Chef brings art to culinary arts at Athenaeum Hotel

Ross Warhol and Alex Gray, the Athenaeum Hotel’s executive and sous chefs, review plans during preparations for the third “Praxis” dinner.

Jessie Cadle | Staff Writer

Photos by Adam Birkan

Though he has worked at the best restaurants in the world — from el Bulli in Spain to Alinea in Chicago — he hates eating his own food and detests cooking for himself after spending hours steeped in kitchen accoutrements. Instead, Executive Chef Ross Warhol snacks on Frank’s Red Hot with cottage cheese, gummy bears and Breyers black raspberry ice cream.

Warhol

Managing the Athenaeum Hotel kitchen’s creation of three meals a day, Warhol rarely eats any full meals himself. He instead subsists on taste-testing his dishes and remains energized despite the fact that he averages only a few hours of sleep a night.

The Buffalo native and 24-year-old graduate of the Culinary Institute of America is committed to his work. But that doesn’t mean he takes himself too seriously. Dressed in a large black apron and black clogs and topped with a dome of blonde hair, he jokes with the kitchen staff. He has nicknamed his sous chef Alex Gray “his little sweet potato,” even though the sous chef has several years on the young Warhol.

Warhol wants his kitchen to be playful, nurturing and fun, yet he also expects his team to produce the best dishes possible from the recipes he provides for each of the copiously detailed menu items.

Warhol has the makings of a young culinary superstar. He and his team — Gray and sous chef Marissa Love — have been invited to cook a meal at the James Beard House in New York City in October. It is a place where one must be invited — one cannot apply — and the foundation’s goal is to foster the best chef talent in America.

When he, Gray and Love found out about the invitation, they broke down in tears; they are on their way to their dream of their own restaurant.

Warhol champions modern cooking techniques from molecular gastronomy — the art of cooking with chemistry and precise science — to farm to table, where all food comes directly from local farms.

Warhol aims to balance the precise science of molecular gastronomy and the purity of farm to table to create cuisine in which the flavors are rich and the dishes divine.

But his true goal? To foster the camaraderie that happens around the dinner table.

Warhol’s third Praxis dinner, “Painted,” held Aug. 16, features dishes inspired by fine art. This is Course 4: Abstract impressionism; beef short rib, root vegetable risotto, shattered beets, abstract egg, chimi-churi sauce.

“I like cooking the big meals, because I like to sit down and see everyone else’s face. (They’re) in pure bliss and comfort with good friends, good food and good family,” Warhol said. “That’s the reason that I cook: to see people have a good time with smiles on their faces.

“If my food brings people back to childhood memories of their grandmother’s this or their mother’s that, I’ve done my job,” he said.

It was his “grandma’s this” that first led him to love food. He recalls one story of his boyhood when he fell backward in a chair while eating a chicken wing and didn’t stop eating even while on the ground.

At home, he often ate primarily double-starch meals — pasta and potatoes. But it was at grandma’s house that he had pork chops, green beans and applesauce.

Warhol hopes to cultivate that feeling of gathering with the family for a restaurant of his own — a goal he will consider accomplished when he is nationally acclaimed with a James Beard award in hand. He envisions the restaurant having a farm feel, with all the food locally sourced, yet able to turn upscale in an instant to showcase his fine dining dishes.

Separate, pureed ingredients for the Pointillism-inspired amuse bouche: roasted garlic custard, golden tomatoes, assorted marmalades, infused oils.

But even Warhol’s fine-dining dishes aspire to take people back with a dash of whimsy.

Preparing for his second Praxis dinner at the Athenaeum — dinners that focus on his contemporary cooking zealotry — Warhol created a palate cleanser of rocket popsicles: the ones that are red, white and blue in one.

He needed help figuring out how to measure out the right amount of cherry flavoring for the top of the pop. Luckily, sous chef Gray had plenty of ideas. They decided on a basic syringe, and Warhol squirted the exact amount of red in each of the popsicle molds. He needed to freeze each layer to get the desired effect.

Course 2: Cubism; tuna and escolar, preserved lemon pudding, cauliflower crème anglaise, potato croquette.

The dish is a playful one in comparison to those for his third Praxis dinner. For that,  he used liquid nitrogen and other chemicals to distill and bring out the best flavors in each dish.

Warhol has a penchant for dishes with such precision. In fact, he actually prefers baking to cooking for the same reason he is drawn to molecular gastronomy: the exactness.

“I love baking pastry more, because you need 21.5 ounces in this recipe. And cooking’s like eh, add a little more of this, a little more of that,” Warhol said.

He recalled a dish he prepared at el Bulli, in which he  removed the germ from corn kernels. He loved the tedium.

But that is not the only odd job Warhol enjoys. Warhol is a big fan of dishwashing. He started his career in the food industry as a dishwasher in high school, and he enjoyed the satisfaction of the mindless activity.

“You’ll find me over there,” Warhol said, pointing to the corner of his bustling kitchen where the dishwashers stand over large sinks, hands steeped in water. “It’s therapeutic.”

After Warhol worked as a dishwasher, he attended the Culinary Institute of America and discovered Chautauqua while working at nearby La Fleur restaurant.

Warhol sees himself as executive chef at the Athenaeum for as long as he can continue to push himself and refine his culinary skills. He could even see his future restaurant on the grounds.

During the off-season — when he is not waking up at 5:30 a.m. to go to work and returning home only after 10:30 p.m.—he travels with his tried and true tactic: working for free for the best restaurants in the world simply for the experience.

He writes one email every day to Noma in Copenhagen, often regarded as the best restaurant in the world now that el Bulli is closed. He has heard no response, but he has hope.

Warhol is also in talks with a restaurant in Stockholm, where they fuse local ingredients with international flair.

For now, he works to bring such contemporary fusions to the Chautauqua grounds, to bring the art back to culinary art, be it in popsicle or plated form.

Stressed by the details of a menu requiring precise measurements, Warhol buries his face in his hands while speaking in his office with sous chef Marissa Love.

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