Big, brassy, and bold, chef Ben Walanka has been wowing diners since he graduated from culinary school in 2002. He even impressed host and chef extraordinaire Gordon Ramsay during his recent run on the fifth season of the hit television show Hell’s Kitchen – All Stars with his delicious food, hard work and passion in the kitchen.
Kol HaBirah was fortunate to sit down with Walanka to talk about his time on the
show, his future plans, and how his Jewish heritage has shaped his cuisine.
When did you start cooking? What inspired you to start cooking?
I started working kitchens while attending Indiana University as a means for extra cash. Washing dishes became peeling potatoes and carrots, and eventually started doing food prep only. I once watched an older guy, a cook, make a marinara sauce from scratch, start to finish. It was artful, skillful, and driven by experience and passion for food. I was hooked!
Is your cooking style influenced by your Jewish heritage?
I can remember walking into the house as a kid, the door opening and the smell of wonderful beautiful chicken broth hitting my nose. Having beef brisket on special occasions or on high holidays. I would say much of my passion for cooking stems from some of those memories, but I believe influence comes from a combination of many different things.
Are there any foods that you won’t cook/eat?
I have eaten some pretty crazy things in my life and in my travels. I will almost try anything once.
Cumin and water chestnuts — those two are deal breakers!
What was your favorite and least favorite part/moment of the season?
I truly have no “least favorite” part of the season. With every season comes an opportunity for new ingredients. One of my favorite parts about cooking.
What are your goals for the future? Would you like to do any more television shows?
I think everyone’s goals change throughout their life. After spending several years doing TV stuff, it’s just not something that motivates me anymore. Quality of life and the ability to always be playing with food and trying new things is what keeps my happy these days.
What is your favorite dish to cook and favorite cuisine?
I will always have a place in my heart for French food and French cuisine, as some of my earliest experience came from the kitchen of the once famous Le Francais in Wheeling, Illinois. Much of what is taught in schools and in books came from French foundations and fundamentals of cooking. As far as a favorite dish, I remember the first time I ate a piece of hot seared foie gras. I was never the same!
I can’t think of a number one favorite dish, but this is definitely top 10!
Is there anything else that you would like to share with Kol HaBirah readers?
Always have fun with food! There are few things in the world that can bring people together like great food can.
By Jackie Feldman
Jackie Feldman is a young professional living and working in Washington, D.C. She runs the group “Sephardic Jews in DC,” which hosts events in the metro DC area that celebrate Sephardic culture, religious tradition, and customs. She also has her own food blog that features a healthier spin on many traditional Jewish and Sephardic recipes: https://healthysephardiccooking.wordpress.com/.