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

Claire Canavan
Erica Beneke is the executive chef at Max’s Wine Dive in downtown Austin. She elevates comfort food into dishes such as this roasted game hen with applewood-smoked bacon stuffing, a sweet potato butter and cranberry gastrique.

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 than 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 both 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 male-dominated 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 same faith in me.”

At Max’s Wine Dive, Beneke cooks American comfort foods in a way that feels elevated but approachable at the same time. Her reworked “wedge” salad shows off her ability to put clever spins on the classics. Gone is the standard iceberg lettuce, replaced by an acorn squash wedge garnished with frisee, smoky blue cheese and warm bacon dressing.

Beneke’s seasonal menus give her the chance to incorporate her love of local foods. Johnson’s Backyard Garden supplies much of the produce, and in return Beneke and her staff occasionally volunteer on the farm, recently harvesting carrots. “It’s important 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 wrong with a great steak,” she said, “but it takes more work to make vegetables really special.”

For an inventive vegetarian entree, Beneke prepares a creamy quinoa risotto, folds in caramelized sweet potatoes and cashew cream, and tops it with rosemary pesto and smoked pecans. She is also proud of her Brussels sprout gratin. For that dish, she grills Brussels sprouts, then tosses them in a gouda cheese sauce and bakes the dish in a mini cast iron skillet.

Though she’s now in a top position, Beneke’s culinary education continues. In July 2012, the executive chefs from all four Max’s locations traveled together to New York, where they ate at many of the city’s top restaurants, including Eleven Madison Park.

While Beneke doesn’t plan to try to recreate any of the dishes she sampled, she found herself inspired by the way the chefs at Eleven Madison Park infused New York’s classic food history into their menu. “I’m working on finding out what those classic dishes are in Austin, kind of diving into the history more and really paying tribute to what built this city,” Beneke said.

Her dream is to someday own her own restaurant. She and her boyfriend, who is apprenticing with Salt and Time Butcher Shop and Salumeria, would love to have a restaurant on a self-sustaining piece of land where they could raise their own pigs, grow their own vegetables, and run their own dairy. “It would be a small restaurant if that was the case,” she said, “something where there was not really a set menu, just a couple of items I felt like cooking each night.”

As to her favorite food and wine pairing at Max’s? “It’s going to sound like a cliché because it’s the restaurant’s motto,” Beneke said, “but I have to pick fried chicken and champagne.”

Max’s Wine Dive