Jeff Benjamin, owner of Viking Lobster Co., is no longer with us in the physical realm. Earlier today I heard word that he had passed on, which is quite a shock considering that I had been in contact with him about the potential sale of his restaurant, and his desire to spend more time farming, which was his version of retirement.
All the years that I spent, sitting around the table with him, family and friends, it’s hard to imagine that his voice will no longer resound throughout the halls of his restaurant. There was something about his voice that is unforgettable. It was the voice, and his ability to tell stories, that made it seem as if you were there when it happened (whatever it was).
Jeff – I called him “Viking” – was a dear friend, a brother, and a father figure, depending on the day (or moment). I loved to hear the tales of “old Buffalo,” during the days when anyone could get away with just about anything. He would describe how police would sit at one table, with ne’er-do-wells at another table a few feet away… “blue bloods over there, and scoundrels over there,” he would say… “and they all knew each other, and they were all at ease and respectful when they were here.”
From the sounds of it, the restaurant was like a church or a sanctuary back in the day, and to tell you the truth, that’s the way that I viewed it as well. There was no other place like it. It was the last of a type of restaurant that was once prevalent in Buffalo. You know, the ones that you always heard about, but they were all gone… except for Viking. It was the last bastion of the Wild West in Buffalo, and it was owned by a guy who fancied himself a… not a gunslinger, but a deputy who kept law and order, but just enough law and order to ensure that the building would still be standing in the morning.
Talking to another restaurant owner earlier today, he said, “… the guy was a legend!” when I told him that Viking had passed. He was a legend because he didn’t play by the rules – he made the rules. He did what he wanted and never asked anyone for help along the way. He was a hard worker (too hard), and lived his life to the fullest (almost too full, but that’s up for debate). Too many “pops,” too much red meat… you couldn’t tell the guy what to do, ever. And if you did… look out! One second Viking would punch me in the side with a quick jab… and then go in for the hug, because he knew that I cared for him and respected him for his work ethic, his “charm,” his sense of humor, his resilience, his fortitude… the guy was a beast… a true viking in the best sense of the word.
A few years ago, when Viking knew that he had to slow things down, he started farming. Not that he ever listened to anyone when they told him to slow down. He, and only he, decided for himself when it was time to ‘throw in the mappine’. Here was a guy who cooked one of the best steaks in all of Buffalo (and ate a lot of them too), who was suddenly passionate about farming and vegetables?
Like everything else in his life, when he started down a path, it was impossible to get him off it. He always went into overdrive… this time on a tractor!
One of my big regrets will always be that I never took him up on his offer to visit his farm. I always said that I would… soon enough. When I heard that he had passed, I could’ve kicked myself for not taking the opportunity to see what he considered his personal Valhalla. The restaurant was his battleground for most of his life. The farm was his way of helping the restaurant, trying to get healthy, feeling a part of the earth that had provided for him all of those years, and being at peace with himself and his family. The restaurant business is a tough business. Viking was a tough guy. He was actually a softie, but I never would have said that to his face.
2020 has been a tough year for just about everyone. I finally got to the point where nothing could surprise me, or so I thought. This surprised me. This knocked the wind out of me. The only saving grace is that I know that Viking’s memory will live on in the hearts and souls of countless customers, friends, and family members that he has provided for and loved over the years.
Viking, when the wind blows off the lake, the ocean, or across an open farm field, I will hear your voice, and know that you are with us.
Of his knowledge a man should never boast,
Rather be sparing of speech
When to his house a wiser comes:
Seldom do those who are silent Make mistakes;
mother wit Is ever a faithful friend…
– from The Hávamál