Meet Chef and Author Abra Berens

How an award-winning chef and author from southwest Michigan rose to prominence.
Abra Berens, a University of Michigan graduate, is the chef at Granor Farm and has penned three acclaimed cookbooks. // Photograph by EE Berger

When I chatted with chef Abra Berens in early December, the staff at Granor Farm was in the midst of a winter harvest, picking greens from the greenhouse, pulling celery roots, rutabagas, and purple-top turnips. The farm is in Three Oaks, a small southwest Michigan village 10 minutes from Indiana and just over an hour from Chicago. It’s a sleepy enclave with a charming old Midwestern-style downtown, slightly removed from the Lake Michigan beachfronts that attract Chicagoans and Hoosiers come summertime.

Every Friday and Saturday, typically, Berens prepares a unique eight-course meal for guests in a greenhouse dining room. Tickets go on sale months in advance for the dinners, which highlight Granor’s freshly picked produce and other ingredients from nearby suppliers. These dinners earned Berens semifinalist status at the James Beard Awards in 2023 and in 2020.

In 2020, she also received a nomination for her debut cookbook, Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables. Many recipes were adapted from her Traverse City Record-Eagle food column, which she wrote while working a chef job in Chicago and co-running Bare Knuckle Farm in Northport, near the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula (Michigan’s pinkie).

The youngest of three girls, Berens grew up on a farm near Holland that sold cucumbers to pickle companies. While she came from a lineage of farmers, her parents both worked as anesthesiologists and encouraged her to pursue higher education. They cautioned that farming was “not a romantic lifestyle,” Berens says. “I think they were a little concerned about me not utilizing some of the education that I had received at University of Michigan.”

While at U-M in the early 2000s, she was accepted into the Peace Corps and dreamed of one day working for the United Nations or a nongovernmental organization. Then, a job behind the counter at Zingerman’s Delicatessen changed everything. It’s where she met Jess Piskor, a fellow student who would one day be her business partner at Bare Knuckle Farm, and Zingerman’s co-founder Paul Saginaw, whom she considers a major mentor.

“I saw how much of a difference Zingerman’s made in its employees’ lives,” Berens says. “And that’s when I started to think about being a small businessperson.”

She eventually began cooking under the direction of Zingerman’s Head Chef Rodger Bowser. In 2004, she graduated from college with a double bachelor’s in English and history. Then, with encouragement from Bowser, she enrolled at Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland, located on a 100-acre organic farm.

Situated in southwest Michigan, Granor Farm grows organic produce, which can be tasted at Berens’s greenhouse dinners. There’s also a farm store, a community-supported agriculture program, and even a children’s day camp. // Photograph by EE Berger

Since Ruffage (published in 2019), she’s rapidly penned two acclaimed follow-ups: Grist: A Practical Guide to Cooking Grains, Beans, Seeds, and Legumes in 2021, and Pulp: A Practical Guide to Cooking with Fruit, released last April. Besides providing a comprehensive guide to preparing dishes with seasonal produce the reader has on hand, the books zoom out to include less-discussed aspects of food and cooking. Namely, these comprise the social, economic, health, labor, and environmental factors that surround farming, as well as farmers themselves.

“I find vapid discussions glorifying food while ignoring the people who grow or process our food very, ahem, frustrating,” writes Berens in the introduction to Pulp. “It is trite but true: no farms = no food. We have to go beyond a superficial rah-rah-rah for growers.” The chapters, divided by types of fruit, are regularly accompanied by profiles of Michigan fruit producers. She examines the state’s west-side “fruit belt,” which stretches north from around St. Joseph to Traverse City, and the issues that impact its growers.

“When I hear people say, ‘Why is fruit so expensive?,’ unfortunately … it’s very hard to earn a living on a raw product,” Berens says. “I’m advocating for empathy — if people understand what goes into the production of food, they’d understand why those costs are what they are.”

For instance, many of the picturesque communities are hot spots for summer homes, which drives up the cost of farmlands. “People think, ‘I want to live in the rolling hills of cherry orchards, but I don’t want [farmers] to spray, I don’t want them to harvest at night,’ things like that. And it’s like, well, that’s what goes into it,” Berens says.

After years of fast-paced production schedules that yielded three award-winning cookbooks, Berens says these days, she’s focusing her energy on the dinner program at Granor Farm and raising her 2-year-old son with her husband, Erik Hall, a musician she met at U-M. A common through line in her life’s work continues to be championing Michigan produce.

“Michigan is the second most agriculturally diverse state in the nation, second to California. It is no doubt in my mind that that is linked to our benefits of being a peninsula surrounded by one of the greatest freshwater resources in the entire world. It’s a really special place.”

This story is from the February 2024 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.