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Meet the chef: Valeria Benner

Brunch should have the same culinary flair as dinner, but in a more fun and relaxed way, declares Valeria Benner, sous chef of Lockwood Restaurant & Bar in the Palmer House Hilton in downtown Chicago.

With that attitude, Benner adapts an array of global influences into her weekend brunch menus. Included are dishes as diverse as duck confit with poached duck egg, vanilla mascarpone-stuffed French toast and mac n’ cheese with strozzapreti pasta and toasted panko. Her signature item is Swedish Breakfast, an unusual but flavorful pairing of sautéed salmon and tangy and sweet lemon crepes. She credits her grandmother’s Scandinavian-style Sunday brunches as inspiration.

It’s the kind of hearty, comforting fare that will nourish guests until the return of warm weather, when Benner’s brunches will showcase heirloom tomatoes and herbs grown in the hotel’s rooftop garden and fresh produce gleaned from local farmer’s markets.

Can brunch really be as sophisticated an experience as dinner?

Yes, but not as uptight. I don’t know anybody who could really be uptight about brunch. We have redeveloped our brunch menu to be kind of playful, starting with cocktail suggestions, because I think brunch should be fun. Then we move into small plates, everything from pates to awesome deviled duck eggs, all items I’m making in house. The entrees have a little more culinary skill involved. Not only do you have all these wonderful breakfast items, there is a more relaxed atmosphere, coffee is flowing and Bloody Marys are coming to the table.

Which menu item typifies your approach to brunch?

I’d say it’s the Swedish Breakfast. That is me being nostalgic. My grandma would cook whatever fish my grandfather caught, walleye or perch, and serve it with crepes with lingonberries and sour cream for Sunday brunch. That was the one day of the week we all slowed down and enjoyed each other’s company. That wraps up how I feel about brunch—people should take the time, even if it’s just one day a week, to sit down with family and friends and enjoy a special meal.

How does Swedish Breakfast go over with guests?

Incredibly well. People are intrigued by it—oh, that’s weird, fish with crepes. But I’ve never had a person try it who didn’t like the combination of flavors. Actually, the acidity and sweetness of the lemon crepes and lingonberries and the fattiness and saltiness of the salmon all play together nicely.

 

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