10 Questions for Max’s Wine Dive’s Erica Beneke

By Megan Giller  |  October 30, 2013
Credit: Lasco Corp.

The pigtail-braided 26-year-old chef says she’s “ahead of her life plan,” and we can see why. After growing up in upstate New York, Erica Beneke moved down south to Austin and worked her way up at Max’s Wine Dive, from the bottom of the line all the way to the top. She’s been executive chef for two years and has focused on creating seasonal menus as well as organized August’s Eat.Drink.Empower dinner, featuring local female chefs in support of the nonprofit SafePlace. We sat down to chat with her about where her love of food comes from and what’s next for her.

Zagat: So you’re from upstate New York. What drew you to Austin?

Erica Beneke: My dad moved here five years before me, so I spent all of my breaks from school visiting him. That was right as the food scene was starting to take off. My dad wanted me to be close to him, so he kept sending me little blurbs about how cool the food scene in Austin is. I made the move as soon as I graduated. I only planned on being here for two years, because I had a huge list of cities that I wanted to live in. But it sucked me in like it does with most people [laughs]. Denver was one city. Both Portland, Oregon, and Portland, Maine. San Francisco is something I’ve always thought about. I had this whole vision of spending two years in a bunch of cities before I settled on one. I can’t imagine being anywhere better than Austin right now. The city is awesome, and my job at Max’s has way surpassed any expectations I had.

Zagat: You started cooking at a young age, right?

EB: Yes. The first kitchen I ever worked in, I was 12. It was just a summertime part-time job at a bakery called Blanche’s Scratch Bakery. I begged her to let me work for her. The only thing she let me do in the first few months was wash dishes. I remember she had the cold water permanently turned off from her dishwashing sink, so I’d go home with my 12-year-old arms red up to my elbows. She slowly started letting me take on more responsibility. The first thing was wrapping cookies and sandwiches. I worked with her for two summers and at special events.

Both of my parents cooked at home a lot and were incredible cooks. Also they both gardened a lot. To this day our whole family is very food-focused. I was always in the kitchen with them and wanted to learn everything they knew. I started making pancakes for my sisters on Saturday mornings when I was about seven, with my dad’s help. My mom always talks about how whenever she would go to the grocery store I would insist on going with her, because I always wanted to be around food. As soon as I started working in professional kitchens, there was no turning back. It was an affirmation that this was what I wanted to be doing.

It was just the whole gathering of making food for people for celebrations. There’s something about it that brings people together and feels like family.

Zagat: What kind of food did you make as a kid at home?

EB: The first thing I mastered was pancakes [laughs]. But my dad has a convoluted recipe for pancakes. He’s the king of researching everything and testing every recipe to the T. This was a recipe he had worked on for 5 or 10 years. My sisters and I would have slumber parties that would always be food-focused. We’d roll sushi rolls, nothing fancy, just rice with vegetables and seaweed. That’s what we did for fun. Sit around with a bunch of girlfriends and roll sushi. We cooked a huge New Year’s Eve feast for my dad once. It was the first time we’d cooked a whole meal. We made homemade egg rolls and stir-fry.

Zagat: Are those some of your favorite foods now?

EB: Not really. Those were just some of our favorite foods when we were little. One of the other recipes my dad spent a long time perfecting was homemade pizza dough. He would always make the dough and we’d roll it out and put toppings on it.

Zagat: You’re still really young and you’re already the executive chef at Max’s. What's it like to have reached that level at such a young age?

EB: It’s something I don’t think I’ve fully grasped yet. I’ve been in this role for a while, but understanding not only what I do here on a day-to-day basis but also the opportunities that I have for myself and for growing people underneath me. My former sous chef just got promoted to be the executive chef at Max’s Wine Dive in San Antonio, and he’s the first person I ever hired here. I hired him as a line cook, and he worked his way up. That was a crazy moment for me, that that’s something I’m capable of.

Zagat: Talking about the restaurant industry in a larger sense, it’s male-dominated. What’s it like to be a female chef in that environment?

EB: As far as working at Max’s, it never phases me because it’s so much of who I am and who we are. Then sometimes you do take a step back, and this is where the inspiration for Eat.Drink.Empower came from, is realizing that I know and am acquainted with so many crazy talented female chefs in this city that no one talks about, no one knows about. I still don’t know why that is, but that’s part of the reason why I did that dinner, to bring more spotlight to that.

Eat.Drink.Empower is definitely going to be an annual event, but anything further than that, we haven’t figured out yet. It’s always going to be for SafePlace. That was a really strong partnership for us and a charity that we want to continue to support.

Zagat: Shifting back to Max’s, you just launched your new fall menu. Where did the inspiration for it come from?

EB: Fall is my favorite season by far. But being from upstate New York, my idea of fall is very different than what happens down here. For me, fall is everything nostalgic from my childhood. Picking apples and pumpkins. Thanksgiving. But I try to shift what I know of fall to what works for Texas and what’s growing here, food that’s appropriate to eat when it’s still 85 degrees in November [laughs].

Zagat: You mentioned Max’s Wine Dive in San Antonio. How do you keep each restaurant from feeling like a chain?

EB: It’s amazing the way [the owners] did it, and it enables them to hire creative people, which is something a store with multiple locations is often not able to do. But half of our menu is classic, and it’s exactly the same in all of the locations. So people can always get fried chicken, whether it’s here or in Dallas. The other half of the menu is all designed by the local chef, and we can change it as often as we want. Each reflects the city that they’re in.

We’re definitely the funkiest [laughs]. Our menu is sourced largely from local purveyors, the meats and cheese and dairy and vegetables. Our staff gets a lot of education so they can talk eloquently about it. That’s hugely important to people in Austin, but that’s also how I grew up. The local trend has never phased me, because that’s how our life was. My family was always a part of a CSA and growing food in our backyard. We grew up next to a goat farm that was making goat cheese. It’s funny now because it’s so trendy, but for me it’s just a way of life.

Zagat: What are some of your favorite places around town?

EB: My favorite place to be is Justine’s. But I don’t really have much of a life outside of Max’s and my dogs.

Zagat: What’s next for you?

EB: I’m still figuring that out. I’m kind of ahead of my life plan, so I’m taking a deep breath for a minute. I also want to get more involved with high school culinary programs and volunteering. Community involvement as a whole is really important to me.