Leif Eric Benson’s sea-green eyes hint at a little-known secret. The chef loves the beach.
Since he was a long-legged kid apprenticed in classy Bay Area kitchens, Benson’s love for the Pacific Ocean never washed away.
It’s not the sea but Mount Hood that comes to mind when we think of the serene 6-foot-3-inch Swedish-born chef.
Over three decades, Benson’s three names (Leif is pronounced LAFE) are synonymous with one of Oregon’s snowiest and showiest places. In February 2009, he will celebrate 30 years as the executive chef of Timberline Lodge, an Oregon icon famous for its stunning mountain ambiance and role in the state’s 20th-century history.
Diners can thank Benson for more than his longevity at Timberline’s rugged Cascade Dining Room where his Northwest style of cooking draws regular, if off-the-Portland path, accolades. His $38 dry-aged Oregon lamb chops, accompanied by wine from a 1,000-bottle collection, comprise only the tip of the Benson story.
At 55, he has accomplished far more than wowing millions of visitors with his intermezzo of Douglas fir and pinot noir granita.
Overseas, he is Oregon to many food-lovers.
When he’s not running Timberline’s dining establishments, Benson acts as an international ambassador, shipping coolers of Oregon morels and wild King salmon to such far-flung places as China, Taiwan, Singapore and Russia. Jet-lagged or not, he produces sumptuous meals for hundreds of dignitaries.
Cooking and communicating account for only two things he does well. He also works with the state agricultural industry to better connect the farm to the plate.
As an 18-year agriculture commissioner, Benson is helping to develop a potato the size of an olive. He’s certain diners and chefs will embrace it as much as farmers will profit from the new item.
The thumb-sized potatoes, he says, “are killer stuff. They’re the best things ever. They snap when you eat them.”
From a kitchen prep point of view, the tiny tubers save labor because no knife skills are required.
Benson takes a long view of the micro tubers as he does of his career. “The seed-to-marketplace process takes about a decade. You don’t just grow them in one season.”
Despite his powerful connections in the culinary world, he remains easygoing and enthusiastic about his work, taking Timberline’s flights of sturdy Douglas fir stairs two at a time to stay in shape.
If his authority is significant—he’s captained two award-winning culinary Olympics teams and was inducted into the American Academy of Chefs in 1997—his reputation is intact. “Most people think I’m pretty nice. I’m not a stressful guy. There’s no need to be dramatic.”
Trained from the age of 10 to work in kitchens as well as to light up tableside flambés, he never went to culinary school, a rare American institution in the early ‘70s. Instead, he inherited a flair for food from his father, a ship chef who traveled the world from Goteborg, Sweden, and brought his family to shore in San Francisco during the ‘50s.
On his work breaks, the young Benson whipped up a pot of bouillabaisse or a pan of paella–so he could eat his own dishes. He impressed his seniors, as Benson remembers. “`Hey you’re pretty good at this stuff,’ they told me.”
And so it went until Benson, at 25, climbed into a private Cessna to interview on Mount Hood. It meant leaving the ocean, but he sensed the opportunity to change the way Northwesterners ate.
Once at Timberline, he helped to spearhead a respect for fresh, local food. These days, Oregonians take farm-fresh produce and seasonal products for granted, and the state has evolved into a much envied epicenter of homegrown ingredients.
But 30 years ago, that wasn’t the case.
Coming from Alice Water’s northern California, where seasonal menus and organic gardens were as commonplace as long hair and liberal politics, Benson was faced with running a highly visited Northwest resort serving “not-so-good tourist fare,” as he says.
Without too much thought, he put fresh Dungeness crab on the menu in 1980, a year after he was hired away from a Mendocino’s St. Orres coastal resort, where he’d designed a kitchen featured in Architectural Digest.
“The crab was a no-brainer for me, but Timberline didn’t have a culture of fresh and local food.”
He continues to source local food, including an annual 1,000 pounds of chanterelles from nearby foragers. But he admits he can’t find what he needs all the time, or at any moment, in a 100-mile radius.
Still, “if we can get Oregon lamb, why buy from New Zealand?”
Such attitudes have changed menus. Thirty years ago—except perhaps in northern California—American chefs designed high-end end menus with fancy ideas, various price points, and overseas products.
These days, the season’s bounty dictates the dishes.
“It’s totally flipped around,” he says. “Now importing stuff is almost a negative.”
As well as running the eight Timberline eateries on the mountain, including the Ice Axe Grill in Government Camp, and raising four kids ages 9 to 20 with his wife, Shelby (a non-foodie who occasionally forgets to eat), Benson prides himself on furthering culinary education.
This spring, after checking out cutting-edge restaurants in Chicago, he dressed up in his chef whites, pulled out a 12-page speech, and spoke to an audience of 2,000 at the Oregon Convention Center.
He was the keynoter for the Western Culinary Institute’s graduation. He has served on WCI’s board of directors for 22 years, and runs a strong extern program for culinary students.
In his address, he told the graduates not to worry too much about a job “that sucks. … You’ll have both good and bad experiences, but they’re still experiences and you can learn from them all. They are hiring you to make a place good or better, and you need to have accomplishments under your belt.”
As for chefs like the foul-mouthed Scot Gordon Ramsay of TV’s “Hell’s Kitchen,” ignore them, Benson advises. “What you see on TV isn’t the real world. For most, being a chef is just a lot of work.”
Maintaining relationships with inconvenient schedules, working holidays, cooking in small spaces, and facing never-ending deadlines are steps in a chef’s journey.
“You need to be passionate about it. Don’t do it for money. Make it into what you want it to be. At the end of the day, it’s a business. You can’t just be good at cooking.”
Though Benson has never lost his cooking talent nor appetite for good food, he remains as far from burned-out as he is from his beloved California coastline. Timberline’ s kitchen’s smoker, lined with hazelnut shells that impart an unmistakable Northwest aroma, still excites him. And he likes to show off the hotel’s ground-floor wine vault that he built with his own tools.
He’s not going anywhere fast, even as his Timberline years pile up like snowdrifts.
“Anyway you cut it, being on top of Mount Hood is unique. Until I exhaust my potential or the place’s potential, why not keep working at it?”