Garden State

Ben Bebenroth wasn't really looking to open a restaurant.

He'd been running Spice of Life Catering since 2006, cooking out of his grandmother's basement in the early years. But his approach to catering — making great food using ingredients from small, sustainable family farms — had been successful, and he needed to expand.

So Karen Small of Flying Fig recommended he look at a space in Cleveland's Gordon Square Arts District. What Bebenroth discovered was like uncovering a patch of beautiful morel mushrooms on an afternoon hike: The space had a dining room, a liquor license and land to expand Bebenroth's gardens. He knew the ingredients were all there for something special. "We really were not inspired to open a restaurant," he told features editor Kim Schneider for this month's Best Restaurants feature. "We had to."

Clearly, we're happy he did, as Spice Kitchen & Bar earned this year's Silver Spoon Award for best new restaurant against some tough competition.

Yet it may be Bebenroth's commitment to local food that is most impressive. It seems rooted just a tad deeper than most, even in a town where chefs growing their own ingredients isn't all that uncommon. "My grandma was a big gardener and my grandpa grew a bunch of garlic in the backyard," he says. "I just always saw that connection."

So just as Bebenroth has built relationships with small farmers and purveyors, he's also crafted an even more local strategy: two hoop houses, a quarter-acre of fenced-in vegetables behind his Broadview Heights house and a front yard seeded with about 2,000 heads of garlic.

Things weren't about to change just because he was opening a restaurant. "Before we even painted the building, we put a greenhouse up in the back [of Spice]," he says. "That was the most important thing." When Schneider visited him in early April, Bebenroth's harvest brought 3 pounds of mache (a tiny, dark green plant with the sweet, nutty flavor), 3 1/2 pounds of bok choy, three dozen eggs, 2 pounds of arugula, 1 1/2 pounds of spinach and 1 1/2 pounds of cilantro for the week. "For this early in the season, that's pretty good for us," he says.

Yeah, that's pretty good for all of us, too.

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