Ben Park, executive chef at Flying Squirrel, grew up in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, in a family of cooks.
"Food was central to my family, whether it was my mother's chicken and dumplings or my dad's Spam and eggs in the morning," he says.
To him, those meals are good memories and translate into comfort foods for him. Park carries this over into the menu at Flying Squirrel, a popular Main Street eatery/bar open to those 21 and older except for weekend brunch. Flying Squirrel is where pimento cheese, grilled cheese and fried chicken accompany fancier options, such as a Waygu beef tartare sandwich or a local beet salad with Atlantic salmon.
Park wore many hats on his way to a culinary career, from construction work to jobs in bookstores and comic shops, but he buckled down and got serious about food when he started working at St. John's Restaurant under the guidance of then-owner chef Daniel Lindley.
"Daniel once told me that if you are trying to cook at a high level, you have to treat yourself like a professional athlete," he says.
So that he did, and soon found himself working as a sous chef under Erik Niel at Easy Bistro and starting a pop-up food business, MouthGremlin, before starting at Flying Squirrel in the summer of 2018 and taking the role as executive chef the following fall.
Q: What's your goal for food service at Flying Squirrel?
A: I want it to be an outlet for the experiences and passions of cooks who inhabit the kitchen. At this point, I hope not to be a chef that has a creative grip on the menu, but to be a teacher so the people that work with me every day can express themselves to the best of their ability.
Q: Describe the vibe on Main Street. Do you find it different from other dining venues in town?
A: I've lived downtown and on the Southside for most of my adult life and have seen it change in dramatic ways. I think Main Street has become a testing ground for what the whole of downtown could be like if we as a city went all in on hospitality. I love that this area is so densely populated with great food, beverage and entertainment options. I hope Chattanooga will continue to facilitate the growth of our city's nightlife that's being fostered here on Main Street.
Q: What's your favorite item on the menu?
A: Our menu changes fairly rapidly due to the season, so it's hard to pick one. Our beef tartare sandwich is my go-to snack, but I really love our fried chicken. I have a weakness for good fried yardbird.
Q: What's something people may not know about you?
A: I'm a DJ in my spare time and have thrown art and music events for the past 10 years.
Q: Do you have a favorite cookbook?
A: That's a hard question because I spend more money than I have on cookbooks, but my top three would have to be "Relae," by Christian Puglisi; "On Vegetables," by Jeremy Fox; and "Victuals," by Ronni Lundy.
Q: What's your dream culinary experience? Where would you like to dine and who would you like to cook for?
A: My dream culinary experience would be to attend the MAD Symposium (a gathering of chefs and restaurateurs) in Copenhagen. I'd like to dine at Inua in Japan, and if I could cook at the James Beard House in New York for John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, it would be a dream come true.
Q: If you were organizing a dinner party, which three chefs — dead or alive — would you invite?
A: My dream team is would be Nehemias Hernandez at Alleia here in Chattanooga; Drean Whitner at Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham [Alabama]; and Anthony Bourdain (now deceased).
Q: What do you consider your most important cooking tool and why?
A: I have a special relationship with my Nenox 13-inch chef's knife.
Q: If you had not become a chef, what would you do?
A: I think I would have been an art teacher.
Q: You've said before that your mom's Hamburger Helper is one of your top comfort foods. Do you ever make it home now?
A: I don't, but I do reach out to her to make it now and then. I still have a love for that cheesy casserole with sour cream on top.
Q: What's one of your favorite recipe for spring?
A: Pimento cheese. It's great served with saltines and young spring vegetables alongside good friends.
4 large pimento peppers
5 ounces cream cheese, softened
3/4 cups Duke's mayonnaise
3/4 teaspoon hot sauce (preferably Crystal)
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup grilled spring (green) onions, chopped (bottoms and tops)
1/4 cup pickle juice
1/2 pound shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 pound shredded Sequatchie Cove Cumberland cheese
Grill pimentos over open flame until skin is black and blistered. Place in a bowl, and wrap in plastic until cool. Uncover the peppers, peel off the skin and remove the seeds. Dice the peppers.
Put the softened cream cheese in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, and beat on medium speed. Add mayonnaise, and mix until incorporated. Add the hot sauce and all dry spices. Once everything is well-incorporated, add grilled onions, pickle juice and cheeses. Mix until incorporated. Give one last taste, and adjust flavor with salt to your liking. Serve with saltines and young spring vegetables.
Email Anne Braly at firstname.lastname@example.org.