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Daily Inspiration: Meet Ben Grant

Today we’d like to introduce you to Ben Grant.

Alright, thank you for sharing your story and insight with our readers. To kick things off, can you tell us how you got started?
I started in the hospitality industry when I was 15 at a little Italian joint called Princivalli’s in Alton, IL, where I’m from. They’d have me come in a couple of times a week and help make salads, dishes, and bus tables. After working a few non-hospitality jobs around my neighborhood, I returned to food when I got a job at a KFC/Taco Bell, which taught me that I’d never work in fast food again. After that, I spent 4 years working at a local watering hole called Regal Beagle, bussing tables, doing dishes, and barbacking. Around my third year there, wood-fired pizza had started taking off. They would eventually build a pizza kitchen off the existing kitchen, where I would spend the remainder of my time at Regal Beagle. That was, in my mind, my first actual kitchen job: I didn’t take the earlier gigs too seriously.

I planned on going to college to study cinematography. Still, when I started having real responsibilities running that pizza kitchen, I thought that maybe I could make something of it. Some things would happen in my life around that same time that would also make that decision for me. From there, I moved on to work at Senior Services Plus in Alton, specializing in large-scale catering for programs like Head Start and Meals on Wheels. This was my first Monday-to-Friday job, which was much different from the other jobs I had. I met great people and gained a lot of catering experience. I started working in St. Louis around the same time, using my newfound pizza experience to get a job as a manager at Epic Pizza in Soulard. I think the job at Epic was when I started having fun working in a kitchen; I worked there with one of my best friends, Brandon, and gained many more friends there. Epic would also be the place where I met my partner, Christy. I would shortly after the move to St.Louis. I started working as the Kitchen Manager and Vin de Set at PW Pizza, where I became the lead line cook. After two years, I had reached a point where I wanted a new direction. I would work at Peacemaker for a little while until tragedy struck; one of my best friends died of an overdose. Unsure of my direction career-wise and affected by the loss, I took some time off to figure out what I wanted to do, which was helpful even in tragic circumstances. I had all this pizza experience and line-cooking experience, but I had decided that I didn’t want to be a career line cook and wanted to do something different from pizza. So I started seeking jobs I knew nothing about, things that made me uncomfortable. Niche jobs, artisan skills; more specific, more focused. To me, being uncomfortable meant I would learn a lot, and that’s what drove me the most. I started foraging. I started baking. I accepted a position at Knead Bakehouse, which hadn’t yet opened. I contacted the owner and was ultimately one of the first employees hired. I would go on to work there for two years, starting before day one. I would ultimately take on the title of Sous Chef and learn a lot about bread and baking. I would develop recipes, as well as create menus and pastry ideas. During this time at Knead, I also took on a position with a great local chef, Logan Ely, at Savage. At this point, I was working 7 days a week. Savage was in our neighborhood, and I was super excited about it. Chef Logan is like no one I’ve ever worked for. He is so inventive, and the amount of information he has that you can absorb is endless. This was all a foundation for me to build on. I would move on to Nathaniel Reid Bakery to continue to build on that baking experience. I also missed pizza, so I took a job at Melo’s Pizzeria working for one of the best families in the St.Louis hospitality industry – the Valenzas – which fed that urge to get back to it. At the same time, I was helping a farmers market business named Dough Joe’s make bagels, another baking building block and something I had never done before. I worked three jobs: for a great family business, a James Beard-nominated pastry chef, and a small upstart. This was the most rewarding and hardest part of my career. I would work all three for a while; then covid hit, and I lost all of them. The world shut down, and I was unemployed, but weirdly, all this forced time off we all had become a blessing in disguise. Since I was 19, I’ve done nothing but work my butt off; not working made me think about what I wanted out of a job. Out of an employer. Like everyone else, we questioned many aspects of life during that time. As much as I was sketched out by covid, I knew I had to get back to work. I would go back to helping make bagels with Dough Joe’s and start a job at Pie Guy Pizza as a manager.

Pizza wasn’t my first choice then, but it created the safest opportunity to get back to work, considering the pandemic. After about 10 months there, I knew I wanted to get back on that path of learning things I had no experience in, which represented growth. I would take a job with Larder and Cupboard, which allowed me to learn a different side of the business: customer service in a farmers market environment. I had some experience, but this was different; maker to the customer at a grassroots level. With Dough Joe’s, I saw upstarts from a Back of House perspective; with Larder and Cupboard, I saw the Front of House side. I had started working at two brick-and-mortars from day one. In a way, I was working my way backward through the hospitality industry. Still, every one of those jobs led me to where I am now: running a bi-weekly bake sale via Instagram, working at Larder and Cupboard, and Bijoux Chocolates.

We all face challenges, but looking back, would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
It hasn’t been a smooth road at all. As I said earlier, I’ve been working my butt off since I was 19, because I was kicked out of my house at 19. I’ve been homeless; I’ve been arrested. Nothing good comes easy; it takes work, and often there’s a lot of hardship and growth along the way. Growth involves change, and I knew that to grow beyond where I was personally and professionally, I needed to make a big change in my sobriety. I’ve been sober since January 2020, a big part of where I’m today. It provides clarity, control, and a better sense of self.

Alright, so let’s switch gears a bit and talk business. What should we know about your work?
I am a hospitality professional focused on line cooking, pizza (wood-fired and non), baking, and foraging. I run a bi-weekly bake sale via Instagram. Work at the farmer’s markets, make jams, jellies, and marmalades for Larder and Cupboard. Make chocolates and confections for Bijoux Chocolates. I also work closely with local businesses to distribute and utilize things I forage throughout the year. I am most proud of how far I’ve come since being kicked out at 19, my sobriety, my work ethic, and being mentioned by Food+Wine. Something that sets me apart is; that it is so simple- I care. I care about what I do, how I do it, who I do it for, and the results/outcomes of it all.

What’s next?
I hope to continue to forage and work with local businesses to utilize those ingredients in the best ways possible. I want to make those items that often seem very foreign to people more inclusive than exclusive. I want to continue to travel, learn, eat, and experience as much as possible. Those things excite me and keep me motivated. I love learning new things. I hope to one day have a business of my own-the Instagram bake sale is very much a way for me to network, grow a customer base, and test things out as a starting point for something like that.

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