There's a delicate balance to the type of person who always chooses to take the hard way: As much as they always seek the next thrill, they're also required to have unwavering patience for learning new things. They're the type of chef who, like 30-year-old Rebecca Hess (formerly Rebecca Traxler), jumps into the fast-paced world of helping to open four acclaimed Cleveland restaurants all while a closet full of fermented foods leisurely cures at home.
In her new role as chef de cuisine at Urban Farmer (1325 East Sixth St., 216-771-7707, urbanfarmercleveland.com), the farm-to-table steakhouse in the Westin Cleveland, Hess' favorite challenge is now coordinating her kitchen orders with upwards of 20 local farms. Growing up on a blueberry farm in Amherst, the chef has always had a strong bond with the land. So when she left her most recent post as sous chef at Spice Kitchen, she took with her nearly a decade of relationships she's built throughout the region.
"The feeling that I can really make a big impact on the lives of farmers with my orders is the best part of my job," she says.
For a chef whose earliest memories involve standing on high chairs to make handmade breads and pastas with her mother and the smell of fresh sage and marigold in the family garden, Hess' piqued fascination with cooking from scratch was organic.
"I can pull ideas from cookbooks," says the self-described vintage cookbook fanatic. "But my biggest inspiration has always been walking around the farm, harvesting with the farmers and hearing them talk about something they're so passionate about."
As her budding interest grew, the young chef signed onto her first job at Chez Francois, where she developed skills in French technique. Four years later she moved to Table 45 as a line cook, just as that eatery was opening at the InterContinental Hotel.
After brief stints as sous chef at the now shuttered Bar Symon in Avon Lake and as part of the opening crew at Rockefeller's in Cleveland Heights, Hess knew she wanted to get more experience under her belt. In 2011, she landed what was, at the time, her dream job as a line cook at the Greenhouse Tavern.
"At that point, there were very few people in Cleveland on board with the farm-to-table movement," Hess remembers. "It drew me in."
It was while she was at Greenhouse that she delved deeper into the process of fermentation, an extension of the canning and preserving her family practiced when she was a child. She began to pore over the books of guru Sandor Katz around the same time chef-owner Jonathon Sawyer was teaching her how to make vinegar.
"His lessons are something very near and dear to me now," she recounts. "It taught me to take an average and mundane product and turn it into something special."
For Hess, who grows more than half of her own food in a community garden near her Tremont home, it was important to keep that momentum rolling as her career advanced. When she joined the opening team of Spice, she meshed with the restaurant's farming initiatives and created dishes from food pulled straight from the on-site hoop house.
"With Ben [Bebenroth] growing the vegetables, there was an extra strong connection to the crops," says Hess. "I felt that push to respect the ingredient and all the care that went into it."
In early 2014, Hess was recruited for Urban Farmer. Today, she's able to bring the farm contacts she's made full circle as the restaurant leads into its first all-encompassing growing season. And, for the first time since her work at Greenhouse, it's a return to downtown.
"It's so exciting to watch how the city's changed and grown and even more so to be able to be a part of that energy."
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