The 10 Dishes That Made My Career: Jonathan Benno of Lincoln Ristorante

From grandma's eggplant parm to Escoffier-style frogs' legs, the Per Se vet gives us a peek inside his culinary mind.

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Photo: Kate Cunningham

Until Lincoln Ristorante—which was recently awarded a Michelin star—opened in the shadows of Lincoln Center three years ago, classical music fans were deprived of spot-on modern Italian cooking within spitting distance of the performance. Now, pre-ballet Negronis and pristine pastas at Lincoln are mainstays of their evening ritual.

The two-story building, with its green roof and glass façade overlooking throngs of arts revelers, is as noteworthy for its architecture as it is for the presence of executive chef Jonathan Benno. Since leaving his prestigious six-year post at Per Se, where he was Thomas Keller’s handpicked chef de cuisine, Benno carved out his own lane here, meticulously crafting dishes like squid ink spaghetti with Florida shrimp, San Marzano tomatoes, Calabrian chile, mint, and bread crumbs using farmers’ market ingredients—and proving that dining in a convenient location can be a refined, transcendent experience.

Lincoln is the manifestation of Benno’s culinary dreams, fueled by a childhood that exposed him to pure, simple pleasures, like freshly plucked tomatoes dusted with salt. “I grew up in rural Connecticut, surrounded by farms. We had a big garden,” he says over the phone just before a hectic lunch service begins. His grandmother, the primary cook in the family, also inspired Benno: “I was lucky to grow up in a family where we sat down to dinner at 5:30, all the way until my teens, when of course I didn’t want to be home.”

At 15, Benno launched a life in the kitchen by washing dishes at the now-shuttered Oxford House in Connecticut. Three years later he was an eager line cook in Hawaii, where his desire to become a chef crystalized. As a student at the Culinary Institute of America, he landed an externship at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia and worked at the Mayflower Inn and Spa, in his home state, under the tutelage of John Farnsworth. “My dad was a carpenter and like a young apprentice looks up to a master, John was a tremendous teacher,” he recalls.

What unfurled afterwards reads just as impressively: Michael Mina’s Aqua in San Francisco, the French Laundry under Thomas Keller, and then—after clamoring for a New York run—Daniel, Les Célébrités in the Essex House, Gramercy Tavern, Craft, and Per Se, where he was renowned for executing Keller’s vision while creating dishes that were distinctly his.

“I made good choices, had a bit of luck, and I worked for some great people,” he says of his notable career thus far. From homemade pie to the joys of luxe solo dining (even when you don't know how you're going to pay for it), here are 10 meals that have stuck with Benno through his celebrated life in food.

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