In How I Got My Job, folks from across the food and restaurant industry answer Eater’s questions about, well, how they got their job. Today’s installment: Abra Berens.
When Abra Berens was working as a farmer in Northport, Michigan, and selling her produce at local farmers markets, she fielded a lot of questions from customers about what to do with the goods they were buying. She began to answer these queries more formally in her column for the daily Traverse City Record-Eagle, which then inspired her first cookbook: Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables.
“I wanted to really give people a resource for how to cook with all of this produce that we were growing,” she explains. “The idea was to also shed light on how to cook beyond a recipe, but still offer the support and structure of a recipe.”
The 450-page book dives deeply into the world of vegetables, from their production to their many uses to their cultural context. And Berens enjoyed writing it so much that she decided to continue the series with Grist: A Practical Guide to Cooking Grains, Beans, Seeds, and Legumes. This collection was informed by the organic grain program at Granor Farm in Three Oaks, Michigan, where she is currently the chef of the year-round greenhouse dinners.
Berens recently released the third part of the series: Pulp: A Practical Guide to Cooking with Fruit, which features both savory and sweet recipes that celebrate fruit. Here, she reflects on the path that led her to this point, the education that prepared her, and the mentors who have helped along the way.
What does your job involve? What’s your favorite part about it?
I lead our dining program at Granor Farm in Three Oaks, Michigan. I get to work with the agriculture teams, which manage our vegetable and grain production, and the retail team, which leads the farm store and the online farm store. I am sort of the conduit for teaching, taking all of the information and creating the structure around it. For example, every week our farm manager sends a list of what she’s going to be harvesting from the fields. The cooks and I take that and brainstorm dishes. Then, I write the menu.
As far as my favorite part of that, it’s really managing people. And that is a marked change from a few years ago, when the most important part of my job was coming up with a new dish. I still enjoy that, but I’m more fulfilled when I see that happening for a cook or when I see a conversation between a cook and a customer about why we have carrots on the menu.
The cookbook side is a much longer cycle. I always write a big outline, which ends up becoming the table of contents. Getting to see everything laid out and spending that time exploring the structure, when it’s a blank slate and then you’re chiseling away and creating form out of it — I love that part of it. It’s a very solo project.
The photo shoots are probably my favorite part of the production because the team has been so fun. It’s been the same team for all three books: photographer Emily Berger and stylist Molly Hayward. The three of us just work so well together in creative collaboration.
What did you originally want to do when you started your career?
I was a farm kid growing up, and most farm kids, once they turn 16 and they can actually drive away from the farm, look for a town job. So I wanted to have my own job that wasn’t tied to my family’s pickle farm. I started working in restaurants and really loved it.
What was your first job? What did it involve?
My first job was at a place called Pereddies, which was an Italian restaurant and market in Holland, Michigan. I started out there as a deli worker when I was 16 and loved it. And the owner, Chris Brown, was a great leader and taught me a ton. He was one of the first people who articulated to me that a great team is composed of people with different strengths and weaknesses.
Did you go to culinary school or college? If so, would you recommend it?
I studied history and English at the University of Michigan. I feel very fortunate that education was a really big priority for my family, so I was able to go to a four-year college and have the space to learn what I wanted to do there. While it doesn’t seem like those things directly translate to my profession, the writing certainly does. And communication of thoughts and emotions is always valuable. Even if I had no writing in my career at all, being able to think critically, evaluate sources, and codify that information and share it with others is important.
In college, I wanted a job to have some extra money and started working at Zingerman’s Deli. I fell in love with the culture and started learning a ton about food. In my five years that I was there, I transitioned from front of house, taking orders and running trays and ringing people up, to working in the kitchen. And to this day, I have three mentors from Zingerman’s: one of the owners, Paul Saginaw, chef Rodger Bowser, and then Rick Strutz, who was brought in to help make Zingerman’s more professional.
Rick was super corporate and we all hated him. But he’s now somebody I go to all the time because he made Zingerman’s better and more sustainable as a business, and Zingerman’s made him better. That is the beautiful part of getting to work with people: It’s a two-way street. Paul taught me the why of what I wanted to do, and Rodger taught me the how. He taught me how to cook.
So when I was ready to leave Ann Arbor and I started deciding if I was going to look at culinary school, Rodger was like, “You don’t need to go to a full culinary school, but there’s lots of things that you do need to learn that we can’t teach you here, so consider going to Ballymaloe, which is in Ireland.” It’s on a working farm and he had done his externship in culinary school at the guest house there.
I ended up attending their cooking school as a hedge. I wasn’t quite ready to go all the way into food, and I thought maybe I wanted to do some food writing. So this would teach me more about it and I could travel. And it was not a two-and-a-half-year commitment and I wasn’t going to go into debt. A lot of really practical things went into the decision to go to cooking school. And Darina Allen from Ballymaloe is still a mentor of mine today.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were starting out in the industry?
The biggest challenge was how to make this into a career. Food and agriculture are not jobs that parents are super excited about their children going into because the pay isn’t great and the hours are bad. And so the question was really like, how could I make this a career? How could I do this and have a family? Those were not immediate questions, but they certainly were always in the back of my mind.
What was the turning point that led to where you are now?
When I moved back to the States from cooking school, I started working at farm-to-table restaurants in Chicago because I wanted to be in the same place as my now-husband. I found a really amazing community of farm-to-table restaurants and bakeries, and then started a farm in 2009 to continue that learning. The biggest turning point in my career was starting farming and then also starting to write a food column for the Traverse City Record-Eagle within a couple of years of each other.
At the time I certainly felt like, Why am I making this choice? I’m leaving my apartment and my husband to farm for six months out of the year, and I’m cashing in all of my savings to do this. But it felt like it was the next form of education. And I don’t think I could have done any of this without doing that. And if I hadn’t started writing for the Record-Eagle, I don’t know how I would’ve built a practice of writing. Because by being on deadline, I was accountable to someone else. And I could try it out in a pretty low-risk way. That gave me a lot of foundation for the first book. And then the first book was the foundation for the next two.
Do you have, or did you ever have, a mentor in your field?
Along with my mentors from Zingerman’s and Ballymaloe, Skye Gyngell, who is one of the first chefs who brought me into her kitchen after cooking school, and Paul Virant, who was the chef I worked for the longest in Chicago, are definitely mentors that I still go to with questions. And now I’m in a part of my career where I have peer mentors, like Ouita Michel from Lexington, Kentucky, who I met at a James Beard Foundation policy bootcamp. And Katherine Miller, who founded the policy impact programs with the Beard Foundation.
How are you making change in your industry?
On the chef side, we’re working hard to have a financially sustainable model that allows us to create year-round, good-paying jobs in agriculture and in hospitality, which are not common. I’m also working hard to make this a teaching kitchen so that cooks will take the lessons of cooking directly from a farm with them when they leave; hopefully they learn how to support agriculture in their restaurant pursuits.
What would surprise people about your job? Why?
I think the thing that would surprise people is just how small these industries actually are, that we’re still all doing all of the things. I’m still polishing dishes at the end of the night. Not every night anymore, but that is not without normalcy. Or I’ll get emails that are like, I don’t know who’s reading this, if it’s Abra or her assistant. And I’m like, An assistant would be really nice. There’s no assistant. Social media can give an air of fanciness that I have not found.
What advice would you give someone who wants your job?
There are a million ways to exist in the food and media world, so the advice that I have is to think about what you want your niche to be. And surround yourself with people who are better than you.
Be sure that you have your line in the sand of things that you won’t tolerate. I made a decision early on that I would never work in a kitchen where someone screamed. And I’ve been fortunate to have never been confronted with some of the toxic parts of the food world because of that decision. It’s important for people to think about what they’re not willing to put up with.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Morgan Goldberg is a freelance writer based in New York City.