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Chef Spotlight - Nell Benton
Chef, The National,

Photos by Matt Haas

August  2015

Very few chefs make the national news when they take over a restaurant, but thatís exactly what happened to Nell Benton when she bought The National at the end of 2011. The reason? The former owner, Michael Diedrick, sold Benton the entire restaurant for $100. The original price was $30,000, but for each one of the 11 stipulations Benton met, he reduced the price, and Bentonís nationally known cafť has become a neighborhood hub, as well as a dining destination in Milwaukee and beyond (with lots of Chicagoans stopping to visit on the way north). Benton, who is busy finishing her first book, "Fusion Ramen," which will hit bookstores this October, sat down with M Magazine to discuss cuisine, travel and some of her favorite things.

Tell me about your background.

"I grew up in Green Bay, but my mother is British. She and my dad met in Algiers in the í60s. I was born in Santa Monica ó my father was going to UCLA, but then he got a job at St. Norbertís so I grew up in Green Bay but spent summers in the U.K. I lived in London in my 20s, and I also lived on the island of Jersey, off the coast of France.

I used to work with humanitarian organizations and in finance. Cooking is something I always loved doing. I worked in restaurants and bars in college and after. I went to the Culinary School of the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale."

Growing up, going places with family and visiting relatives must have instilled a love of travel.

"I always travel one to two weeks in the fall and spring. Itís my sacred travel time. Iíve been to 40 different countries. Iíve often traveled based on where I want to eat. And yes, in my humanitarian work, I have traveled to hot spots."

Whatís in your refrigerator? What do you cook outside of work?

"Every chef Iíve known, if you looked in their refrigerator, itís all condiments and takeout. All Iíve been cooking lately is ramen. I love ketchup. I wrote a blog post on my love of ketchup on potatoes. It is the hot and the cold and the salty and the sweet. I love sambol, a Thai chili garlic sauce. I love marmite, which is a yeast extract from England, and I love Tabasco on pizza. Iíve written a lot of my book at Anodyne Cafť, eating their prosciutto pizza."

What tools do you love?

"A really good knife. I want to come up with a chefís tool belt, but it has to be something you could sanitize. I love my Robot Coupe (a type of food processor). I use chopsticks a lot for moving things in and out of pots. I also have a sous-vide, which I use to make pork loin."

Anything else youíd like to share?

"Itís called The National Cafť, but it should be called the international because the cuisine is from around the world. I serve ramen, a full English breakfast and huevos rancheros. When I was 7 or 8, I wrote in my journal the menu I was going to serve at my international cafť. And come and visit our patio. We have herbs and veggies."


This story ran in the August 2015 issue of: