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A chef embraces the love of cooking for his kids

People usually pay to eat Ben Philpott’s food.

As the chef at Block & Grinder, he oversees a menu of premium steaks and racks of lamb.

So it’s kind of a letdown to come home and cook for 5-year-old Benjamin Cabell Philpott IV, called Cabbie, and 2-year-old Nancy Sage Philpott.

He tries broccoli “trees,” pan-seared squash and a rotini pasta casserole with ground bison and lots of cheese, and still has to invoke the house rule, that each kid has to take a bite for every year of their age.

“I never know what they’ll eat,” he admits.

And that’s OK. The real challenge of dinner at the Philpotts is that Ben is there at all.

Can it be done?

For Father’s Day, consider the irony of the chef-dads. Feeding people, after all, is a nurturing act. But there are chefs all over town, both male and female, who have to juggle feeding us with raising their kids. Their jobs mean they often miss family meal times.

Ben Philpott is different, though. The executive chef at Block & Grinder, the restaurant and meat market at Providence and Sharon Amity, he has flipped through several jobs in search of the sweet spot, a place that lets him cook interesting food while arranging his hours so he can be home many nights for dinner.

“I consider this a win on the chef’s-wife scale,” says his wife, Mae Philpott. “We’ve had a lot worse schedules.”

Philpott, 35, always wanted kids, but worried it wasn’t compatible with the chef lifestyle. He has a brother-in-law and a cousin who both have kids and degrees from the Culinary Institute of America. Neither one is working in restaurants now. They told him it couldn’t be done.

“I was like, ‘yes, you can.’ You have to find the right place. It will be really, really, really hard. But it can be done.”

Making it work

Philpott’s typical week: He drops his kids at day care at the Jewish Community Center most days, then hits the restaurant to prep for dinner and cook for lunch. Monday through Thursday, he gets off early enough to pick up the kids and cook dinner.

On Fridays, he works all day and into the night, usually until 10 or 11 p.m. On Saturday mornings, “I lie in bed with the kids and eat Cheerios.” Then he works from lunch until late at night.

Sundays, he’s off, or as off as chefs get. He’s active in the local-food movement, so he often gets asked to volunteer at events, cooking with guys like Chris Coleman of The Asbury, Clark Barlowe of Heirloom, Paul Verica of Heritage and Luca Annunziata of Passion8.

“This is why I love Charlotte,” he says. “It’s a big city with a small-town feel. I love this place. It’s such a tight-knit world.”

Mae works in marketing and has to travel a lot. Their life, he says, takes constant negotiation, and they both have to focus on keeping it equitable.

It works because his sous chefs don’t have kids. He tries to make it up to them whenever he can. He’s had kitchen jobs that hit 80 hours in a week.

“I know how it is. They work nights and days.”

The family way

Philpott has tried a couple of ways to work the chef-dad life. After Cabell was born, he quit one restaurant because the hours got too long. He worked at another with better hours, but got bored with the menu.

When Nancy Sage was born, he took a year off, “did the stay-at-home dad thing – it was awesome.” He gardened and made lots of sausage for family and friends.

Last summer, he and Mae had lunch at Block & Grinder, where Mae noticed the meat counter and meat-centric menu.

“Your favorite thing is meat,” she said. He emailed the website and found they needed a chef, so he started there last August.

Now that he can be home to cook, what does he do? He aims for what he calls “healthy that’s good.” A lot of “one-pot cooks” – aka casseroles.

They have a CSA membership from Kim Shaw of Small City Farms, who used to be their neighbor before she moved to the country. Most of their food comes from Harris Teeter and Costco, though.

“I may be a chef, but I’m still on a budget,” he says.

On a recent Monday afternoon, as Mae got the kids settled in after day care, he started by browning ground bison that was on sale at Costco. He cooked a big pot of tri-color rotini, enough for two casseroles and pasta salad for Mae’s lunch. He does a lot of “cook once, eat twice, or thrice,” he jokes. A vacuum-sealer helps, too. He often breaks things into smaller batches, seals them and freezes them for the nights when he’s working late.

For a casserole he dubbed “bison helper,” he browned the ground meat with diced onion, then added a can of diced tomatoes, pasta and lots of cheese and popped it in the oven.

He simmered fresh broccoli in a little chicken broth with minced garlic and sauteed fresh squash, cranking up the heat to brown it, because he’s trying to introduce it to the kids.

Dinner was on the table by 6, mostly the simple fare of a family with small kids.

When Philpott picked up a knife to dice an onion, though, you couldn’t mistake his movements: the precision of the cuts, fingers placed just so, every slice smooth and confident.

It telegraphed “chef” more clearly than the angry red burn scar on his forearm and the sage plant tattoo (in honor of Nancy Sage) on his bicep.

What’s the difference between cooking for a family and cooking for the world? Cooking at home, he says, is cooking without pressure. But that pressure, the thrill of the restaurant kitchen, is a part of who he is. He needs both, he says.

“There’s something about working on a (kitchen) line,” he admits. “I have that thing, glutton for punishment. ‘Can we do it?’ And when you do it, it feels so good.”