David Benjamin’s decade working as a cook in restaurant kitchens has informed his new career as a farmer.
In fact, the tagline on their Vera Luce Farm’s website explains their specialty: “Italian and Southern European-inspired vegetables grown for flavor.”
Benjamin, 37, and his wife, Briana, 38, are growing that specialty produce on 15 acres in Hillsborough. They primarily sell to chefs, although they will offer a CSA, or community-supported agriculture share this fall on a weekly basis.
Benjamin got to where he is now because he needed a change after a decade in restaurant kitchens. He moved from Florida to the Pacific Northwest to study horticulture at Oregon State University. He interned at a farm on Whidbey Island, north of Seattle, where he met Briana, who worked in youth ministry, running a drop-in center on the island.
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The couple started talking about having a farm one day. After Benjamin graduated in 2013, he went to work for a small seed company, selling seeds and conducting plant trials. Last spring, the couple started looking for land. They searched in Oregon (too expensive), then Indiana, where Benjamin grew up, and then came to North Carolina where his twin brother, Daniel, lives. (Daniel Benjamin owns Lucettegrace, the pastry shop in downtown Raleigh.) They found a landowner with 15 acres available for lease in Hillsborough and started working the land last fall. (Although plans are undefined now, they hope to add ministry to their work on the farm in some way, given Briana’s experience.)
To learn the food scene and discover what produce local chefs want, Benjamin returned to the kitchen. He worked at the restaurant at the Durham Hotel, the latest project by James Beard award-winning chef Andrea Reusing who also owns Lantern in Chapel Hill. The experience, Benjamin said, helped him see what farmers were growing here and what chefs were paying for that produce.
His experience at the seed company helped him find flavorful, quality varieties. On about 2 acres, they grow or plan to grow eggplant, tomatoes, herbs, peppers, potatoes, summer squash, zucchini, radicchio and melons. Already, they are selling to The Durham, Il Palio restaurant at the Siena hotel in Chapel Hill and The Counting House restaurant at 21c Museum Hotel in Durham.
Although Benjamin’s kitchen experience helps his new career, he admits there is also a downside: “Coming from the kitchen and being a perfectionist chef is sort of difficult.”
His wife quips: “And then working for a perfectionist.”
Where to Buy
David and Briana Benjamin primarily sell to Durham and Chapel Hill restaurants but hope to expand to Raleigh. They will be offering a CSA, or weekly share of produce, this fall in Durham and Hillsborough. For information, check the farm’s website for details.
Gluten-Free Eggplant Parmesan
From David Benjamin, former chef and co-owner of Vera Luce Farm near Hillsborough. He recommends using Sicilian eggplant for this dish. If you use jarred sauce, don’t add the 1/4 teaspoon salt.
4 pounds eggplant, trimmed
1 1/2 tablespoons, plus 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, divided, plus additional for layering
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups diced yellow onion
4 cups (32 ounces) tomato sauce
3 cups white rice flour, divided
1 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 pound fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced
2-3 cups cooking oil, such as canola or grapeseed
5 ounces grated Parmesan cheese
Chopped fresh basil, optional garnish
Slice eggplant into 1/2 inch rounds; use 1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt to salt eggplant and place on cooling rack on top of rimmed baking sheet. Let stand to drain for at least 1 hour.
Heat olive oil in a large sauce pot over low heat. Add 2 cups diced yellow onion and 1/4 teaspoon salt and saute until softened; stir frequently to avoid caramelization, about 5-7 minutes. Add tomato sauce, season with salt and simmer on low until ready to use.
Prepare breading in three separate bowls or pie plates: 1 1/2 cups white rice flour in first bowl, 5 lightly whisked eggs in the second and 1 1/2 cups white rice flour fully combined with 1 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese in the third.
Bread eggplant rounds: Use one hand to handle the dry ingredients and one for the wet ingredients. One at a time, place each eggplant round into the white rice flour, then into the egg and finally into the white rice flour/Pecorino Romano cheese mix. Once breaded, place the round onto a plate or tray that has been dusted with white rice flour. Repeat this step until all eggplant pieces are breaded.
Heat oven to 350 degrees.
Heat 1/2 cup cooking oil in an 8-inch saute pan or cast iron skillet over medium heat. Saute eggplant for several minutes on each side until golden brown. Remove eggplant rounds from pan and place on a rimmed baking sheet. Continue until all eggplant is done. Change out oil and wipe out pan after every two batches of eggplant to reduce burnt flour in the pan. Once all eggplant is sauteed, place in oven and bake for 15 minutes.
Place 1 cup tomato sauce in bottom of a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking dish. Place the sautéed eggplant rounds into the baking dish, overlapping the rounds just enough to fully cover the bottom of the dish. Top eggplant with 1 cup tomato sauce. Place half of the thinly sliced fresh mozzarella on top of sauced eggplant and season with salt. Repeat these steps again to build another layer of eggplant, sauce and mozzarella and season with salt. Place the remaining eggplant rounds on top of the second layer and season with salt.
Bake for 1 hour. Remove from the oven and let stand for 20 to 25 minutes. Cut into 6-8 pieces. Garnish with 1/4 cup warm tomato sauce and a generous amount of freshly grated Parmesan cheese and fresh basil.
Yield: 6-8 servings.