After a longer-than-I-intended-hiatus, we’re back at it, and I’m beyond excited to welcome my guest today, Abra Berens! If you live in Chicago, and are even a little familiar with the Chicago food scene, you may recognize her name. For several years, Abra was the chef at Stock Cafe, the restaurant within Local Foods, a Chicago store that showcases goods and produce from several local vendors. She is now the chef at Granor Farm, an organic farm in southwestern Michigan, where she creates dining experiences based on crops grown at the farm.
Abra’s career in food started with a family influence. “My dad grew up in a pickle farming family,” she told me, “but he and my mom were both anesthesiologists. When I was young we were still farming while my parents were working in hospitals. I’ve worked in restaurants since I was 16 mostly because I didn’t want to work on our family farm any more! And it just evolved from there. I never intended to work in food my whole life, but I also never wanted to leave it.”
After attending school in Ann Arbor, she worked there for several years at Zingerman’s Deli. “It was my time at Zingerman’s where I started to see that food touched so many aspects of people’s lives, from the producers to the customers to my co-workers.” Working in food began to make a lot of sense to her. “Zingerman’s connected me to Ballymaloe, where I went to cooking school.”
After six years in Ann Arbor, Abra moved to Chicago, where her husband was born. But eventually, the couple decided they wanted a more rural life, and Abra wanted to get back to cooking directly from a farm. But they didn’t want to go too far from Chicago, so Granor Farm in Three Oaks, Michigan, was “the perfect solution to all of those needs.”
Her work at Granor Farm is important to her, because she loves connecting people to their food. “I feel incredibly lucky to have grown up with a large garden, animals, and seeing industrial production of food,” she says. But many people live lives distant from that experience. “We are facing huge hurdles in terms of the sustainability of American agriculture–farmer shortages, soil health, farm income, food access and security. These things will only get better if our populace takes a real interest in food and agriculture. Thankfully, food is delicious and we can all be a part of the change simply by eating! Where that food comes from speaks to the people who are part of that food chain.” In her work at Granor, she brings the food chain, and the realities of farm life, closer to her guests. “You can’t respect the product without knowing something about the people who grow it–their successes and their hurdles. If we want to have a successful food system, we need to understand what that means to the people doing the growing. Similarly, people are often let down by the quality of their food. By knowing even a little about how it grows and seasonality, one is more likely to find food that they are excited about that tastes great and lasts after you get it home.”
She told me that the most fulfilling part of her work right now “is cooking food that is so closely linked to the ground and farmers who grew it.” The menus she creates for Granor begin in seasonality. “Sometimes that list is the most special items that we want to highlight. Sometimes it is what we have a lot of and need to use up. No matter the dish, it always has a direct connection to how we farm and what we want people to know about our plot of land and work.”
While Abra works hard at Granor, she couldn’t do it without a team that includes many hardworking men and women. But she particularly finds Granor to be an amazing place to work as a woman. In fact, as she told me, PureWow magazine recently named Granor one of America’s Best Restaurants Run By Women. “Granor’s Farm Manager is Katie Burdett, who has really revolutionized our farm,” Abra said. “And cooking and growing have long been women’s work, but there are serious hurdles to women running businesses in those two industries. We are lucky at Granor Farm to be able (with the unending support of the owners of the farm) to provide a space for women to come and work and learn and hopefully leave with the tools to carve out their own space in this industry.”
As with every feature post, I asked Abra to share a family recipe that has some importance for her. She sent her mothers recipe for chicken in lemon cream sauce. “My mom was a tremendous cook,” she said. “I feel so fortunate that she put so much energy into making delicious and creative meals regularly. I also feel so lucky that it was over food that we connected with each other as a family. It gave me a tremendous amount of reverence for the community and bonds that sharing a meal creates.”
This particular recipe “was an arrow in my mom’s dinner quiver. She took a cooking class from Le Cordon Blue in Grand Rapids once and this is the only thing any of us remember her making post class. One day we didn’t make this and the next we did, and now it is a family classic.”
As good as it is, its ease of preparation is part of the appeal. “It was always a special occasion dinner because of the last minute nature of the sauce, often for dinner parties or when my sisters and I would come home from college. I’ve learned since that the sauce can hold fine warm and so doesn’t need to pull the cook away from the party–simply hold the cooked chicken in a warm oven, make the sauce, and then reheat and thin with a bit more cream (if needed) just before serving.” She added, “I love it because it was how I learned to make a pan sauce, and it goes with any sort of vegetables, be it spring, summer, fall, or winter. So this recipe bridges how I learned to cook (meat and cream focused) and how I cook now (just enough meat and cream to ground a big plate of vegetables).”
Chicken Breasts in Lemon Cream Sauce
6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp olive oil
1/4 cup white wine
1 lemon (for zest and juice)
1 cup heavy cream
Salt, to taste
Pound the chicken breasts until thin.
Season liberally with salt and pepper.
Heat the butter and olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat until hot.
Pat the chicken breasts dry and pan fry until cooked through on one side (about 5 minutes). Flip and cook the other side (about 4 minutes).
Remove the chicken breasts to a serving platter and tent with tinfoil to keep warm.
Add the white wine to the pan to deglaze (scraping up any browned meaty bits) and allow to reduce until almost dry (about 2-3 minutes).
Add the cream and a big pinch of salt and cook until bubbling.
Add the lemon zest and juice, and return to a bubble.
Remove from heat. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired.
Just before serving, pour the cream sauce over the chicken and serve.
Abra told me there are some big and exciting things happening for her soon. “We’ve added several months to our dinner series at Granor Farm–now from May through February. Farm dinners and local agriculture don’t stop after first frost. I’m so excited that we are going to be able to showcase produce from our farm through the dead of winter.” Second, her first cookbook, Ruffage, is coming out in March of 2019! “The premise for the book is that each chapter focuses on a vegetable: what to look for at the market, how to store, and other notes. Then there are several different preparation techniques (like for asparagus raw, roasted, and grilled) and a base recipe for that. After the recipe there are three variations to show how you can prep the veg the same way and then vary the ‘accessory’ flavors to make a whole new dish. The idea is to give readers the tools to make a myriad of dishes by selecting great produce and mastering a few techniques.” Ruffage will be available at all national bookstores and on Amazon.com in March.
If you want to find out more about Abra’s work, you can visit her website, or follow her on Instagram or Twitter @abraberens. If you’re interested in making reservations for a Granor Farm dinner, you can do that here.
Abra, thank you so much for sharing your story with me! I can’t wait to see what you have coming up in the future!