At a private dinner celebration on the evening of Thursday, Nov. 10, Michael Diedrick, owner of The National, 839 W. National Ave., turned over his restaurant to a new owner, Nell Benton, for the staggeringly low price of $100.
Committed to finding a buyer who would maintain the original intent of the cafe, most notably its commitment to both sustainability and the surrounding neighborhood, Diedrick interviewed a wide range of candidates, listening to their visions and allowing them to express their level of commitment to each of 11 conditions for the space, staff and mission of the cafe.
Benton, formerly the executive chef at Shorewood's Thirst and Vine, turned out to be not only one of the most qualified candidates, but also the best fit.
In a toast welcoming Benton to her new position, Diedrick remarked, "I've never made a better decision in my life ... all I ask for is unprecedented success."
Chef Benton, who grew up in Green Bay, traveled extensively and earned her culinary degree in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Having lived and worked in a variety of culinary meccas, most notably London, the French-influenced British isle of Jersey, Cairo and Indonesia, Benton brings with her myriad knowledge of both traditional and ethnic cuisines.
When asked to discuss her vision for the café, Benton was eager to elaborate.
"I would love to add some international dishes to the menu," she explained. "Things like curried chicken with toasted cashews and maybe a papaya salad."
Benton also plans to embellish the cafe's bakery and pastry offerings, expand the catering side of the business and develop a presence for the restaurant through area farmer's markets and neighborhood festivals. Her future vision also includes a donation-based "pay-what-you-can" model for operation during specified hours, during which she hopes to bring more of The National's food to neighborhood residents at all income levels.
"We offer such healthy, wholesome food," she said, "and it would be great to make it accessible to everyone."
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.