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.
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.