food is good, we all get that. Some folks do it, some pretend to do it more than they really do. Feast On cuts through some of the green washing and helps reward folks who deserve to be celebrated. Feast On has also really helped me connect with chefs across the province who are carrying the same torch for locally-farmed goods. Some pretty fun events like the Rural Retreat have helped me connect with some like minded people; whom, like me, are all a bit to busy in the kitchen to normally spend any time with one another.

Fill in the blank: “If I entered a competitive eating contest, I’d definitely win if the item was __…”

…most foods, come on look at me, being gifted at eating is what got me into cooking! I love to eat and can do so with great efficiency when needed. I think if I had to pick a food though… to be my 100m dash… I’d have to go with tacos! At Taco Farm, we have a taco eating competition a few years. I hosted and did not compete, but the winning team (from fellow Feast On restaurant The Lancaster Smokehouse) had a team member who ate 27 tacos in 12 minutes. I’m quite confident I could have beaten that!!

Get to know other chefs like Nick by checking out the Kitchen Party Series!

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