As soon as he was old enough to push a stool up to the stove and flip French toast, chef Ben Durham was drawn to the kitchen. In his childhood home across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, breakfast for dinner was a staple. Five nights a week, the picky young eater would scramble up eqgs with pieces of deli ham and cheddar cheese. “Now [breakfast] is my least favorite to cook,” laughed Durham.
This change of appetite might stem from his second summer as executive chef at Prime in Huntington. It was the seminal restaurant’s first season doing brunch. Gone were the leisurely nighttime scrambles of his youth in California. Brunch in New York is fast-paced, frantic and in high demand.
Durham reminisced, “We got so busy and everything got so full, the guy cooking the eggs just walked off the line and left and didn’t come back. I had to jump back there and cook eggs for the rest of brunch.” Durham pointed out the simple ova are very tricky to cook properly in such high volume, made all the more stressful because everyone cooks eggs at home and has high expectations.
Durham rolls with it though, crediting his laid-back California upbringing with his ability to keep cool when pressure in the kitchen heats up. “My personality is pretty relaxed. I’m an easy-going guy, which I think has influenced me as a chef and helped me to stay calm under the stress.” In fact, the camaraderie that arises out of that chaos is his favorite aspect of the job. “It’s hot, it’s loud. It’s a stressful environment but at the end of the night everyone can laugh about it, smile and make fun of each other. I just enjoy the lifestyle.”
Maybe that’s why the self-described night owl prefers dinner to breakfast these days. Durham said the nightly service brings diners with a completely different attitude. People come to Prime to celebrate special occasions, to sit and revel in their evening, not to rush out the door. “We’re entertaining people… some of the most special meals in people’s lives are spent at Prime and I get to see a big part of that.”
There’s also an inherent quality to fine dining that opens people’s minds to whatever the chef might create, be it as familiar as a porterhouse steak or as imaginative as watermelon salad topped with feta, olives and yuzu.
For Durham, the key is to let the ingredients shine. He points to creamed corn, a favorite of his. The natural sweetness of the local vegetable is enhanced by the richness of fresh butter and cream, not buried beneath a bevy of additives. Perhaps the minimalistic three-ingredient dinners of his childhood still ring true, just with an upgraded palate. “The more and more I cook, the more I prefer simple. Just keep it simple and the food usually turns out better.”