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Richardson's Chef, Transplant Patient To Cook For a Cause

Parkville resident and Richardson Farms executive chef Ben Simpkins talks about food, life and an upcoming fundrasier for the National Kidney Foundation.

Ben Simpkins is more than just the chef at the National Kidney Foundation's Santé event this weekend. 

He's an example.

The executive chef at Richardson Farms, Simpkins is a kidney transplant recipient. Taking part in the fundraiser Saturday is an opportunity to bring two defining aspects of his life together.

"It's kind of the two things that are tied together—I want to be an influence for kidney patients. If you looked at me you’d never think I had a kidney transplant," Simpkins said. "When I was going through [dialysis, treatment and the transplant], I had people who would mentor me. I want people to look and see there’s life after a transplant. You can still follow your dreams."

The path that brought him to Richardson's—and ultimately to cook at the Saturday night fundraiser at Baltimore's B&O Railroad Museum—began when Simpkins was a teenager in Virginia Beach.

A homeschool student, Simpkins, then 14, started working as a dish washer in the kitchen of a breakfast & lunch spot where his mother worked as a waitress. It wasn't long before he graduated to the line, where he cooked until a serious car accident changed his life.

"I got in a bad car accident and when they drew my blood my creatinine level was a 5," Simpkins said. Creatinine, a chemical typically filtered by the kidneys, is a marker for disease when high levels are found in a patient's blood.

Within six months of the accident, Simpkins was put on dialysis. 

"I was on dialysis for a year and, I'll say it, it was horrific—imagine your blood going out of your body, into a machine and coming back to you—especially for a 17-year-old being homeschooled in his senior year of high school," he said.

It turned out that his mother was an eligible donor, and in July 1997 Simpkins had the transplant that would save his life.

"My whole attitude was that I got a second chance at life, I had a new outlook," he said. "After the transplant I felt different, felt good. I thought 'I'm going to make everything I can out of this life.' I’m very thankful to God — I don't think I'd be the person I am today without going through that. When you get on your deathbed and you’re on your knees you don’t worry about the little stuff."

Two months after the transplant, he started culinary school and a career that would take him to restaurants all over the East Coast before he landed in Baltimore County.

At the Nov. 10 kidney foundation event, Simpkins will put out a dish that's decidedly fancy—"fall spiced" crispy pork belly served in a butternut squash soup with an apple butter syrup and crispy fried sage—but day-to-day his focus is the simple, homemade comfort food he serves up at Richardson Farms.

The Ebenezer Road market, where he said he works as the only American Culinary Foundation-certified executive chef on a farm in the U.S., opened under his direction a little more than two years ago.

"They hired me a month-and-a-half before it opened," Simpkins said. "My boss ... he said, 'I want a deli, rotisserie chicken, and sandwiches ... other than than, no clue."

So Simpkins, who at the time was working as a chef instructor at Baltimore International College (now called Stratford University), offered jobs to 11 of his students and set about the task of turning a space that, at the time, didn't even have walls, into the market that you see today.

"I'd never opened a place as an executive chef, it was cool to see it all come alive. It was kind of like my baby," he said. "When I walked into the place I had to put all my culinary, molecular gastronomy, crazy stuff to the side. Two things that came to mind was comfort food and homemade. I took that and ran with it."

And he hasn't stopped running. Simpkins said on average they serve lunch to 200 people every day. Each week they're going through 400 pounds of homemade mac and cheese and in a year they sell close to 20,000 chicken pot pies.

"When we first opened, I was getting there at 7 a.m. to bake the bread for the sandwiches that day … that’s how slow we started. Now we have five bakers," he said. "We used to cook collards in a 5 gallon stockpot, now we cook them in a 15 gallon kettle."

Through it all, a few things have remained constant: Simpkins, and two former students—current sous chef Craig Salemi and hot foods manager turned marketing manager Heather Hulsey.

Simpkins, who called the model for Richardson's "seed to table," said that the success of the business can in some ways be attributed to changing attitudes about food.

"I think our generation is getting back to the buying local. I always tell people, 'Our great-grandfathers—if they wanted fish they went to a boat, if they wanted meat they went to a butcher. If they wanted produce they went to a farm—now they go to WalMart,'" Simpkins said. "Giant is buying from a wholesaler, shipped from god-knows-where. When people buy from Richardson’s they’re going to the direct source."

At the height of growing season the farms—one in White Marsh and one in Glen Arm—produce it all: from corn to zuchhini.

"What we don't grow, we buy local. We're all about local and supporting the local economy," he said.

When he first moved to Baltimore County eight years ago to work as the executive chef at the Sheraton hotel in Towson, Simpkins—who has travelled extensively for work—didn't expect to set down his roots here, but he says he found something special.

"They say 'I work like a Richardson and get paid like a Richardson,'" he said. "They treat me like family—I go to their house for Thanksgiving ... Diane [Richardson] watches my kids. I get Christmas presents for my kids, like [owners Bob and Barb Richardson] were my parents. They’re a hardworking family that has a big, big, big heart."

SZ November 08, 2012 at 03:26 PM
The Richardson Farm market in White Marsh is amazing! Their prepared foods and hot meals are delicious. Their deli meats, some housemade, are great. Chef Ben creates some delicious meals there, and the best thing about Richardson's is it's all local and fresh! We have also attended a wedding at their Glen Arm farm, which was beautiful and again had a delicious meal. My family has been a fan and customer since shortly after they opened and will continue to be!
Cory G November 08, 2012 at 07:35 PM
I second the comments above. I shop there weekly for their house-made deli products and their dairy selection. Richardson Farms is an amazing place and anyone who hasn't visited is missing out. :)

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