Eight days before he is due for a total knee replacement, Ben Bebenroth is nailing shingles onto a wooden walkway to his barn in the pouring rain. Mid-winter warming has turned the snow into muck, and a bride is on her way to check out the event space at his Spice Acres Farm. The centerpiece of his commitment to locally sourced food, the farm is an outgrowth of his popular Cleveland, Ohio, restaurant, Spice Kitchen & Bar.
Becoming a top chef and local food advocate posed a brutal challenge for Ben – but not in the way you might expect. He thrived on the intensity in the kitchen, where he created dishes that one reviewer called “food magic.” And a year after it opened in 2012, Cleveland magazine named Spice Kitchen the city’s best new restaurant. But throughout frenetic days and nights as a restaurateur and caterer, Ben was coping with constant pain from osteoarthritis (OA) in his left knee.
At the end of his typical 16-hour day, he could barely walk. And after Saturday – an intense shift wrapping up a 60- to 80-hour week on his feet – the aching turned into burning and stabbing, which made him “grumpy” on Sunday – family day. “Sometimes I think my kids get the worst day of my week,” he says. “I limp everywhere by Friday, and by Saturday I’m dragging a limb.”
Pushing the Limits
Ben, 40, tore his ACL snowboarding at 15. But it wasn’t treated until he was 18, in 1996, when he underwent ACL reconstruction so he could get into the Marine Corps. That was the first of five knee surgeries. When he got out of the Marines, he underwent a microfracture surgical procedure followed by use of a continuous passive motion machine. It was extremely painful but unsuccessful.
“It’s been heartbreaking to see the ups and downs,” says his wife, Jackie.
Ben loves to push limits and he embraces outdoor activities. (In fact, he returned from a “trip of a lifetime” snowboarding in Colorado just days before his knee surgery in February.) He powered through two years in the U.S. Marine Corps, and he regularly pulled 16-hour shifts in restaurants.
Ben’s career as a chef began by chance. As a teenager, he was a dishwasher in a tavern when a cook failed to show. He filled in – and loved it.
After his military stint, Ben enrolled in the culinary arts program at Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, South Carolina, where he graduated near the top of his class. He worked in several top restaurants in Charleston and Ohio before launching a catering business in 2006, and then his restaurant six years later. In 2017, he appeared on Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen and Chopped.
An advocate for farm-to-table dining, Ben has long used as many locally grown products as possible. In 2014, he took that commitment a step further: He leased a farm in Cuyahoga Valley National Park and moved Jackie and their children, Sydney, 11, and Burke, 9, into its 1870s colonial farmhouse.
He grows greens, figs, hops, cut flowers and a variety of vegetables, keeps beehives for honey and raises some 300 chickens, varying their diet to improve the taste and nutrition of their eggs. He hosts events he calls Plated Landscape, setting up a kitchen in the middle of a field and cooking for guests who pick some of the food on a farm tour. His new nonprofit venture, Spice Field Kitchen, educates children about “the importance of nutrient-dense food coming from healthy soil. That’s the final piece to the puzzle we wanted to accomplish by moving here,” he says.
An Unlikely “Gift”
Ben could probably work around the clock with all his ventures, but OA made him rethink his lifestyle. He swapped kayaking on the Cuyahoga River behind his farm for mountain biking and trail running, and he focuses on what matters most to him: his family (he also has a grown daughter, Jaden); growing his businesses; and his health.
“The fact that I am in pain is sort of a gift,” he says. He hired a chef de cuisine, catering director and farm manager, and he oversees the businesses.
His days start at 6 a.m. with stretching, deep breathing and reflecting on gratitude. He does pushups and other exercises to warm up his muscles. He swims four times a week and practices yoga once a week. On Saturdays, he’s at a farmer’s market by 7:30 a.m., picking up an order for the restaurant. He relishes quiet Sundays with his family.
His pain has been constant. He’s tried hyaluronic acid and corticosteroid shots and opioid pain relievers, but recently has been reaching for ibuprofen when the pain is strong.
He sticks to a healthful diet, including anti-inflammatory ginger and turmeric from his farm as well as whole grains and fermented foods; he shuns sugar and refined grains. At night, he takes magnesium and calcium supplements and soaks in a bath with Epsom salt. “It helps relax muscles and minds,” he says.
After surgery, Ben was recovering quickly – he credits a “military approach” to physical therapy. He hopes the knee replacement will resolve his pain, but he wants to retain the perspective he has gained from OA. “When you really decide what you want and need, everything else becomes a distraction,” he says. —MICHELE COHEN MARILL