Chef Jonathan Benno, an under-the-radar chef deserving of global attention, is in the process of opening three new restaurants at The Evelyn Hotel, in New York's NoMad neighborhood.
Having spent seven years as the chef de cuisine at Per Se, and another seven as head chef of Lincoln, Benno brings authority to the already established culinary scene of the neighborhood.
Leonelli Taberna, the first to open this June, is a casual, yet sophisticated space that strays from the mainstream contemporary vibe of the surrounding neighborhood. Much of the original details, like the tiled floors, were preserved in an effort to highlight the Art Deco style of the space, without seeming too forced. Art glass panels are accentuated by gold metal detailing, fresh white tile and dark-stained wood.
The dishes are a sophisticated, yet approachable spin on traditional Italian cuisine. You won't find all the usual Italian staples; instead are artfully-crafted plates that display the chef's years of experience working with culinary kingpins like Thomas Keller and Tom Colicchio. The food is nothing short of stellar, but what else would you expect from a man who helmed the kitchen in a laundry list of Michelin-starred restaurants.
Benno's second space, an Italian bakery and café called Leonelli Focacceria e Pasticceria, opened earlier this month and his final project, the fine-dining, Mediterranean restaurant Benno is set for a fall opening a Mediterranean restaurant. Benno spoke with DEPARTURES to talk about these projects and all the ways Leonelli Taberna inspires him.
What is the concept behind Leonelli Taberna?
"I’ve been fortunate in my career to have worked the past 25 years in New York. Many on my team are people that I’ve worked with in the past, and we've been crafting this concept now for close to two years. The food is meant to hit on a lot of the notes that we’ve touched before: an accessible, neighborhood restaurant for a diverse clientele. A portion of the menu is devoted to lighter snacks meant for sharing, taking our inspiration from classic eateries around Rome."
What drew you to this particular spot?
"I fell in love with this space five years ago. It’s a beautiful building, built in 1905, and it has great bones, much of which we were able to preserve and restore. The design firm Parts and Labor Design did a wonderful job with the renovation. We have a beautiful space to work in."
How do you plan on putting your own stamp on Leonelli Taberna?
"The menu is our interpretation of classic Italian dishes. Because of my experience at Lincoln, I learned a lot about Italian cuisine and ingredients. We’re also opening at a great time of year for local ingredients. The green market kicked off recently, and we’ll have that well into October. "
With the design of Leonelli Taberna, why did you opt for a more classic look instead of a modern one, as so many chefs do?
"It was really important to me and our partners that the lobby and your experience entering the hotel be congruent. The moment you walk into the space there’s a real Art Deco feel. When you move into our casual dining room it becomes a tick more modern but still respecting the history of the building."
What is your favorite dish on the menu, and why?
"Which is my favorite daughter? As a cook, for me, the hardest things to prepare are those that take the most time and preparation. Tripe is an example. We’ve all had bad tripe, but I love to cook it. It’s a hard sell, even in New York. It’s a challenge, trying to present it in creative ways so it sells. We have a beef shank and tripe salad on the menu, in colder weather we’ll have a braised tripe. A classic Roman dish is the gnocchi alla Romana, served with braised oxtail in the style of the butcher. Oxtail requires the skill of the cook to braise it to get it tender, so it’s another dish that’s the mark of a good cook. Those are the dishes I find the greatest joy in learning about and preparing because they take thought and skill."
What's the most interesting or challenging ingredient that you cook with?
"I think pasta can be one of the most challenging because there’s so much to learn. For us, the challenge with our pasta program here is that most of ours are baked. You wonder, 'Is this the right noodle for the dish?'
It’s especially tricky to do a baked pasta with seafood. One that we make is rigatoni with seafood, and we ended up making our own pasta. We started with paccheri (a large version of rigatoni) that wasn’t working for us in the kitchen; it wasn’t holding the sauce. Then we went to a dry rigatoni and that didn’t work. So finally, we decided to make our own. We’ve done this with every pasta we’ve ever served. It takes practice 3x for a product that works. That’s one of the greatest challenges for a chef.
I can daydream about beautiful dishes all day long but if I can’t get that dish prepped then there’s no point in it. It’s my job to create dishes that make people happy, that sell, but it also has to work for the back of the house. That’s a lot of the work that goes into the making of a menu. That’s the challenge for chefs at every level."
This interview was slightly edited for length.