Ben McPherson has been up and down the Gulf Coast, from Pensacola to Houston. As a kid, he faced down the challenge of moving from Alabama to Germany and back again, being bullied for his accent in two different countries. As we discussed in Part 1 yesterday, after spending some time as a troubled youth, kitchen life chose him and set him back on a positive path.
As you'll see in part 2 of our chef chat, his biggest challenge was still yet to come. As chef du cuisine, he'd face the devastating effects of a manmade disaster on the beautiful coastal restaurant that he worked for, as well as on other restaurants and businesses for miles around.
Today, McPherson is in a much happier spot as the executive chef at Prohibition Supperclub. There, his love for Gulf Coast cuisine is at the forefront. It's a good match for the elegant atmosphere. He's also found a creative work partnership and kinship with chef Matt Wommack, who joined him in the kitchen at Prohibition.
BM: I wasn't happy [in Atlanta] and wanted to move. I moved to Pensacola Beach, Florida where a big seafood restaurant [The Grand Marlin] was being built. It was gorgeous--a $10-million buildout. It had its own harbor. We had a temperature controlled meat-cutting room and opened with a staff of 110. I was chef du cuisine. I got to town a week before they opened the restaurant and they'd already been training two months before I got there. The whole staff goes, "Wait, who's this guy?" They automatically didn't like me.
EOW: Of course, because you basically just came in from off the street.
BM: Yeah, and I have this young look to me, so even though I was older than most I looked like I was younger.
My 31st birthday was April 18. April 20 was the BP [Deepwater Horizon] oil spill. My mom and sisters came over and we were having lunch and they said, "Hey, did you hear about the explosion out in the Gulf?" I said, "No," went back to work a day later and everyone's like, "What's going on?"
It took a month before we ever saw it. We were starting to kick into the summer season. You've got to make 70 percent of your revenue between May and the end of August.
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The oil washed up right around Memorial Day. Everything was fucking empty. We were at 30-percent capacity where usually we'd be 80- to 85-percent capacity. I was watching grown men cry. Cooks who were 38 years old--seasoned, hardened people--were crying. Then, you'd flip on the news and see charter boat captains are committing suicide. Three or four of them between Gulf Shores and Pensacola. It was just depressing.
It was bad. I just lost it and went into a horrible depression. I ended up saying, "I just can't do it." I stuck it out [at The Grand Marlin] for a year. I believed in the place and the area.
I ended up going back to Atlanta. I hung out for a few months, then I went to Singapore for six weeks. I went for four weeks with Eli [Kirshtein] who was doing a celebrity guest chef thing over there. I tagged along. We ate Singapore. Then we went and ate Kuala Lumpur. We would literally eat until we were almost throwing up every night. We wouldn't even drink. We'd just eat, eat, eat. Food, food, food. We'd just dissect everything and try and figure out all the flavors.
I actually have one of those dishes here [at Prohibition Supperclub]. There's a place in Long Beach famous for their chili crab, but what I love the most is they do a black pepper crab. Instead of a black pepper crab, I do a black pepper oyster, Singaporean-style. I have Magnolia's Shrimp & Grits on the menu here, too.
My brother lives in Korea. I've been four times now. Once I spent two weeks there and studied at the government's World Kimchi Institute. I went there and learned the science of kimchi. It's like a lab.
(Author's note: Fun fact--McPherson's brother Joe is well-known for his Zen Kimchi blog and regarded as an expert on Korean food.)
Every time I go there, we travel, find these little villages, stay in the ancient huts and have somebody's grandma cook for us. [My brother] speaks Korean. They think we're interesting because once you get outside of Seoul, they don't see a lot of white people.
EOW: I'm sure you get stared at.
BM: They'll hit you with their cane like you're an animal! (laughs) They don't know racism over there. I fell in love with Korean cuisine.
I ended up back in Atlanta and got a call from a company called Barteca out of Connecticut. It's a Spanish concept and they were building an amazing restaurant [Barcelona] in Atlanta . I didn't really want to get back into cooking tapas but they just kept calling so I finally said, "OK, I'll take it." It ended up being really big and my career just took off. I was going to be an exec sous, which I was fine with. We were booked for Thursday, Friday and Saturday reservations a month out. I went to Connecticut for training for three days, came back and they said, "We just let go of the chef. You're taking over." I go, "Nooooo. Nooo!"
So, they gave me the exec chef position and it was just insane. It was busy. I had any ingredient I wanted to get my hands on. I had all the resources. I had a million-dollar kitchen: all Jade ranges, subway tile all around it, a charcuterie case, cheese displays, a rotating Berkel slicer, every meat you'd want to get your hands on--gorgeous Iberian hams and we'd slice them tableside. The restaurant got every single award there possibly was.
I was only there for a year and we got Best Wine Bar in the country from Travel & Leisure. I got Best Chef, all this stuff. It was just awesome. It ended up going downhill really quick.
EOW: So it was really hot when it started, and then--?
BM: They let me go. I'll admit, it was the only job I've ever been fired from. I couldn't keep up. But I learned so much! I was so happy once I got back on my feet again.
Brian [Fasthoff] called me up and I was working with some other guys building a fun play on an Indian concept for Atlanta. He said, "Hey, what do you think about this?" I said, "Houston, huh? I have a good friend from high school who lives there. I'm coming." So, I jumped in the car. It was right before Christmas. I still had my Christmas tree up. I'd just broken up with a girlfriend. I said, "Let's do this."
EOW: The time was right.
BM: Yeah! The stars aligned. By the way, Brian and I are like--I'd do anything for those guys. I saw the space [that would become Batanga] and I was just like, "Holy crap, this could be something really awesome."
I'd already shot over a couple of menus. I shot over one and Brian didn't respond, so I shot over another menu and Brian calls me up and is like, "No, we want the first menu!" The very first menu was the one we opened with! I wrote it one night at 2 o'clock in the morning. It was so funny, because it was kind of a joke, like a hipster menu. If you read the menu, it's like, "Things That Wished They Could Fly."
EOW: Yeah, I remember that!
BM: We took a lot of great, classical recipes I'd cooked at other restaurants. It was like a little seed we were going to plant. It worked out really good and I had a great time, but at the same time I was looking for something more.
EOW: This was your third tapas restaurant, right?
BM: Yeah, I've cooked tapas since 2005. I was tired of it. I still like the concept. I just wanted to be me.
Matt [Wommack] and I met and hit it off really well. You always try to find people you can identify with and have endless conversation. You look for that in friends, in mates. So, we'd take trips to Austin and talk about food, food, food. One day, we were just talking and we were like, "Dude, I've written multiple business plans. I've worked with SCORE. I've been doing this since 2010. First it was a food truck, then it was a small restaurant. I get it; I just need the right people."
So, we started putting together ideas. I left Batanga and I really didn't know what the hell I was going to do. I had to figure out something for income. Some people were interested in putting some money in. We started the pop-up series because we needed to get ourselves out there.
The first one was good. We did it at Good Dog [Houston]. Danny and Amelia were so accepting. They helped us out so much. We did pretty well at that dinner. I just didn't have the budget right. The next was a private dinner at $120 a person with 20 seats. That one went really good. We knew exactly how many people would be there and did an eight-course meal, including some food I'd been wanting to do my entire life.
After that dinner, Matt and I were just like, "Boom. We know what we're going to do." We finally had our menu and our concept down. So we started shopping it around.
In the meanwhile, someone picked us up to do all these private caterings. We got income. It was enough to get by. I wasn't going on vacations or anything
EOW: How would you describe that menu?
BM: It was Gulf Coast cuisine. That's what I want to do. That was our concept. It was all the way up and down the Gulf Coast. I love it from Corpus Christi to Sarasota. I know the area so well, because growing up as a kid, we'd get in the car and go down [Highway] 98. It goes from Biloxi deep down into Florida. It's a great, scenic road. If you ever want a great vacation road trip, go down it and you'll see great pieces of America as well as modern America in Panama City and Destin.
Go to Clearwater and some of the beaches there and they're all about their grouper cheeks. We love that and want to use the influence of that. I love Gulf seafood. After the experience at The Grand Marlin, I feel like I need to help. It just hit me.
Nevertheless, I kept getting these phone calls from some place called Prohibition. (laughs) And I ignored them. Finally, I decided to answer it.
EOW: Did you know what Prohibition was?
BM: I knew of it. I knew they'd taken over the space here. I'll be truthful: it was more about ignorance. I just didn't have time to go out. I ended up looking into it and then I met them. When I first met [Prohibition owners] Anh [Mai] and Lian [Pham], I felt something special was going on here--something really great.
I showed them what I was doing and they were very interested. One thing led to another. I was talking intensely to Matt. I was like, "Matt, I can't leave you." (fakes crying) "I don't want to leave you, man. I love you!" (laughs) At the same time, I said, "Matt, you need to make the best decision for you."
[The owners said] "We want you to bring Matt." I said, "Well, that's his decision. It's not mine." It ended up working out and we all got along great. I started in May. We helped them out with organizing, construction and concepting. That's how we came up with this nostalgic, Decadence-Meets-Gulf-Coast-Seafood concept that also has a little Italy and a little Canadian in it. You'll see these influences of everything we've been through.
It's hard opening restaurants. The hours are crazy but, especially in a great city like this one, it's got this energy. It's great to participate in something in the dining scene, especially crazy concepts like (waves arms around Prohibition's dinner theater). (laughs)
EOW: You haven't been open that long.
BM: Three weeks!
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EOW: What's the reception been like so far?
BM: Everyone's really liking it a lot. We're constantly tweaking. We have the menu set up so we can print every single day. I don't want us to ever get stagnant. We have to challenge ourselves.
There's no "me". It's not "Ben." It's everybody. It's not a one-man show.
It took me a while to get here and I'm really excited to be part of this. I think we're onto something here.