Editor's note: As Austin continues to grow and thrive as a culinary epicenter, we’ve started to see certain big name chefs grow to demi-god celebrity status. But in kitchens, bars, and restaurants across the city, there is so much more talent that often goes unspoken. Next in Line is a monthly column celebrating back of the house heroes who might just be the next household name.
Name: Erica Beneke
Kitchen: Max’s Wine Dive
Position: Executive Chef
Hometown: Ithaca, New York
When did you first start cooking? I started cooking with my parents when I was really, really little. The first dish I mastered was my dad’s pancakes. I was always at [my parents'] heels when they were in the kitchen.
What was your first cooking job? For my first job, I was 13 and worked in a little place called Blanche’s Scratch Bakery. Basically all I did was wash dishes and help her wrap cookies, but I’ve been working in kitchens ever since.
Are you self-taught or did you go to culinary school? I did two years of vocational culinary training in high school, which I can attribute to the only reason I graduated high school. So I spent half of my day in a culinary training class for my junior and senior year of high school. And then I went to Paul Smith’s College for culinary. I was originally going for my bachelor’s degree and ended up getting an associates and leaving with that because I was realizing that my experience in the real world was much more valuable.
What other places have you cooked? I grew up working at a restaurant called Taughannock Farms Inn. It’s on Cayuga Lake, right on the Finger Lakes wine trail. I started there when I was 15, as a server’s assistant, then worked my way into the kitchen and worked there all throughout high school and then on summer breaks my first years of college. Then I ended up taking a year-and-a-half off school because they offered me a sous chef job.
I did my internship for school at Solstice at the Stowe Mountain Lodge in Stowe, Vermont. That was a five diamond, five star resort, so that was an amazing experience. Then I worked at a little B&B near where I went to school, called Hohmeyer’s Lake Clear Lodge. They did German food and I was one of only two people who worked in the kitchen there — that was really fun.
What brought you to Austin and Max’s? I moved here almost exactly five years ago, right when the culinary scene was about to blow up. I moved here just to be a part of it. This was the first job I got here, as a line cook, and I did that for a couple years and slowly started working my way up in the kitchen. I'll be here five years in November!
What chefs were your biggest inspiration? My parents are the reason I fell in love with food. Neither are professional chefs but both are amazing cooks and really care a lot about food. Both of them are very much into gardening and CSAs and trading food with our neighbors. So I attribute my love of food to them. And both of my sisters have it, too. Even though neither of them are working in kitchens, they easily could be. So that’s where it all started.
My instructor in high school, LuAnn Bishop, was the first female chef that inspired me. My senior year, I ended up being the only female left in our class and she was my guiding force. And all of the chefs I worked for in Stowe were huge inspirations. We sourced almost completely locally, and this was before local food was really a “thing,” but in Vermont it’s always been a thing!
What do you love about cooking? Making people happy! That’s kind of what drove me to want to do this for a career and also what keeps me going, because it can just be beat-down, hard, ugly work. I’m the middle child in my family, so that’s a trait I’ve always had: wanting to making everybody happy.
One of my first real food memories was at my great grandfather’s funeral, which is the first time in my life that I remember feeling sad and just being lost about it. And then I remember going to the reception afterwards and there’s all this food, and then all of a sudden it turned into this happy, joyous occasion where we were with family. And, for me, it centered around the food being there. And that just amazed me — it still does. Being able to just see people who haven’t had the greatest day, or they’re fighting or whatever, and they sit down to eat and then it’s just immediately comforting and everything else just washes away.
What’s your favorite music to listen to while cooking? It depends on the day! I actually learned an appreciation for and love of bachata, because that’s what my prep cooks listen to. It’s very high energy and that’s what we blast at 8 am as soon as we get started in the morning. But we’re all over the place. Personally, if I was the only person working in the kitchen, I would be listening to the Motown Pandora station but we have to change it up a little bit because everybody has different music that inspires them.
What do you like to do when you’re not working? Well ... it’s been a while since I’ve experienced that, but my dogs are pretty much my life outside of work. I have two cocker spaniel mutts that are both rescue dogs and my entire light outside of here. So playing with them, going to the park and stuff like that. And also eating other peoples' good food!
What's your favorite food to eat when not working? I don’t know that I have a favorite food really. I do cook at home quite a bit, which is something I thought I’d lose, but it is so relaxing — I just love it. And my boyfriend loves food — obviously, you kind of have to if you’re dating a chef. He works in the industry too and he likes to cook and I love it when he cooks for me. And we like to cook together, which is just the most relaxing and amazing thing.
In addition to the classic menu, you also get to design your own chef-driven seasonal menu at Max’s. It is a really cool concept here that we are able to change the menus. It keeps us from feeling like a “chain.” We hate that term!
People know Max’s for their fried chicken and they can get that in any Max’s, but then there’s an actual chef in each location and that chef controls at least 50 percent of the menu and can fit into what’s appropriate for the seasons and for the city, too. Austin’s clientele is obviously very different from Dallas and Houston’s, so that's amazing. And they completely support everything I believe in like supporting all the local purveyors.
The menu is always centered around gourmet comfort food, but we’re able to change that to fit seasonality and even dietary restrictions that are important to people everywhere, but especially in Austin.
What’s your favorite dish on the menu right now? My favorite right now is a scallop dish which is inspired by a New England clambake, if you will, or a low country boil. It has the seared scallops and then some locally made quail sausage, a sweet corn beurre blanc, and then low country boil red potatoes.