When Abra Berens worked as a farmer in Northport, Michigan, selling her produce at local farmers’ markets, she answered many questions from customers about what to do with the produce they bought. She began to respond to these queries more formally in her column for the newspaper. Traverse City Record-Eaglewhich later inspired her first cookbook: Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables.
“I really wanted to give people a resource on how to cook with all these produce that we were growing,” she explains. “The idea was to shed light on how to cook beyond a recipe, but still offer the support and structure of a recipe.”
The 450-page book takes a deep dive into the world of vegetables, from their production to their many uses and cultural context. And Berens enjoyed writing it so much that he decided to continue the series with Grist: A Practical Guide to Cooking Grains, Beans, Seeds, and Legumes. This collection was informed by the organic grains program at Granor Farm in Three Oaks, Michigan, where she currently chefs year-round greenhouse dinners.
Berens recently released the third part of the series: Pulp: a practical guide to cooking with fruit, which features sweet and savory recipes that celebrate fruit. Here, she reflects on the path that led her to this point, her upbringing that prepared her, and the mentors that helped her along the way.
What is your job? What is your favorite part about it?
I run our meal program at Granor Farm in Three Oaks, Michigan. I get to work with the farm teams, who manage our vegetable and grain production, and the retail team, who run the farm shop and online farm shop. I’m kind of a conduit for teaching, I take all the information and create the structure around it. For example, every week the manager of our farm sends a list of what he is going to harvest 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 is actually managing people. And that’s a marked change from a few years ago, when the most important part of my job was creating a new dish. I still enjoy it, but I feel more satisfied when I see that happen to 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 loop. I always write a big schema, which ends up becoming the index. Getting to see everything laid out and spending that time exploring the structure, when it’s a blank slate and then you’re chiseling and creating form from that, I love that part. It is a very solo project.
The photo shoots are probably my favorite part of the production because the crew has been so much fun. It’s been the same team for all three books: photographer Emily Berger and stylist Molly Hayward. The three of us work very 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 can get away from the farm, look for a job in the city. So I wanted to have my own job that wasn’t tied to my family’s pickle farm. I started working in restaurants and I loved it.
What was your first job? What did it imply?
My first job was at a place called Pereddies, which was an Italian restaurant and market in Holland, Michigan. I started 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 lot. He was one of the first people to articulate to me that a great team is made up 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 high priority for my family, so I was able to go to a four-year university and have the space to learn what I wanted to do there. While it doesn’t seem like those things translate directly to my profession, writing certainly does. And the communication of thoughts and emotions is always valuable. Even if I haven’t written anything in my career, it’s important to be able to think critically, evaluate sources, and code that information and share it with others.
In college, I wanted a job to earn some extra money, and I started working at Zingerman’s Deli. I fell in love with the culture and started to learn a lot about food. In the five years I was there, I went from front of house, taking orders, handling trays and calling people, to working in the kitchen. And to this day, I have three Zingerman’s mentors: one of the owners, Paul Saginaw, chef Rodger Bowser, and then Rick Strutz, who was hired to help make Zingerman’s more professional.
Rick was super corporate and we all hated him. But now he’s someone 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’s the beautiful part of working with people: it’s a two-way street. Paul taught me the because what I wanted to do, and Rodger showed me the as. She taught me to cook.
So when I was ready to leave Ann Arbor and started to decide if I was going to look into culinary school, Rodger told me, “You don’t need to go to a full culinary school, but there are a lot of things you need.” to learn that we can’t teach you here, so consider going to Ballymaloe, which is in Ireland.” He is on a working farm and had done his culinary school internship at the guest house there.
I ended up attending his cooking school as a cover. I wasn’t quite ready to see the end of the meal, and I thought maybe I wanted to write a little about food. So this would teach me more about it and I could travel. And it wasn’t 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 my mentor today.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were starting out in the industry?
The biggest challenge was how to turn this into a race. Food and farming are not jobs that parents are very excited about their children’s income in because the pay isn’t great and the hours are bad. So the question was really, how could I make a career out of this? How could I do this and have a family? Those weren’t immediate questions, but they were certainly always in the back of my mind.
What was the turning point that led you to where you are now?
When I returned to the United 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 to farm and then also starting to write a food column for the Traverse City Record-Eagle a couple of years apart.
At that moment I certainly felt that, Why am I making this choice? I am going to leave my apartment and my husband to dedicate myself to agriculture for six months of the year, and I am collecting all my savings to do this. But it felt like it was the next form of education. And I don’t think she could have done any of this without doing that. And if she hadn’t started writing for him record eagleI don’t know how I would have built a writing practice. Because being on the deadline, I was responsible to someone else. And you could try it in a pretty safe way. That gave me a lot of foundation for the first book. And then the first book was the basis for the next two.
Do you have, or have you ever had, a mentor in your field?
Along with my mentors from Zingerman’s and Ballymaloe, Skye Gyngell, who is one of the first chefs to bring me into her kitchen after cooking school, and Paul Virant, who was the chef I worked with the longest in Chicago, They are definitely mentors that I still go to with questions. And now I’m in a part of my career where I have fellow mentors, like Ouita Michel from Lexington, Kentucky, who I met at a James Beard Foundation policy camp. And Katherine Miller, who founded policy impact programs with the Beard Foundation.
How are you making changes in your industry?
On the chef’s side, we are working hard to have a financially sustainable model that allows us to create year-round, well-paying jobs in agriculture and hospitality, which are not common. I’m also working hard to make this a teaching kitchen so the cooks take the cooking lessons straight from a farm with them when they leave; Hopefully, they will learn to support agriculture in their restaurant activities.
What would surprise people about your work? Because?
I think what would surprise people is how small these industries really are, that we’re still doing all the things. I’m still polishing dishes at the end of the night. Not every night anymore, but that is still normal. Or I will receive emails like, I don’t know who is reading this, if it’s Abra or her assistant. And I’m like, An assistant would be very nice. There is no assistant. Social networks can give an air of fantasy that I have not found.
What advice would you give someone who wants your job?
There are a million ways to exist in the world of food and media, so my advice is to think about what you want your niche to be. And surround yourself with people better than you.
Make sure you have your line in the sand on things you won’t stand for. I made the decision early on that I would never work in a kitchen where someone was yelling. And I’ve been lucky to never have faced some of the toxic parts of the food world because of that decision. It is important that people think about what they are not willing to put up with.
This interview has been edited and abridged for clarity.
morgan goldberg is a freelance writer based in New York City.