The Athenaeum Hotel, overlooking Chautauqua Lake, has been at the heart of the Chautauqua Institution since it opened in 1884. The center was already a decade into its first mission as a boot camp for Sunday school teachers.
The hotel's approach to feeding its guests hasn't changed much since, though now the diners are mainly vacationers at the venerable educational foundation and summer resort an hour's drive south of Buffalo. It is still an "American plan" hotel, meaning its rates include three meals a day. That obligation resulted in menus that had become predictable, even a little stale, acknowledged Athenaeum general manager Bruce Stanton.
"There is a tendency with us, as old as we are, to get stuck inside traditions," Stanton said.
That is set to change this season. A young chef from Hamburg named Ross Warhol has been handed the challenge of bringing new life to the hotel's bill of fare. At 24, Warhol already has fortified his culinary school degree with training stints at some of the world's best restaurants, including Spain's el Bulli, California's French Laundry and Ubuntu, and Chicago's Alinea.
Working with Warhol, the Chautauqua Institution may be able to make cuisine another form of art celebrated on its grounds, Stanton said.
"We had a violinist play a Stradivarius on stage, and $4.5 million of violins on display in our lobby," Stanton said, describing a recent season's event. "Then after the performance, they come in and have a really fine dinner. That's the stuff where Ross really complements that experience – you have somebody here who can deliver that across the board."
As private chef for the institution president, Thomas Becker, Warhol created dinner for 36 three or four times a week during the Chautauqua Institution's nine-week season. This year, his fourth season at the Athenaeum, Warhol has taken over the hotel's dining program, overhauling the weekly dining room menus.
Out with the baked haddock, in with the seared grouper with yellow corn cake, baby bok choy and chorizo vinaigrette. "It's still comfort food, but with higher technique," said Warhol, who has planted kitchen gardens and started curing his own bacon.
But the most radical events of "food-as-art" will be three nights this summer. On July 13, Aug. 4 and Aug. 16, the hotel's banquet room will become "Praxis," a stage for Warhol's most ambitious menus yet.
His months at el Bulli and other gastro-temples have left the young chef fluent in the techniques of "molecular gastronomy," a style of cooking that lets chefs play with shapes, textures and expectations. A main goal of molecular gastronomy is to deliver familiar flavors in elevated or surprising packages.
The overall goal is to delight people with dinner, Warhol said. "At Praxis there will be techniques used – because that's what praxis is, the act of engaging and applying ideas," he said. "The idea is to show the guests at the hotel who choose to eat there, and people from outside, what the food could be, rather than what it was for the past however many years."
The first Praxis will involve a menu recently discovered from the hotel's inaugural banquet in 1884, Warhol said. He'll take dishes from it and reinterpret them with modern sensibilities and premium ingredients.
The second, "Community," will feature Warhol's reinventions of dishes from a community meal. "We're going to elevate the potluck supper," he said.
The third, "Painted," sets the most ambitious aesthetic goal. Warhol said he wants to serve dishes that evoke the favorite dishes of famous artists, or favorites from their time and place. Those dishes should be offered on plates in a manner reflecting the style of the artist, he said.
Stanton acknowledges that Warhol has been offered a chance that most young cooks could hardly dream of, but he earned it, Stanton said.
"The highest delivery level here is catering events for the president, 35 times a season; performers, dignitaries, political leaders, anyone who lectures is invited to dinner. It's a way for our president to have an intimate setting to deliver the message of Chautauqua Institution, this high-end dinner equal to a $150-a-head restaurant," said Stanton. "That's where we put Ross [in previous seasons]. It speaks to his ability."
Under that pressure, Warhol shone, Stanton said. "Now we're allowing him, to create other events, like this pop-up restaurant concept, where we're going to transform our banquet room for three evenings during the summer."
These nights will be Warhol's chance to catch the attention of sophisticated diners who visit the institution or summer nearby but have eaten anywhere but the Athenaeum. He welcomes the chance to work in the spotlight. "To give a 24-year-old that much responsibility, I'm very lucky – fortunate – they have this trust in me."
Warhol's work draws ?the attention of peers in the area, resulting in his recruitment to present molecular gastronomy techniques to chefs, most much older, at the American Culinary Federation's April conference in Niagara Falls.
There, Warhol guided listeners through a tour of a plate that included an aerated foie gras puff. "Like a macaron texture, the shape of a cream puff, light and airy," said Warhol. "It's made of cinnamon tea, but inside is foie gras mousse."
The end result: a crunchy bite that delivers the flavor ?of cinnamon-scented foie ?gras but vanishes in your mouth. That sense of playfulness extends across the plate, which encourages diners to experiment, mix and match, explore and be surprised.
Another element was duck breast, cooked more carefully to deliver lush meat and crispy, unfatty skin. Warhol removed the skin from the duck, and cooked it sous vide, that is, in a warm water bath, for 24 hours. (He did this and other steps before the conference presentation.)
Then he scraped the softened fat off the skin's underside, and wrapped it around the breast meat, holding it in place with an edible glue. He seared the remaining packet and served it.
Why bother? The process eliminates pockets of unrendered fat left behind by uneven searing, Warhol said, providing a better duck breast experience every time.
Another form-shifting element was blackberry "risotto," with individual berry cells, extracted by shattering berries frozen with liquid nitrogen, mimicking rice. They're cooked briefly in a sauce of thickened blackberry juice.
With other elements on the plate including a 40-second corn cake, aerated with nitrous oxide for instant lift during microwave cooking, and an intense strawberry gel, that condensed what Warhol called the "red flavor" of 10 cups of strawberries to two cups of liquid.
Before Warhol was done composing the plate, he wanted a sweet element that added a floral note, he said. Result: a chocolate cardamom crumble that looks like dirt, but tastes much better.
"The flavors work terrific together, both a teaching aid and actual meal," Warhol said. "I would definitely put it on one of my menus."
Daniel Johengen of Daniel's, a fine dining destination restaurant in Hamburg, was Warhol's first chef. He let Warhol, then a Hamburg High School senior, wash dishes in 2005, before working his way up to preparing food.
"He is extraordinary," Johengen said. "He's very determined."
One of the telling signs is how much time Warhol has dedicated to working for free in the best kitchens he could negotiate access to, Johengen said. "A lot of cooks they might think they want to be a chef or be whatever, but they get into the routine of a kitchen. Kitchens are very routine oriented, whether it's mine or Applebee's. It's very easy to get into a rut – you're coming in and doing the same thing day after day."
Warhol was focused on learning, even if he had to fund his own employment. You don't get paid for those gigs – at least not in money, Johengen said. "You go in there and you peel walnuts for five hours, and you wash windows, but you're there," Johengen said. The real salary is what "you steal with your eyes," Johengen said, quoting one of his first chefs. "You watch and you learn."
Will this summer be the start of a new tradition in the eating life of the Chautauqua Institution? Watch this plate, Stanton said.
"I have ultimate faith," he said. "We certainly don't know how long we may have him here, because someone of his talents is going to want to explore them. Right now it's a real good fit."