A year ago, Travis Bensink came back home to Chautauqua County. When he did, he was a man with a plan.
The Athenaeum Hotel’s second-year executive chef, a native of nearby Clymer, New York, speaks with evident satisfaction as he reviews his first year and how the 2015 season has begun.
“I’m pretty happy with how things have gone,” Bensink said. “We have paid attention to staffing and have been fortunate to find and recruit some talented individuals, many with deep local ties. This should help us to build the quality and continuity we are seeking.”
The interns are better prepared, Bensink said, and he’s beginning to see results from recruiting from local culinary schools — places like Alfred and Mercyhurst universities. Bensink is in touch with Niagara Culinary Community College, as well.
“We need to — and will — expand our footprint in this area,” he said.
Bensink has big plans for Heirloom and the hotel as a whole.
“We’re also rolling out several new signature menu items and expanding and enhancing room service and other dining amenities like tapas and wine service as complements to evening concerts at the Amphitheater,” Bensink said. “It’s an ambitious plan, but we’re getting good support from the Institution and, so far, so good.”
Bensink and Food and Beverage Director Rick Heald have a surprise for Chautauquans this summer: a “pop-up” food truck Weeks Four through Eight, from noon to 2 p.m. Thursdays on Bestor Plaza. It will be called, appropriately, “Sandwich.”
“The plan is to sell prepared sandwiches and a few other items over a temporary counter we will set up on the northeast corner of the plaza,” Heald said. “We are treating this as a test. If Chautauquans like it and we get a good response, we will look into significantly expanding this for 2016, possibly including finding an actual food truck to use, and expand the variety of food we offer.”
Last summer, Bensink brought several associates from North Carolina with him as he filled out his team in the hotel’s sprawling kitchen. Many have now moved on to other opportunities, but a few remain. Overall, nearly a dozen new staff members have been added as key components in the hotel’s wide culinary reach across the grounds.
Chef de Cuisine
They still call Aaron Stover “Double A” in the kitchen, differentiating him from now-departed Erin Hollas, whose first name similarity made it tough to figure out who was being called during hectic times. Back for a second year at the hotel, Stover is the deputy to Bensink, with year-round responsibilities ranging from menu development to maintenance assistance.
“I was up on the roof shoveling off drifts in January and February,” he said. “We used big snow scoops, good-grip boots and the heaviest clothing we own,” he said. “We never went up there if there was wind, though.”
Stover is excited about what Sandwich offers.
“We’re planning a different regional theme each week,” he said. “There will be one week Asian, one week European, etc.”
Now living in Mayville, Stover grew up in Kittanning, Pennsylvania, and has worked in a number of restaurants and inns in northwest Pennsylvania. He got a certificate from the Indiana University of Pennsylvania Academy of Culinary Arts in 1994.
A highlight of his career was being part of team chosen to prepare a dinner for the renowned James Beard House dinner in New York City.
“The previous evening, Wolfgang Puck was the chef for that dinner,” Stover said.
President’s Cottage Chef
There are few service jobs around the grounds as sensitive as the one Cesca Wellman presently holds. She is in charge of all the food and drink served at the high-profile dinners and receptions which fill the summer schedule for Institution President Tom Becker and his wife, Jane.
Wellman, in her first year, brings a wealth of relevant experience to her new job.
“High-end cuisine is my personal style,” Wellman said.
Trained at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, Wellman has for the past 10 years served as a food, wine and dairy consultant for several wineries in the Napa Valley region.
Wellman has deep local roots and family ties, and says she has “done a lot of private catering work in and around Chautauqua for years. It’s very personal for me. High-end cuisine usually has seven or eight distinct elements. Doing it right is a big deal.”
Along the way in her career, Wellman has worked in several different types of restaurants, citing French, Italian and Korean among the styles she has experienced.
“I try to draw on them all,” she said.
The Pastry Queens
Brooke Kelly leads the way for the three-woman pastry team in the hotel. Growing up in Amherst, New York, Kelly now lives in Fredonia. It’s midway between her work here and her husband’s job in the Buffalo area. The couple has a 4-year-old son.
Kelly got her B.A. in communications at the University of Buffalo, but was drawn to culinary pursuits and studied for her certificate at the Culinary Academy of Long Island, New York. She lived in Queens for five years, working there and in Manhattan and the Bronx. She felt the pull of home and moved to Buffalo, where she worked in several bakeries.
“I had never been on the grounds here prior to my interview,” Kelly said. “It is so beautiful and peaceful here.”
Kelly shared one of her baking secrets: “The key to a pie crust is to use half butter, for the flavor, and half shortening, for the flakiness. The crust is the key to any pie.”
At one of her Buffalo stops, Kelly worked with the woman who would become known as the Cupcake Queen of Western New York. That would be Lindsay Gregg, from Buffalo, who studied French and political science at the College of Charleston after high school.
“I was headed down a different path in college, until I took my semester abroad in La Rochelle, France,” Gregg said. “That changed everything. I’d walk by this patisserie every morning on the way to class. The smells were heavenly. I am definitely an emotional decision-maker, and I guess I followed my nose to my career.”
Introduced originally to Chautauqua by her watercolorist father who loved the sights and ambience on the grounds, Gregg won a cupcake baking contest while working in Buffalo. “Cupcake queen,” she said. “Not bad.”
Maddy Chase completes the team in the hotel’s pastry section. Returning for a second year in the kitchen, Chase brings a veteran’s perspective to the sweet science of hotel baking. Having now completed her degree program at Alfred University in baking management and products, Chase looks forward to new horizons and opportunities after the Athenaeum season concludes in October.
Hailing from nearby South Dayton, New York, Chase said, “I’d like to spread my wings and travel. The Carolinas perhaps, maybe Tennessee. There’s a big world out there.”
Bellinger Hall Executive Chef
Chris Ottena entered a disorganized world when he came on board in the Bellinger Hall kitchen after the season was well underway last year.
“It was kind of chaotic, for several different reasons,” Ottena said. “But we all got down to work, and things began to improve. It’s been a lot easier this year when I have had the whole preseason to get things set up.”
Ottena is in charge of the busy Bellinger kitchen, which serves 250 to 300 meals every day to its summer student residents.
“Breakfast is usually the meal where we see the fewest students eating,” Ottena said. “But it’s still busy even then.”
Ottena does all the food ordering, and supervises a summer kitchen staff of 28. Given a magic wand and a bigger budget, he would quickly add another hot food station in the Bellinger dining hall.
“We sometimes have students waiting too long for their meals,” he said.
A 2000 graduate of Edinboro University, Ottena majored in music education and criminal justice.
“I’m an experienced percussionist. That explains the first major,” he said. “I also thought I might be interested in several different aspects of law enforcement when I was in school. Arson investigation attracted me, particularly.”
But cooking was a passion for Ottena, starting in high school.
“When I got out of school, I found myself drawn to restaurant jobs,” he said. “I worked at Mercyhurst College in Erie for several years. We fed 1,200 students a day there. So I have some experience in cooking for large numbers of people.”
Dining Room Manager
Heirloom Restaurant at the Athenaeum Hotel has a new manager this year. Amanda Ordines takes the helm in 2015, supervising a wait staff of 40 bussers, food runners, servers, bartenders and hostesses.
“I have been working 18-hour days more often than not recently,” Ordines said. “The general manager insisted I take a day off last weekend and that helped recharge my batteries.”
She has two assistant managers to share the workload.
Ordines grew up in Jamestown, graduated with her Jamestown High School class in 2001 at the Amphitheater, and attended JCC and SUNY Fredonia, graduating with a degree in childhood education with a concentration in English. Despite the fact that her mother was an English and social studies teacher for 25 years, Ordines found teaching was not for her.
She has worked more recently as an office manager in nearby Casadaga, banquet server at Chautauqua Suites and as food and bar service manager at Peek’n Peak. She lives now in Clymer with her 9-year-old daughter. Ordines’ mother helps out when her schedule gets heavy, but Ordines has been making time to coach her daughter’s soccer team.
Brick Walk Cafe Manager
Some other hotel managers may be Chautauqua newcomers, but Tyler Rhodes, new manager of the Brick Walk Cafe on Bestor Plaza, has logged 10 years at the cafe already. He has worked his way up the chain of command, spending four years along the way as a shift supervisor and the past two as overall assistant manager.
“It’s been a great way to spend my summers,” he said. “I am definitely thrilled to have had the chance to spend time at Chautauqua for so many years. From starting at age 15 as an ice cream scooper, I have worked just about every job in the cafe except in the gazebo. I try to take advantage of the cultural opportunities on the grounds as often as my schedule will allow.”
Beginning in April, Rhodes has been busy with hiring, planning some new food items and organizing the 75 seasonal workers who ultimately report to him. He is staying in his family’s home in the Victoria community, on Chautauqua Lake between the Institution and the Interstate 86 bridge at Stow.
An international relations graduate of the University of San Francisco, Rhodes looks forward to graduate school in a few years. He will try to save for those expenses in the meantime. Before reporting to the Institution this spring, he worked with the crew that opened the new Panera Bread store in Lakewood.