On a Saturday afternoon I found myself driving towards South Beach, hoping that I wouldn’t hit traffic; wishful thinking on my part of course, it is Miami after all!  As a South Floridian, I know the crazy traffic I’ll be running into trying to get to Planta; I left an hour ahead to make sure I wouldn’t be late due to traffic, accident or construction (if you live in downtown Miami you know that I-95 is coo-coo).  Chef Benjamin Goldman agreed to meet with me at 5:00 PM before Planta opened for their dinner rush. 

I met Chef Benjamin a couple of months back when I slipped into his DM’s planning a friend’s birthday dinner and we got to talking. Chef Benjamin is a vegan chef, the executive chef at Planta, which recently celebrated their two-year anniversary at their Miami location.  He was named Chef of the Year by Miami Eater in 2018 and has cooked for celebrities like Jaden Smith, Alonso Mourning, Jermaine Dupree, and Ariana Grande to name a few.

I arrived right on time, was met by Chef Benjamin at the door, hellos we’re exchanged, a rooftop garden was mentioned…and somehow I found myself climbing the stairs, to yet two more sets of steel-bar-like steps, to the non-accessible-to-guests, rooftop garden.  I was thankful that I had decided against wearing heels…no way could I have managed those stairs all the way to the roof.  Once up, the view: incredible! But the garden was bare, Chef Benjamin pointed out that they had harvested all the produce from their garden earlier that day and there wasn’t much to see.  He explained that Planta grows their own organic herbs and greens for their menu, thus, making Planta unique, by not having to outsource some of their produce and making some of their products sustainable. I had heard rumors that Planta had a rooftop garden, but I always thought it was an urban legend, but I can happily confirm that there is indeed a rooftop garden. 

After the tour of the roof, I was escorted to a back table in the corner as there was a ton of noise with everyone rushing and cleaning about to be ready for opening.  Chef Benjamin didn’t waste any time and dove right in on what his life was like before veganism and Planta.  Raised in Boca Raton, Florida, a recovering alcoholic and drug addict for the last eight years; with Jewish parents but a father who was raised Catholic…

Alba:
Interesting.

Chef Benjamin:
Confusing, because of the name Goldman, my grandfather was Jewish who married a Catholic woman, who raised her four children Catholic.  We celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas every year, Christmas is more of a tradition.  Fourteen years of my life I went to a Jewish parochial school, celebrated the holidays, kept Kosher at school, was told to believe in a big, divine entity that handed down Ten Commandments, flooded the world and had trouble believing in all that.  At thirteen, I was bar mitzvah (the religious initiation ceremony of a Jewish boy who has reached the age of thirteen) and started to question my faith; my mother was very upset.  She was like “how can you be questioning your faith on your bar mitzvah; how do you not believe in God?”  It’s not that I didn’t want to believe, it’s that I couldn’t believe in what I was told to believe.    

This reminds me of the time when I was younger and I told my mother that I didn’t think I wanted to go to heaven because, in my tween mind, I was just going to live forever, sitting on a cloud playing the harp.  Sufficient to say, my mother almost had a coronary and I was yelled at for over an hour.

Chef Benjamin:
I was introduced to yoga in the ninth grade, which is very prominent in my life today.  It was a time in my life that I was uncomfortable in my own skin, insecure and I didn’t know where to fit in because all my friends knew their paths when it came to their careers.  At fifteen/sixteen I started to take my sister’s Adderall after a cabinet raid, I liked the way it made me feel.

Alba:
Focused?

Chef Benjamin:
(Nods) It gave me the edge I needed to succeed; I took her medication every day.  I had energy to do soccer, wrestling, working out at the gym.  At the same time, I was drinking pre-workouts and coffee, so I was maintaining this high all the time.  I didn’t realize what I was doing to myself, but it felt that I was doing the right thing.    

I thought to myself that before even taking this, did he even know what this medication was or did?  Adderall is a prescription medication that is used to treat ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and narcolepsy, is classified as a schedule II controlled substance because of its strong addictive substance as an amphetamine; amphetamine is a central nervous system stimulator. 

Chef Benjamin:
No, I had no idea what it would do or how it was going to make me feel.

Alba:
Did you think it was candy? (right eyebrow raises)

Chef Benjamin:
(Smiles) No, I knew it was a pill and I was curious to try it; I don’t remember what would spark that initial curiosity that made me do that, but I did it and when I crossed that line, that was it for me.  I found something that made sense to me.

I asked him if he thought this was the gateway for his other addictions since he mentioned that he was a recovering alcoholic for the last eight years.  Which looking at him now, you would never think that he was recovering anything.  He nods his head and after high school, he moved to Hod Hasharon and Kiryat Bialik in Israel, for a year, when he came back he went to UCF(University of Central Florida) and declared a major in molecular microbiology because he thought he was going to be a neuro scientist. 

Chef Benjamin:
I think that deep down inside I really wanted to know what the drugs were doing to me. 

Alba:
Were you still taking Adderall?

Chef Benjamin:
Yes, it was like brushing my teeth in the morning, then at night I needed something to bring me down, so it was weed.  As time went on, I experimented with hallucinogens and the drinking was pretty heavy.  It was during this time that I saw Chef Ken Oringer on TV and he was cooking this beautiful avant garde gastronomy and I thought to myself “I want to work for this guy!”.

Chef Benjamin reached out to him and was asked to fly to Boston to meet with Chef Ken and stage for him.  Chef Benjamin explains that this is like an interview or a try out, chefs get to see what skills they have and if they can work in the kitchen.  At the end of the stage they offered him a job and he moved to Boston for a year. 

Chef Benjamin:
My life was a disaster in Boston, but cooking was my compass rose. I found my north star in the kitchen and it gave me purpose to live.  Cooking may have saved my life.

Chef Benjamin continues by saying that it came to a point that he realized that he couldn’t continue the way he was going.  He had dropped out of school, left Boston and went back to his parents, and it was his mother who first suggested going to school for cooking.  Together they went searching for schools and they discovered Johnson and Wales and what he loved about the school is that it looked like a lab.  In his mind he was going to be the best chef he could be and graduated with an Associates in Culinary Arts; however, he did not finish his bachelor’s degree due to the drug use.  He was still partying, getting arrested for shoplifting and even crashed his car once when he was high.  I think to myself that he could have hurt himself more in the kitchen with sharp knives, hot stoves, and heavy equipment, etc.  

Chef Benjamin:
My wakeup call was my overdoses (woah…!).  I OD’ed twice in the same night on my twenty-second birthday, October twenty-third, twenty-eleven.  I went to a concert at the Fillmore and woke up at Jackson Memorial, I didn’t know how I had gotten there, and I thought it was December.  I was discharged and eight hours later I woke up at North Broward Medical not knowing how I got there either.  The last time I OD was that Christmas Eve and that was my turning point; I left school and dropped out of the S. Pellegrino Competition.  My ego didn’t want to leave school and leave the competition, but it was that or my life.  I moved to West Palm Beach and got the help I needed.

I am “impressed” that he survived two different overdoses, as an ER nurse, I know all about patients coming in high or non-responsive when they’re on drugs.  I was there at the height of the FLAKKA epidemic, when I had seven cops holding one patient down while they fight and me trying to inject them to calm them down.  I’ve been there when patients have woken up after giving them Narcan and them being so confused.  Other times they are not as lucky, they do not wake up or arrive dead and there’s nothing more for me to do but call the next of kin.  Never having addiction to drugs, I understand that for some it is harder to get clean and stay clean; was it hard for Chef Benjamin? 

Chef Benjamin:
The first part was accepting that I had a problem, I had to understand that these substances had power over me; I didn’t think that anything was going to kill me.  I didn’t want to be stigmatized as a user/alcoholic, it was scary stepping into that rebab center, thirty days in there and a year and half living off and on sober.

We moved the conversation about the kitchen itself, he explains that most kitchens are based on the Brigade de cuisine system in which you have the executive chef, executive sous chef, sous chefs, cooks like line cooks and so on.  In traditional French kitchen you have chef de cuisine, saucier, boulangère, pâtissier, etc., not so much in the US.  As the executive chef of Planta, he is responsible for creating the menus, works directly with Chef David Lee, who is the corporate chef (currently there are three Planta locations in Toronto and one here in South Beach and others will be opening soon in the SoFlo) he does the scheduling and manages the restaurant.

Chef Benjamin elaborates on this further by stating that in the past, many in the industry dragged themselves to work sick, not wanting to show any weakness.  He tells me how he still went to work hungover, and another chef went to work every day with a broken leg; he continued by stating that this generation of millennials is different, they are okay with talking openly about their feelings, not putting up with being maltreated or uncomfortable.  This includes his workers speaking up on sexual harassment.  In this age of the #metoo movement, there was an incident he describes that he did have to investigate because that employee was afraid of retaliation and stigma.  Another incident was a previous sous chef who wanted to take over the kitchen so that he could be the executive chef (ohhh…like an NBC drama: Hostile Takeover in the Kitchen!).

Chef Benjamin:
If I yell or scream at my cooks, they’re not gonna stay and work for me out of fear; there’s a million other chefs down the line that’ll give them a great job, same pay and treat them with respect. 

I wanted to see firsthand for myself how a kitchen works, more specifically his, and to take pics of the kitchen and some of the staff.  I envision something out of the movie Rattatouie: people shouting, lots of noise, cursing, pretty much organized chaos.  I was surprised that no one seemed put out to see me there, I got many hellos, smiles, people willing to take pictures and talk about what their jobs entailed in the various stations.  There was no yelling or cursing, the main noises were the pots and pans, food sizzling and machines beeping.  I got to meet the sous chef, Sarah and the junior sous chef Lucas, that I remembered from last year’s vegan burger battle at Seed Food and Wine.  There was also Rodolfo, the one who washes the dishes; Chef Benjamin made it clear that everyone in the kitchen is important and has an important role to fulfill.

Alba:
So…does that mean you don’t cook anymore?

Chef Benjamin:
(Shakes his head violently) Oh no, I cook, if I didn’t cook, I will die! I cook because it feeds my soul, but my real job is to empower my cooks, to mentor and teach and that’s where the fulfilment comes in. 

Alba:
You keep an eye on everyone and everything.

Chef Benjamin:
Absolutely! I’m like Sauron, the all-seeing eye.  

Omg…really…getting flashbacks when my boyfriend made me sit through all LOTR and The Hobbit movies…with extended directors cut; Chef Benjamin couldn’t stop laughing by the end of my story.

Alba:
Funny how the universe works, it seems that we’ve crossed paths multiple times before and not met!  Why did you leave Komodo?

Chef Benjamin:
Yes, (he smiles) sole reason I left is because I became vegan.

Chef Benjamin explains that during his entire cooking career he had being interested in where food came from, how it is produced and credits author Michael Pollan.  The more he understood where our food is coming from, the less he became interested in red meat and pork.  This led to cutting highly processed food out of his diet and wanting to not serve these foods to his clients.  At Komodo he stopped eating meat and he came to a fork in the road: continue to work and cook animal products while not consuming them or quit.  While he was dealing with this, the owner of Komodo, David Grutman (owner of LIV and Story nightclubs, Komodo and now Planta) came up to him one day and asked him if he had seen a movie called What the Health.  David Grutman wanted to invest in a vegan restaurant and Chef Benjamin used this as his last push to go completely vegan. 

Chef Benjamin:
This shift forced me to cook vegan and it was the first time that I did something that was fulfilling to me. 

As he tells me this, his whole face lights up and I point it out to him, and he replies that it was the first time that he realized he could be a vegan chef since he didn’t know any at the time.  He wasn’t passionate about what he had being doing because he had realized how many animals he was ordering for the night.  He reflected on the amount of ducks that he needed, for example, in one month he counted over three hundred ducks and that it did not include the beef, fish or poultry orders. 

Chef Benjamin:
I was so disconnected that to get through the workday, I checked my feelings at the door, picked up my knife and went to work on whatever piece of dead animal I had to prepare.  This led to conflicts with my co-workers because I didn’t want to be there, that’s how disconnected I was.  I got into a huge fight with a friend at an event that the restaurant was having, that I ended up giving him my towel and leaving; and I am not the type to quit.  I spoke to my co-worker and we called David (Grutman) and we had a conversation on what had being going on with me.  At the same time, here I was helping David (Lee) find a chef for Planta and I never once thought of working for Planta!

It was David Grutman who suggested he move to Planta…this ended up been a win-win for everyone.  It gave him the opportunity to do something he was passionate about, and this is reflected when you first walk into Planta.  The entrance walkway is nothing but plants, once inside, the ambience is filled with big windows and natural light, plants, and wicker chandeliers. It makes the space very Zen-like and inviting to leave your troubles behind and enjoy a nice meal.  In the evenings, there’s soft lights with upbeat music and even the utensils, cloth napkins and dishware reflect the passion that Chef Benjamin has for the animals and the environment.

Chef Benjamin:
I describe Planta as a great restaurant and we are plant-based, I don’t like using the word vegan because I feel that ‘vegan’ can have a negative connotation (I don’t agree) and we are constantly looking for ways to be even more sustainable; less plastic, less paper, how can we minimize our carbon footprint. 

I can tell that Chef Benjamin loves working at Planta, but what about the rest of the team?  He tells me yes, the people working love working at Planta.  I point out that that’s the impression I’ve always gotten when I go for dinner; I’m sure it is their job to smile and be as accommodating as possible, it is the hospitality business after all.  But you cannot fake happiness or an aura of tranquility, and if you’re employees are happy it speaks highly on how the business is doing.  This gets me thinking on some articles I was reading on mental health in the culinary world and I ask him about it.              

Chef Benjamin:
The majority of people in the industry do suffer from mental health issue, a high percentage of chefs working in this industry suffer from depression and anxiety or have some form of substance abuse like alcoholism and drug addictions; including myself.

This gets me thinking on the suicide of Chef Anthony Bourdain, who last year, was open about his past drug use and depression.  I wondered why this was…I work in a high stress environment but is being a chef and working in a kitchen that stressful as well?

Chef Benjamin:
The pressure of the industry has been very patriarchal for a long time, there have been female chefs like Julia Childs; even nowadays seventy-five percent of my kitchen is female but is a male run business.  The pressure on men to be men, macho even, to be perfect and men are very insecure talking about their feelings. 

After the tour of the kitchen was over, the sous chef Sarah and I were having such an enlightening conversation on women in a professional kitchen (another article for sure!) that I kept ignoring my rumbling stomach; I had purposely not eaten so that I can enjoy the goodies coming out of the kitchen.  I was provided with some jasmine and Oolong tea and led to the bar to enjoy: “You like pasta? I’ll bring you pasta.” (I’m going to have to run an extra mile just to get rid of the calories).  

As I left Planta, full of food and dessert, that the best compliment any chef and restaurant can get is repeat guests; and eating or going vegan/plant-based does not mean that you stop eating your favorite meals or meals from the culture you grew up with.  I want to thank Chef Benjamin and the staff at Planta for their amazing food, wonderful service and willingness to talk to me for this blog.  For more information on Planta, menu and times go to plantarestaurants.com.

About Alba the Veg Nurse

Alba Mendez is a nurse working and living in South Florida and is the Media Coordinator for SoFlo Vegans.  She can be reached at [email protected] and on social media theveg_nurse .  Follow SoFlo Vegans for more information, podcast episodes, interviews, events, and giveaways.

Join Our Community

SoFlo Vegans is a grassroots organization dedicated to supporting the vegan community in South Florida. Get hours of content exclusive to our members. This includes video podcasts, documentaries, and other special features.