Lockwood at the Palmer House Hilton
The oldest of five children of a mixed family with working parents, Valeria Benner’s first forays into the kitchen came while preparing meals for her siblings. Instead of watching Saturday morning cartoons, her favorite TV show as a child was Jeff Smith’s “Frugal Gourmet”. Although Benner says now that she didn’t grow up knowing she would become part of the culinary world, she approaches food in much the same way as she did back then. “I think it’s pretty safe to say I'm an adult with the creativity and wonderment of a child,” she says.
Benner’s more official start in the culinary world came when she was 17 and worked at the Abbey Resort in Fontana, WI, because, as she recalls, “All of my friends were working there.” She started as a garde manger cook at the on-property French restaurant La Tour de Bois and quickly realized she not only enjoyed the work but had a talent for it. Within a year she was the junior sous chef, learning how to make everything from aspic to terrines from a German chef who trained in Paris during World War II— experience with classic techniques that continues to inform her cooking.
Benner went on to obtain her culinary arts degree from Johnson and Wales Culinary Institute in Providence, RI, focusing her studies on sustainable, seasonal, and local cuisine. After graduation, she returned to the Midwest, eventually going to work as head butcher and banquets cook at the American Club in Kohler, WI, before moving to Fresco at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art in Madison, WI, in 2006 to work as event chef and chef de cuisine. In 2008, she relocated to Chicago to work at the acclaimed Pump Room at the Ambassador East Hotel, working her way up from sous chef to head chef and acting food and beverage director, overseeing all culinary aspects of the hotel, as well as back-of-house management.
Bringing what she calls her “farm girl’s work ethic” and a deep understanding of and passion for seasonal cooking to Lockwood Restaurant at the Palmer House Hilton, as sous chef Benner sees her food as both a reflection of her roots and a continuing process of learning. “I'm a country girl transplanted into the city and that shows in my food,” she notes. “I make comfort food with seasonal farm ingredients and reinvent it with a touch of the contemporary.”
At Lockwood, she works closely with Executive Chef Greg Elliott in all aspects of the restaurant, focusing on menu and new entrée creation for breakfast and lunch, as well as overseeing the restaurant’s rooftop garden, from which the culinary team gets a wide assortment of produce from spring through fall. Benner melds her cooking skills with an innate understanding of what people enjoy most about eating. “I have a passion for food that leaves pretention aside, which makes food more approachable and memorable,” she says. “Our best memories are of family get-togethers, fantastic vacations, and meals that were delicious and made us feel relaxed, comfortable, and happy. This is what I aspire to create.”
Benner lives in the Bucktown neighborhood of Chicago with her dog, Callie. Calling herself a “lifelong geek” who “eats too much candy,” she wears a variety of hats when she’s not in the kitchen—from gardener to improv actor and theatre costumer.