Fam­ily and the sea­sons in­spire top chef at Max’s Wine Dive in Austin

Beneke started at Max’s in 2009 as a line cook mak­ing sal­ads and was named the restau­rant’s ex­ec­u­tive chef in March this year.

Austin American-Statesman - - AUSTIN360 DAILY - By Claire Canavan Spe­cial to the Amer­i­canS­tates­man

Raised just out­side Ithaca, N.Y., chef Erica Beneke grew up sur­rounded by a food com­mu­nity that sup­ported lo­cally grown food years be­fore it was trendy.

Her fam­ily sub­scribed to a CSA (com­mu­nity-sup­ported agri­cul­ture pro­gram), and in the kitchen, home­made food projects abounded. Beneke watched as her par­ents ground peanut but­ter from scratch, baked fresh bread, rolled out dough, and sim­mered to­mato sauce for pizza nights. At the age of 11, Beneke de­clared to her fa­ther she wanted to be a chef.

To­day, at 25, Beneke is the ex­ec­u­tive chef at the Austin lo­ca­tion of Max’s Wine Dive, where she in­vents cre­ative sea­sonal dishes that add lo­cal flair to Max’s gourmet com­fort food reper­toire.

Be­fore she landed at Max’s, Beneke earned a de­gree in culi­nary arts from Paul Smith’s Col­lege and worked at homey B&B-style restau­rants such as Taugh­an­nock Farms Inn in up­state New York and fancy re­sort kitchens such as the one at Stowe Moun­tain Lodge in Ver­mont.

“Restau­rants like those have a role in who I be­came as a chef,” she said. “They were all fam­ily-cen­tric, some in the sense that they were run by fam­i­lies, oth­ers in the sense that con­nec­tions be­tween fam­ily mem­bers would hap­pen at the restau­rant. I re­mem­ber see­ing how happy food can make peo­ple, and what kind of com­mu­nity it can build.”

In 2009, Beneke moved to Austin and started as a line cook at Max’s, mak­ing sal­ads. She quickly worked her way up through the restau­rant’s chain of com­mand and be­came ex­ec­u­tive chef in March 2012.

Beneke at­tributes her rapid rise to sev­eral fac­tors, in­clud­ing a de­sire to prove her­self as a young fe­male chef in the male­dom­i­nated restau­rant busi­ness. “I’m ex­ces­sively passionate about do­ing this,” Beneke said. Peo­ple’s un­der­es­ti­ma­tions of women in the kitchen only mo­ti­vate her to work harder. “I knew all along that I could do it,” she said, “but a lot of other peo­ple did not have the for peo­ple who work with food to un­der­stand that re­la­tion­ship,” she said.

While dream­ing up the fall menu, Beneke thought about her as­so­ci­a­tions with the sea­son. “Fall sig­ni­fies all the things I love,” she said, “fam­ily, food, the hol­i­days.” But since fall tem­per­a­tures in Texas can re­main high, Beneke takes fa­mil­iar fall in­gre­di­ents and pre­pares them with a slightly lighter touch.

In­stead of do­ing a tra­di­tional, hearty French onion soup, Beneke trans­lates those fla­vors into a sea bass dish served in a French onion broth with roasted onions and crispy shal­lots. She also plays with tra­di­tional Thanks­giv­ing fla­vors, serv­ing roasted game hen with smoked ba­con stuff­ing and sweet potato but­ter.

Though adept with meat, Beneke has a tal­ent for coax­ing rich, sat­is­fy­ing fla­vors from veg­eta­bles. “There is noth­ing


Erica Beneke is the ex­ec­u­tive chef at Max’s Wine Dive. She cre­ated this dish of roasted game hen with ap­ple­wood-smoked ba­con stuff­ing, a sweet potato but­ter and cran­berry gas­trique.

Erica Beneke cre­ated this dish of maple-roasted acorn squash gar­nished with frisee, smoky bleu cheese and warm ba­con dress­ing for Max’s Wine Dive.

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