Bio | Interview | Featured Recipes
Voted "Restaurateur of the Year" in 2010 by Memphis Restaurant Association, Ben Smith is the owner and executive chef of the award-winning restaurant Tsunami. Born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, Chef Smith is well known for an innovative culinary style influenced by his extensive travels in the Pacific Rim. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 1986, he began his career in San Francisco working at Stars Restaurant under celebrity chef Jeremiah Tower. Smith then traveled and worked his way across the Pacific, including stops in Tahiti, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Australia, and finally Hawaii, concluding his tour in the kitchen of the five-star Lodge at Koele on the island of Lanai.
Returning home to Memphis in 1994, Smith was ready and able to draw on his globetrotting experiences in his formation of an original restaurant concept: Pacific Rim cuisine suffused with a French influence, as well his own adventurous ethos and minimalist aesthetic. The son of local art legend Dolph Smith, Chef Smith inherited his own artistic sensibility that is revealed in his culinary minimalism, a style that eschews pretension and emphasizes focused flavors via the meticulous selection of ingredients.
After opening to much acclaim in 1998, Tsunami has continued to gain recognition and garner praise, making Smith one of the select few in the region who can boast of being both a pioneer of Memphis’ now thriving culinary scene and a current contributor to its growing reputation for world class cuisine. In its inaugural year, Tsunami was voted Best New Restaurant and has been included in the Best Seafood category in Memphis Magazine and Memphis Flyer reader polls every year since its inception, with other categories of recognition including Best Restaurant, Best Chef, and Most Creative Menu. In addition to running his own restaurant, the industrious chef has also found time to pen The Tsunami Restaurant Cookbook, published in 2005, and serve as a full-time Chef Instructor at L'Ecole Culinaire from 2010 to 2012.
Q: How did you get started with your career? Please describe your journey of how you got to where you are today.
A: My parents both worked full-time when I was young. So we were often left to fend for ourselves for meals. While my siblings were happy to subside on fish sticks and cheese toast, I was a little bit more demanding. I would open up the refrigerator and raid the pantry and basically have my own one-man Iron Chef challenge on a regular basis. In high school I started working in restaurants as a dishwasher, busboy, bar back, oyster shucker. Really any job that didn't require a lot of technical skill. It wasn't until I worked for a chef couple at a French bistro that I started taking on more food-related responsibilities. I found that I enjoyed it. Eventually the chefs recognized a spark in me and told me I should think about sticking with the restaurant business. They were both graduates of the Culinary Institute of America and they recommended that I apply. I did and I got accepted, and the rest is history.
Q: What do you love most about your job?
A: I like the fact that this career has afforded me the opportunity to travel a lot. I served my school-required externship at a small hotel in San Francisco. When I returned to school afterwards to complete the program, I couldn't wait to go back. After California I spent time traveling around the Pacific Rim with stops in New Zealand, Tahiti, New Caledonia and Australia, where I worked for a while. After that I moved to Hawaii and worked at the Lodge at Koele on the island of Lanai for three years. Since moving back to Memphis and settling into my own restaurant, what I most enjoy now is the collaborative creative process of working with my staff on daily menu changes. I also enjoy meeting and working with the growing number of young entrepreneurs who are growing or producing food on the region.
Q: Describe your cooking style.
A: I've been intrigued with all Asian cuisines since my first year at CIA. It's something that I continue to be interested in. I am particularly partial to the foods of Thailand, Vietnam, and Japan. I incorporate a lot of the ingredients common in Southeast Asian cuisine into my daily cooking. And I love the Japanese aesthetic when it comes to plate presentation.
Q: What is your favorite Chefwear item and why?
A: I like the traditional white cotton chef coat with cloth buttons. It's a good fit for me. I'm thin-framed, and I like that the Chefwear doesn't hang off me like other jackets.
Q: If you could choose any chef (dead or alive) to spend the day with, who would it be? Why?
A: I'd spend 24 hours restaurant/bar hopping with Anthony Bourdain in the city of his choice.
Q: What is your favorite kitchen gadget?
A: Probably my cheap Asian mandolin. I know that knife skills are important, and I do love using a knife. But nothing is better for making paper thin cucumber ribbons or shaved apple slices better than that tool.
Q: What is the funniest kitchen incident you've encountered?
A: The first restaurant that I worked in as Executive Chef had a downstairs prep area. One of the prep cooks was racing up the stairs once carrying a 5-gallon bucket of freshly made blue cheese dressing when he slipped and fell. He somehow managed to dump the entire contents of the bucket over his head. I remember standing at the top of the stairs and looking at him completely covered in dressing. He looked like a ghost. He had to scrape the dressing out of his eyes with his fingers. It looked like something out of the Three Stooges.
Q: What do you do to stay educated about new trends in the restaurant industry?
A: Through travel. I dine extensively whenever and wherever I travel. To me, experiencing things first hand is the best way to get inspired. I also read a lot. Social media is sometimes a good tool for me to gauge what other people are eating or cooking or talking about.
Q: What is your favorite meal?
A: I'm a grazer, and I love wine, so my favorite meal starts with a glass of Champagne or a sparkling wine and oysters on the half shell. Then it continues with a series of small plates, tapas, meze, antipasto, or salumi. I love to experience as many different flavors and textures as possible in one meal. I love dim sum. To me, this is the best way to eat.
Q: Please list awards and accolades.
A: Tsunami was named "Best New Restaurant" by Memphis Magazine the year we opened. Since that time we have been mentioned in the "Best Seafood" category every year since we have been open. I was named "Restaurateur of the Year" in 2010 by the Memphis Restaurant Association. Tsunami has been invited to cook at the James Beard House on two occasions. Voted "Most Likely to Drop the F-Bomb at an Inappropriate Time" by my staff on numerous occasions.
Q: Which accomplishment are you most proud of in your career?
A: I think opening my own restaurant has to rank way up there with proudest moments. But I think I am even more proud of the fact that Tsunami Restaurant has been successfully doing business for more than 18 years now. Staff retention is also a huge point of pride with me. I have staff members that have been with me for more than 15 years.
Q: What was the best advice you ever received in your career?
A: My dad, who is an artist, once said to me "There are 2 kinds of people in the world, the ones who stand up and do creative things, and the ones who criticize those that do. Which one would you rather be?" Later, someone else told me that if you aren't at least a little bit scared, then you're not challenging yourself enough.
Q: What advice would you give to a home enthusiast?
A: I always tell people that if you truly enjoy cooking, then, by all means, do it. But do it at home. Host dinner parties at your house. Throw a pot sticker dumpling making party. Start a wine and food pairing club. Just don't get a job in a restaurant if all you want to do is cook. There is so, so much more to running a restaurant than cooking. I've seen a lot of people in this business get discouraged and disillusioned because of the drudgery and tedium of restaurant work.
Spice Crusted Tuna on Cucumber Salad with Wasabi Vinaigrette