by Jenn Farmer
“There is no sincerer love than the love of food,” George Bernard Shaw
Back in 2003 was the first time I remember having a conversation with Dante Benatti. At the time he was taking pictures of people late at night in a restaurant/nightclub I frequented. I was in a nostalgic mood already, my boyfriend at the time was returning to his home in Nepal, and we did not expect to see each other again; so it was already a night I was not soon to forget. Dante took our photo, and then we were introduced. Come to find out, Dante was a well-respected chef on Nantucket, and we ended up having a great deal in common.
We got to chatting and were both stunned we had not met prior to that night based on our restaurant experiences and circle of friends. The years immediately following that meeting are admittedly hazy for me, but the happy memories I do have often include Dante. Jump ahead a few years to the first time I actually got to cook with him. It was Christmas, and a group of “orphans” on the island were getting together to cook some Mexican food, and sit around in their pajamas, and play board games (trust me; it is just as much fun as it sounds!). I had known and respected Chef Benatti for ages, but watching him work made my heart full. For anyone reading this who is not in the restaurant industry, you may not understand, so I have some advice for you. If it is possible to watch a busy, cohesive kitchen at work, do it—it is fascinating. A good crew is as exciting to watch as a great sports team playing together; in fact that is precisely what it is. A great unified kitchen line can often bob and weave and move with each other, with little or no talk, no need they can predict each other’s movements, and no matter how fast the pace, there are no collisions, or wasted movements. That was what it was like in my friend’s house that day. He was so skilled that even the people who did not cook, fell into the rhythm. It was lovely to watch, and more importantly the food was incredible. I knew he had a great reputation, but it was poetry to work with him. My level of respect changed dramatically that day. We had many great conversations in the time to follow, but the greatest was when Chef Benatti reminded me how much a little love for the food, can improve the dish. It is true. If I cook in a bad mood, no matter how technical and perfectly I prepare something, it always suffers.
However it all seems to taste so much better when I have a joyful heart and respect for the ingredients—not only to me but to the customer, too. Love when cooking can create something like magic. I have always considered it a boon that through those years Dante and I grew to be friends.
Last year I got a text message from Dante about an article I wrote. I immediately thought, I should write about Dante! I asked his permission, and started writing. Surprisingly, it was a far more difficult task than I ever anticipated.
Even though we knew each other for a long time, I did not know where to begin. I knew some of the history of his growing up in Michigan, and then becoming practically a celebrity chef in Colorado, before coming east to Nantucket, and Killington Vermont. Like many of us “washashores” he has been here since.
Although that is an interesting tale, it was not the stuff that drew me to him as a person. SO I had to really think about it. The first official “interview” was pretty short, Chef Benatti told me stories that I enjoyed (although like many chefs stories, many are not exactly family friendly). I kept thinking, “I should write about the time ….oh yeah, uh I can’t tell that one…” During this time I learned some things I never knew about him, like he started working in kitchens at 14 washing dishes, so he could buy a mountain bike. He worked his way up, gaining confidence as he got promoted. He, like many cooks, got to the top of the food chain in the busy establishment and longed for something more. He wanted to move up further. He moved from Michigan to go to Colorado, which is a culinary destination in the U.S. Upon arrival in Colorado, he soon realized what most of us in this industry do: He didn’t know ANYTHING. So he took time, learned his way around a real kitchen, and earned a great reputation (This is not Dante’s words, but those of former colleagues I have spoken to!). Then came the inevitable, he got a girl, and she talked him into Nantucket. Here he is, years later. In addition to being a very busy chef, makes a mean lemoncello, and is the famous “Bingo Bear” at the Starlight (a very special sort of celebrity, he calls the numbers for bingo).
Anther little known fact, Dante is a talented poet, and makes poems up constantly (I never knew!). Here is one he shared that I loved. Luckily he agreed to let me publish it for all to enjoy!
She walks into the bar
It’s the only time I get to see her
A chit chat, a hug, a scratch
Of the back
The eyes kill me
Matched with the smile
To be on this island
Forever with a gypsy girl
Forever might not be long enough
That same spirit can be seen in his cuisine, the quiet affection for ingredients, and what he does reflects it. Here are a couple recipes he allowed me to share. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
MOROCCAN SPICED LAMB MEATBALLS
- 5 pounds ground lamb
- 1 1/2 white onion, small diced
- 1/2 cup garlic, minced
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 2 Tablespoons allspice
- 1/2 Tablespoon ground cinnamon
- 1 1/2 half cups parsley, chopped
- 3 eggs
- 1/2 quart panko crumbs
- Salt and Pepper (and Love of course)
Sauté the onion and garlic until translucent add the brown sugar and spices and heat through. Let cool slightly. Mix in the rest of the ingredients. Heat up a sauté pan, and take about one tablespoon of the mixture and cook it off. This is a taste tester, adjust the seasonings if necessary. Form the mixture into one and half to two ounce sized meatballs. Place on a baking pan or Pyrex baking dish and add just enough water to cover the bottom of the pan. Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 15 minutes. Serve with minted yogurt or tzatzkiki sauce. Makes more than 60 meatballs
12 DEGREES FRENCH TOAST
- 10 eggs
- 3 Tablespoons ground cinnamon
- 6 1 1/2 inch slices Challah Bread (he uses the local Something Natural bread)
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 cups peanut butter
- 2 cups maple syrup (he uses very high quality)
- 1 and one half cups dried cranberries
Heat syrup and cranberries, simmer for one half hour, the cranberries should be soft. Set aside at room temperature. Whip together in a chilled bowl, cream, sugar, and vanilla until it forms stiff peaks. Put in fridge for later. Warm the peanut butter until it is a pourable consistency, and keep warm. Meanwhile heat a nonstick or seasoned cast iron skillet, with enough vegetable oil to coat the bottom. Dip the challah in the egg mixture, coating both sides. Place the bread in the pan and cook on both sides until nicely browned. Transfer to a warm serving platter, drizzle with peanut butter, syrup, and cranberries. Top with whipped cream immediately before serving. Serves 3-6