by Terry Rogers
Chef Jesus Valentino Gordiany has been traveling between Philadelphia and Milford for the past year and a half preparing to take over as the chef for Benvenuto. The new restaurant, owned by Poncho and Lisa Johnson, will be located in the former Abbott’s Grill location on Northeast Front Street. His first official week at the restaurant was the first week of December.
“This takes a little weight off,” Chef Jesus said. “I have been a corporate chef for a specialty food company, BK Foods, as well as a consultant for Classic Cake in Philadelphia. Trying to juggle those two jobs as well as helping to plan this restaurant has kept me busy. It is great to see things slowly manifest. A lot of thought and love has gone into this restaurant. When Poncho and Lisa brought me down here to see this after Abbott’s Grill closed, I walked in and said ‘this would work.’ I knew there would need to be some renovations but I could see the potential in this great building.”
Visitors to Benvenuto will no longer see the Abbott’s Grill they remember. The floor plan is open and each area is designed with a specific area of Italy in mind. The kitchen is open and there are tables facing the cooking area so diners can watch their food being prepared. A large, copper-tiled pizza oven dominates the window into the kitchen. Chef Jesus explained that the oven will be used to create unique flatbreads as they are perfect for appetizers to share or as a meal. The oven was created by Forza Forni and the Chef tested many models before deciding on the one located in the restaurant. The entire oven was manufactured in Italy and put together in the kitchen of Benvenuto.
“Throughout my career, the best places had open kitchens,” Chef Jesus said. “Too often, you could be in line at the supermarket behind the chef where you ate dinner last night and not even know who they were. That is not the kind of chef I am. I want you to see how your food is prepared and I think the open feel of the kitchen gives the chef a personal feel. Lisa is amazing at what she does. Each time I walk in here, I see her vision more and more from the ambiance to the cleanliness to the great food and drinks she and Poncho want to be known for.”
Chef Jesus began cooking with his mother at a very young age. He recalls visiting the Italian market in Philadelphia, helping his mother choose octopus, fresh pork and short ribs before they were popular. His mother taught him to create delicious Italian and Spanish foods, teaching him to braise and sear meats.
“I knew at a young age my career would be in the kitchen,” Chef Jesus said. “The idea of serving someone something you created is an amazing feeling. When I was 13, 14, 15 and 16, a lot of my friends were hanging out, partying and getting in trouble. I was getting an education in the kitchen and getting paid for it. Over the years I have worked with some phenomenal chefs who taught me a lot.” Chef Jesus received his formal culinary training at the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill.
About five years ago, one of the sales reps at BK Specialty Foods mentioned to the Chef that he didn’t have a personality like many of the chefs he dealt with. He told Chef Jesus that even though he did not know how to cook, he would love working for the Chef because he could see his passion and that all his employees seemed to love working for him. That gave the Chef an idea and, a few weeks later, he sat down with Brett Kratchman and Karen Gold at BK Specialty to discuss the possibility of becoming a corporate chef.
“As a chef, I am the end user, but as a business development chef, I understood what other chefs needed when we visited their kitchen,” Chef Jesus said. “I am able to bring new items, teach them new cuisines and work with the sales reps to help them understand the language of chefs. Chefs speak what I call “kitchenese” and it is sometimes difficult for non-chefs to understand that language. I was able to not only understand it but teach the reps how to speak it as well. Five years later, we can say that our formula worked as BK Specialty Foods grew significantly.”
About two years ago, one of the representatives Chef Jesus worked with brought him to Delaware where he met the Johnson’s. Chef said he has since learned from Mrs. Johnson that after he left their first meeting, she told her husband that if they ever opened a restaurant, Chef Jesus was “our guy,” saying that she felt God brought him into their lives for a reason.
“At the same time Poncho and Lisa were having that conversation, I was in the car with the sales rep,” Chef Jesus said. “I mentioned that I would love to live in this area someday, that there is something about Delaware beaches that feels like home to me. The sales rep told me that I was someone who believed in the power of positive thinking and that if I believed it, I would end up doing it. Not long after, Lisa and Poncho called me and here we are.”
Chef Jesus explained that BK Specialty Foods and Classic Cakes have been very supportive in his decision to move to Delaware to become the head chef at BenVenuto. Chef Jesus worked with both companies for the past three months to allow for a smooth transition after his departure.
“Right now, we are in the process of hiring,” Chef Jesus said. “This is not an easy task in this industry. We don’t want people who simply want a job. We want people who have a passion and drive. We want people willing to learn, who will say in five years “Wow, I cannot believe what Chef Jesus taught me.” I feel it is my responsibility to teach those working with me in order for them to succeed in what they want to do. I am a very positive person, very optimistic, but I can only do so much and we are facing a possible delay in opening from when we wanted to do so. It is completely out of my hands and in God’s hands. We simply do not want to open if we are not 100 percent ready.”
Chef Jesus plans to cook for the customers who come to the restaurant and not prepare foods that are more in line with what other chefs think he should be cooking. He wants Benvenuto to be welcoming to all, whether someone is coming to celebrate a special occasion in a evening clothes or simply wants a dinner out wearing jeans and a t-shirt.
“Table touching is important to me,” Chef Jesus said. “I will be out in the dining room a lot to get a feel for what people want, get feedback and hear what the people are asking for. I want to be able to look out in the dining room from the kitchen and wave at someone, call them by name. I hope to be able to say, “I put this sandwich on the menu for you since you mentioned you liked it somewhere else.” I know we need to gain the trust of the people of Milford but I can already sense the excitement. Everyone who has stopped in has wished us well and told us they cannot wait for us to open.”
Benvenuto is planning a New Year’s Eve soft opening and tickets are available at the restaurant. They hope to be officially open by mid-January 2020.