Jessie Cadle | Staff Writer
Adam Birkan | Staff Photographer
Alex Gray wants to be “that guy.”
As executive chef of the President’s Cottage and sous chef at the Athenaeum Hotel, Gray will do any task, help any employee and cook any dish to the best of his ability.
“If it needs to be done, I’ll do it. I think the phrase ‘that guy’ has gotten poor feedback in the past, but I like to be that guy,” Gray said. “I want people to look around for me, not look around me.”
Gray, returning for his third season at Chautauqua, is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, and first discovered the Institution while working at the nearby restaurant La Fleur during his college years. La Fleur is also where he met current executive chef of the Athenaeum Hotel, Ross Warhol, also a Culinary Institute of America graduate.
Together with sous chef Marissa Love, the three have been a super chef trio. It is Gray and Love who now run all the dining events at the President’s Cottage.
“The two of them are completely brilliant. We have yet to have a meal there that hasn’t been notable and discussed by guests with delight,” said Institution President Tom M. Becker. “Alex and Marissa are two of the nicest people I’ve ever worked with … they are completely remarkable human beings. I hope they never leave us.”
It is Gray’s first year as executive chef of the President’s Cottage — last year he was sous chef there under Warhol — and the experience is an incredible joy for him.
Honored guests invited to dine at the President’s Cottage include the week’s speakers, performers and community members.
“I absolutely love the President’s Cottage, because three times a week, I get to open a 36-seat restaurant. Whatever I say goes … and there is no other feeling like it,” Gray said. “It’s really an honor.”
Gray has been intrigued by food since his childhood, when he saw the satisfaction of cooking a good meal on television and recognized a different meal could be concocted each day.
After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, he worked as a chef at Foti’s Restaurant in Virginia and The Inn at Little Washington. He returned to Chautauqua at Warhol’s urging.
“I want to change people’s lives through a meal,” Gray said. “When you ask me to cook for you … I have one dish to blow your mind and make you rethink something and have a really good experience.
“My goal at the end of day is to enlighten, heighten and expand a person’s day.”
To Gray, those he feeds are guests, not customers. He wants to create camaraderie around the table.
He said he also wishes to foster a positive vibe in the Athenaeum kitchen, where he spends most of his day checking in on his employees, teaching new techniques, and learning from the kitchen staff.
He spends the rest of the time preparing dishes and cooking. Efficiency is his hallmark characteristic.
“When I open my own restaurant, I am going to pay him more than I make,” Warhol said of Gray. “The guy gets 10 projects done in a half hour. He’s a workhorse, and it’s always spot-on too.”
Warhol said Gray is one of the best chefs he has ever worked with, which helps push him to be a better chef himself. The two bring their different skills together to run dining at the hotel.
One example of what they are capable of as a team are the three Praxis dinners held at the hotel this season, which showcased Warhol’s contemporary cooking skills, especially in the area of molecular gastronomy — creating dishes with chemicals and science.
Though it is Warhol’s name on the menu, Gray and Love work in the kitchen alongside Warhol.
“I don’t need my name on the jacket or on the menu, but I definitely like to have my thoughts and love go into everything. I love to be the helper elf,” Gray said.