Chef de Cuisine
Firefly Grill | Effingham, Ill.
Within 45 minutes of interviewing for the chef de cuisine position at Firefly Grill in Effingham, Illinois, over Skype, Benjamin Downs was ready to move his family 1,600 miles across the country from his post in Arizona. Even more impressive is the fact that Downs and Firefly executive chef and co-owner Niall Campbell were able to make it through Downs’ extensive culinary history in less than an hour.
After coming on board six months ago, Downs now runs daily operations, mentors kitchen staff and collaborates with Campbell to develop the weekly menu. Most of their choices stem from what’s available on the restaurant’s 3-acre garden – the freshest ingredients with almost zero transportation required, save the trek from the garden to the striking rustic roadhouse.
“He’s my key person to bounce ideas off of,” Campbell says. “That was one of the biggest things that I was looking for: He’s always trying to get to what works best. It forces us to try something different and explain our rationale.”
In his engaging British accent and jovial demeanor, Downs recounts his kitchen background, which began in London, pulling on his mother’s apron at 8 years old to cook family meals, then learning the ropes as commis chef in his family’s internationally influenced restaurant at 14. After completing England’s secondary schooling two years later, he trained at a Michelin-starred hotel that was once King Henry VII’s country home, with all-day shifts six days a week and the remaining day spent at culinary school.
“It was definitely old school: lining up every morning, is your apron the right length, are your face and fingernails clean, staying late to clean the grout with your toothbrush kind of deal,” Downs says. “But I loved it; I’ve always loved food, and I know the work you have to put in to get it.”
This led Downs to Barbados in his late teens, where he was head chef at his family’s second restaurant, the Lantern of Barbados, named for the next-door castle that once belonged to an infamous pirate. It was a bit of bar scene, a place for locals and tourists to have a good time with great food – and Downs enjoyed cooking the fresh seafood.
“The catch of the day would literally come walking up the beach, usually attached to a spear gun, still wriggling,” he says.
The family moved to Sedona, Arizona, to open yet another restaurant, and Downs dabbled a bit in kitchens around town before heading to the West Coast. Before Firefly, Downs spent two years as executive chef of five – yes, five – different establishments at Cliff Castle Casino in Arizona, ranging from an award-winning fine-dining restaurant to a 24-hour fast-casual joint.
So you can see why summarizing his résumé in a 45-minute interview was impressive.
“Firefly is really an accumulation of everything I’ve done in the past, but the best of what I’ve done,” Downs says.
From salmon flown in overnight from Washington – reminiscent of his time in Barbados – to incorporating subtle Southwestern flavors – inspired by his work in Arizona – to the ultra-organized kitchen structure that mimics his days scrubbing tile in England, Firefly has it all.
“If Niall will have me, this is where I want to be, without a doubt,” says Downs, though there’s a faraway tone in his voice. “But I could see myself growing a large garden of my own, maybe teaching culinary school or taking over the reigns here; we’ll see. I’d say anything is possible with my history.”
Firefly Grill, 1810 Avenue of Mid-America, Effingham, Illinois, 217.342.2002, ffgrill.com