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Cooking with Love in Walker’s Point

Off the Cuff with National Café’s Nell Benton

Jan. 31, 2017
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It was considered a culinary fairytale of sorts when chef Nell Benton purchased The National Café from owner Michael Diedrick for just $100 back in 2011. A socially conscious seller, Diedrick wanted an owner who would adhere to his values. Benton was an unemployed chef with similar beliefs who dreamed of owning a restaurant like The National Café. It was a perfect fit. Benton redid the menu, brought in additional staff and started a catering business, which now accounts for a third of the Walker’s Point restaurant’s business. Off the Cuff recently spoke with Benton about her love of cooking, culinary influences and favorite Milwaukee restaurants.

Where did your love of cooking come from?

From my mother and my grandmother. They’re from England and my grandmother had a house in Devon and she grew all her own vegetables and a lot of fresh fruits, so I saw from a very early age where food comes from and what you can do with it. Some of my earliest memories are of cooking with her. 

You’re quite the world traveler. How have your travels influenced your cooking?

Oh tremendously. I love Asian cuisine. I just love the fresh flavors and the bright flavors, so I have a lot of Asian influences in my cooking. Also French—I went to culinary school and learned French techniques. I traveled extensively in Italy and there is an Italian influence in my food. I think that no matter where you go you pick up the best of what you come across and incorporate that into your own cooking.

What else influences you in the kitchen?

I mean you’re influenced on so many different levels, I think, reading culinary magazines, getting together with chef friends and cooking. I’m involved in a number of chef fundraisers and when you’re working side by side you exchange techniques. You’re constantly learning, there is never an end to it. 

What are some of your favorite restaurants in Milwaukee?

There are so many. I love Odd Duck, I love what they do there, the different flavors. I’m a big fan of Thi Cao’s cooking at Buckley’s. We’ve cooked together and we’ve influenced each other. Wolf Peach is one of my favorites; I think they do vegetables amazingly well with very unique flavors. Sanford is a special go to. And then of course Amilinda, they started off doing a pop up in my restaurant so I was able to see what they were doing. And I’ve been going to Bavette for lunch when we’re closed. I love what they do.

What are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of building and retaining a good staff. I think you’re only as good as the staff that you have around you and I have staff that have been with me from the beginning who are incredibly loyal, incredibly talented. I would not enjoy what I do as much as I do without them.

I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you your favorite food.

Breakfast, I love breakfast. 

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