We spoke with chef Daniel Benhaim about his background and creative process
Sheldon Ceramics and Chef Daniel collaborated on a springtime dining experience in Los Angeles. Read more here.
Tell us about your background as a chef.
I grew up in North Miami Beach, a child of rainstorms, tropical fruits, and humidity. I’m a first generation American as my parents both came here as children from Argentina and Cuba, themselves only being first generation babies of their countries. Our identity is one of diaspora.
I started cooking while I was in college studying Anthropology and Sociology, piggybacking the information I gathered from both majors into my passion for food. Through my studies I noticed that everything was in some way connected. I became very interested in the way we eat, what we eat, when we eat, how we grow our food as well as who grows our food. This research led me to fall deeply in love with the people and cuisine of many different cultures. After I graduated I wanted to gain more experience from the bottom up, so I moved from kitchen to kitchen, from Asheville, NC to NYC to Japan and finally where I am now in Los Angeles, CA.
How would you describe your cooking style?
I am mesmerized by natural decomposition and the way things crack. Imperfection is the way I see through something, the subtle movements of deterioration and evolution toward a new state.
My cooking style is relatively freeform. There’s a lot of material that flows through my brain and I tend to orchestrate it based on emotion. I try not to get stuck within a single genre or cultural landscape. When something interests me, I spend time researching, experimenting and compounding ideas. A dish may seem Japanese or French in style but it may also have roots in my Jewish, Argentine and Cuban heritage. I feel that the word fusion has been given such a terrible connotation from its use in popular chain restaurants, but I really love to find ingredients and flavors that cross geographical boundaries and can cohesively bond two or three seemingly unlinked cultures.
“At any given moment I have about 10-15 active projects going on. I also have some fermentations in cold storage that continue to go through stages of change. Basically my entire house is undergoing fermentation.”
What’s a project that you’re really excited about?
I’ve really been getting into dry curing meats and vegetables. I recently built a new curing chamber with humidity and temperature controls. Like most of my projects , it is a test of patience as you must wait months for the outcome.
What role does failure play in your process?
I learn as I go and let mistakes lead me to seeking new routes. This tends to send me on tangents and many side projects. The most difficult thing is in knowing when to fold it all up. I recently attended a viewing of a film from Van Neistat and Tom Sachs called Paradox Bullets. One of the main outlying principles was the concept of “the quitting coefficient.” At what point are we the most productive and within the magic zone of diminishing return vs. maximum return threshold?
How has your creative process evolved over the years?
Much like life, it is a process of continual change. I have found that I am much less interested in the final result as I am interested in the process involved in creation. Perhaps in mimicry of trying to be present in the moment. Obviously the end result is crucial, and I strive for a low failure rate but I welcome every project as a marker for future beginnings.
“Spring is a very exciting season, with all the new shoots and buds forming, you really get the essence of what that vegetable or fruit embodies. Ideally using these newly emerged treasures in their freshest and purest form is best.”
Because the Wind hosted the first Sheldon Ceramics dinner series event on May 17th in Los Angeles. Five courses were served on one-of-a-kind pieces created in a collaboration between Sheldon Ceramics and Chef Daniel Benhaim. Read more here.
Daniel was photographed at his home in Los Angeles, CA
Words by Daniel Benhaim
Photos by David Benhaim