Abra Berens

 
 
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Her Story
Abra Berens is a chef, former farmer, and writer.

She believes that the meals we eat should change with the seasons and that their ingredients should come from nearby. She strives to make simple, delicious meals that champions the region.

She started cooking at the storied Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, MI. She then went on to train in the garden-focused kitchen at Ballymaloe Cookery School in Cork, Ireland. In 2009 she co-founded Bare Knuckle Farm in Northport, MI, where she farmed and cooked for 8 years. After years of farming, she returned to the kitchen full time, opening and helming the café at Local Foods in Chicago, IL. In 2017, she left her Executive Chef position to return to the mitten state to join the team at Granor Farm in Three Oaks, MI, where she combines her love of farms and restaurants to create one-of-a-kind dinners on the farm celebrating the best of South West Michigan’s diverse agriculture.

Check out the review of her cookbook on  Bon Appetit and New York Times.  When I met her I knew I admired her and apparently lots of others do too.  

Her unique brand of leadership:  
For Abra, it is a core belief in servant leadership. And in my opinion a deep ability to connect in a truly authentic way.  Abra understands and executes Servant Leadership based on the experience she had at Ann Arbor’s famous Zingerman's Deli.  There, she learned these principles: 

  • Deliver excellent internal customer service to deliver maximum external customer service

  • Assume that everyone on the team is doing their best work 

  • Take responsibility for facilitating success

  • Be humble, and work hard 

What she knows about leaders
It is absolutely necessary to understand the mechanics of what is going on in any organization to be a leader there.  For Abra that means that she could not be the leader she is now at Granor Farms  or with rising chefs if she had not had the experience of being a line cook.  

Abra explains that having a clarity of vision about what you are doing and why you are doing it will translate to the people on your team.  She also reminded me that having a shared value system with others leading the team (and she emphasized “those who are amazing at what they do and know more than you do about something!” makes anything possible.

What I learned from Abra
Leading in the kitchen and demonstrating leadership over your veggies is just like leading people.  Yep.

As a recent guest on the NERD ette- A Love Letter to Cabbage podcast, Greta Johnsen quoted from Abra’s new cookbook Ruffage.  She read a favorite line and then Abra elaborated. 

Greta read, “It is true you are in charge- not the cauliflower.  It’s also true that playing to the inherent strength of a particular ingredient (person)you can coax out the most delight with the least amount of fight.”  

Abra’s response reminded me so much of her leadership philosophy it’s amazing.  She said, “encourage people to take charge and feel empowered to do what they want and bring the best out of whatever they have… in their cooking (in their lives or in their offices!).   The more you read the landscape of your food the more you start to play to its’ inherent strengths.  Figure out what is happening with the vegetable (people) how its’ tasting (performing) and what you want out of it and either push it toward what you want or change your tack and absorb it- playing to its strengths.”  Italics and parentheses all mine!

I was lucky enough to attend one of her dinners last week at Granor Farms and her magnetism lit the room.

 
Betsy Westhoff