CHEF DAD: John Benhase balances two baby boys and a new culinary venture in the new year

Perhaps there is such a thing as being too busy.

Since John Benhase returned to Savannah in 2018, no grass grew under his feet. After gaining invaluable kitchen experience and building his résumé, he and his wife, Sarah, traded the ATL for the SAV as he became one of our local Food Fab Four who conceived and realized Starland Yard.

All the while staying “full-on” at The Yard, Benhase joined Brandon Carter and resurrected the stately Krouskoff manse at 122 East 37th Street, adding Common Thread to FARM Hospitality Group’s flock in January of 2021.

By the end of that year, Benhase did what so many of us want and need to do: he took stock and decided to bring ‘work’ and ‘life’ back into balance.

“With Starland Yard and baby coming and all things, there was just too much to juggle,” he admitted, which meant stepping away from Common Thread roughly a year after it opened to unrivaled reviews.

“It’s an overused word, but I just didn’t have the bandwidth to be in there every day,” added Benhase, who in the next beat humbly voiced his praise for what Carter and newly promoted executive chef Joseph Harrison have continued to execute. “They’re crushing it there.”

Within the chef’s two years removed from Common Thread, the Benhases welcomed Chance into the world in April of 2022, and baby brother Cole was born on October 12, 2023.

Two boys, both in diapers. At least the parents are not outnumbered yet.

Knowing that he did not want to be back in a kitchen full-stop, Benhase has been equal parts chef and dad over the last several months, the former coming primarily in the form of his pop-up presence, little light.

LITTLE LIGHT, BIG FLAVORS

Before Cole was born, Benhase cooked at several charity and private dinners and soon started up his own monthly pop-up series.

“Incredibly talented dude” Jackson DuMouchel helped transform Benhase’s “specific and hard-to-translate image in [his] mind” into all of little light’s branding, including the intentionally uncapitalized name.

click to enlarge CHEF DAD: John Benhase balances two baby boys and a new culinary venture in the new year
John Benhase
“Jackson and I came up with the name together, more of a stylistic expression,” he explained. “There’s no pictures of me. It’s all lowercase.“

The essence is an ego-less version of a pop-up where “we just cook cool food and be happy.”

From March to September, little light dinners appeared at Sea Wolf Tybee, Late Air, and C&L, as well as at an Erstwhile Mezcal meal hosted by Lone Wolf Lounge.

“It’s been really fun,” Benhase said of this part-time return to restaurant cooking. “Every pop-up has been at a spot one of my friends owns.”

“Especially since it’s not my everyday thing and is more of a creative outlet, I wanted to do that with people I love and care about,” he continued candidly.

The little light cuisine is driven by seasons, seafood, and Middle Eastern strokes to create “food that’s a little bit healthier and that you eat all of and enjoy big flavors,” per Benhase.

“Bottom line: I’m trying to cook food I want to eat,” he said and chuckled. “Sometimes, I sneak stuff on there that I haven’t been able to eat in a while,” like the Szechuan-style chilled beef and tripe on the Erstwhile Mezcal menu.

Keeping the branding and menus consistent, Benhase plans to re-up the pop-ups after the holidays with definite plans for one at Sobremesa and a replay at Late Air.

“They’re good buddies, too, and are moving in a really cool and exciting direction,” he said, extolling Jason Restivo and Ryan Ribeiro’s recent partnership at Sobremesa.

Benhase heaped equal praise on Late Air’s husband-and-wife owners Colin Breland and Madeline Ott and chef Juan Stevenson who have been “absolute champions of the pop-up culture, opening their doors to cool concepts since they opened a year ago, which is a really brave thing to do.”

“He’s a super-talented dude and has found his sweet spot at Late Air,” he said of Stevenson (Big Bon Family, Atlantic, Zunzi’s), who was a line cook with Benhase at Common Thread’s opening. “The food is killer and understated and finessed.”

SIDE-YARD EXPANSION

“Kind of from all over” but having grown up in North Carolina, Benhase came to Savannah in his early twenties and cooked at 17Hundred90 Inn and Restaurant and the Bohemian alongside “long-time buddy” Jonathan Massey (Bull Street Taco and the soon-to-be Goody’s).

Benhase headed to Atlanta “to keep growing,” and during those years, he sharpened his skills as executive sous chef at The General Muir and with the Ford Fry Group at The Optimist (Nashville) and Marcel and Jct. Kitchen, both in Atlanta’s Westside.

click to enlarge CHEF DAD: John Benhase balances two baby boys and a new culinary venture in the new year
John Benhase

In 2018, he and Sarah moved back to Savannah “basically to hop right into Starland Yard” with partners Guy Davidson, Niko Ormond, and Pila Sunderland.

“All four of us have different areas of expertise,” Benhase said of his “close friends” who balance each other really well, “and the restaurant, food-side of operations is why I’m there.”

Keeping Benhase busy between diaper changes and bedtime stories, this Food Fab Four are moving forward with two new permanent outlets on Starland Yard’s eastern perimeter plus a SY-esque development in Jacksonville’s Springfield area.

Most imminent are the openings of Nixtate and Uncle June’s on DeSoto Avenue, two steel-and-mortar fixtures in the Starland Yard constellation which should open in February, depending on construction and inspection schedules.

Benhase and Sunderland worked closely to decide who best fit in these added spaces and are now orienting the new owners and helping them navigate everything from compliances to inspections, “just being a resource for them to make sure they’re successful.”

“I’m really excited about how they look. It’s getting real,” Benhase added. “They’ll be really cool additions. We already have the best pizza in town, so now, we’re trying to have the best Mexican food in town and the best sandwiches and call it a day.”

CHANGE OF FOOD SCENE

Having been here and now being back again, Benhase noted the relatively recent evolution in Savannah’s food scene that was, heretofore, held back by “a bunch of islands.” What may have been an ‘overly competitive’ landscape a decade or more ago has become collaborative and cooperative.

“What’s happened with a whole new generation of people moving in, there’s this massive network of people who want each other to succeed, and we’re all helping each other do that,” he asserted.

A rising tide lifts all boats, and perhaps nowhere has the proverbial river risen higher than in Starland.

“Please open as many cool things as possible,” Benhase pleaded rhetorically. “We want this neighborhood to be the coolest food-and-beverage neighborhood in the city.”

Along DeSoto discreetly, the dining destinations abound with Nom Nome Poké shop at its northern terminus and numbering Foxy Loxy, Big Bon Bodega, Two Tides Crispi, and Troupial southward plus Superbloom’s addition of crêpes and Nixtate and Uncle June’s joining the party.

It is the most wonderful time of the year to be a DeSoto diner and a dad.

“There has not been any sleep,” Benhase said with a smile a few days before Christmas, thanks in part to the little family sharing a big cold.

“A lot of people in my industry don’t get to spend a bunch of time with their kids, especially super-young,” he continued, “and I was able to be around a ton for Chance and have been able to do the same with Cole.”

“I’m very fortunate.”

Follow Chef John Benhase and future little light dinner series @chefbenhase and @littlelightdinner.



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