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Chef Train

Joe Beninato, The Frog and the Peach

Once upon a time, he did his homework after school at the bar of the legendary restaurant in New Brunswick while his pastry-chef Mom put the finishing touches on the desserts that would be served that night. Today, Joe Beninato is the newest inductee into TPW’s chef-picks-chefs society of top toques, and driving that very same kitchen.

Some chefs seek out a culinary profession, while others stumble into it. To put things simply, it either chooses you or you choose it. 

“Cooking definitely chose me,” Joe Beninato says without pause. His mother was a pastry chef during his early years and this initially may have nudged him toward the kitchen.

But where he’s gone since is about forging his own path, one that’s led to his selection as the newest inductee into TPW’s chef-picks-chef Chef Train of top toques in the Garden State.

Born in New Brunswick and raised in Edison, Beninato got his first job as a busboy at the Metuchen Inn when he was 15 years old. It was there that he witnessed and identified with the eccentric sense of community seen in kitchens everywhere.

Years later, Beninato took his teamwork skills around the country while touring as the bassist of a band called No Hollywood Ending, a group whose music the chef describes as being “melodic and hardcore.”

The same can be said about his cooking.

Beninato, today the executive chef at The Frog and the Peach, the restaurant that not only proved a pioneer in New Brunswick but set standards statewide for modern American cooking, is the pick of Chef Train chef-comrade  AJ Capella of the Summit House, who is an ardent admirer Beninato’s craft and skills.

“Joe doesn’t get enough exposure, even though he’s one of the most talented,” Capella says. “His sensibilities are Italian; Joe does pasta really, really well. You eat his potato gnocchi, and they are all perfect little pillows.” 

Using influences from his Italian-American grandmother’s cooking and time spent working in Florence, Italy, Beninato impresses in his exploration of the classics and as well as how he bridges them to the present.

“He’ll do it better than anyone,” Capella notes.

His advocacy for the Garden State’s quirky spirit and unparalleled ingredients sets him apart. A historic farm-to-table restaurant, The Frog and The Peach – lovingly called “The Frog” by Beninato and its many celebrated alumni – has remained committed to sourcing local produce since its inception 30 years ago.

After his time touring as a bassist, Beninato transitioned back to his restaurant roots, starting in 2010 at The Frog and The Peach.  Bruce Lefebvre long had been its top chef and, after purchasing The Frog in 2012 from its founders, Betsy Alger and Jim Black, also its owner. He took Beninato under his wing and soon cooking became his reality and ultimately, his calling.

“I remember coming home from what was my first or second day at The Frog to my girlfriend at the time. She had asked me how everything went and I was telling her about how I broke down an entire octopus at work that day,” Beninato says. “It was so cool to me and I was so excited about it. At that moment, I knew I wanted to do this forever.”

Following the footsteps of many of his peers at The Frog, Beninato enrolled in the culinary management program at Middlesex Community College. As a newcomer to such a talented crew, he completed his associate’s degree program, justifying his skills not only to his team, but to himself. 

In 2013, Beninato’s love for food took him to Florence, where he worked for four months perfecting many of the Italian classics he grew up eating. The chef celebrates his Italian-American heritage on his menus through the lens of his modern American cooking sensibilities. For example, the chef is currently featuring on his winter menu ricotta-and-rye gnocchi with sage brown butter and Jarlsberg Swiss cheese. Using pasta-making skills as a foundation, Beninato reaches across influences to bring something special to the table. 

Beninato’s culinary mentors make up an impressive cast: In addition to Lefebvre, there’s Peter Turso, who guided him during his time at the now-shuttered Ursino in Union, helping him refine his palate as well as his plating skills, and also the nationally recognized, now-Maine-based Walter Leffler. He also did a tour of restaurants in Jersey City as its prominence on the culinary scene grew in the teens, returning to The Frog in 2019, when Lefebvre called Beninato back home.

“The Frog has been a part of my life since I was a kid,” he says. “It’s surreal to be the chef here.” 

He’s not kidding.

His mother, Denise Gallo, was at the time The Frog’s pastry chef and Beninato would complete his homework assignments sitting at the bar after school as his mom finished her day’s work. His experience at 29 Dennis Street could not be more full-circle.

Indeed, his initial adult time at The Frog was for a seven-month stint, working for free in order to gather experience and feedback. At the end of the unpaid stage, Lefebvre invited him to take a paid kitchen position; Beninato jumped at the opportunity. 

The Frog’s precedent for farm-to-table excellence clicks perfectly with Beninato’s resume and philosophy. Not only do his accomplishments and creative, quirky spirit motivate his team to try new things, but his collaborative ability in and out of the kitchen fosters new ideas at the onset of every season. 

To source the majority of his produce, the chef taps Harvest Drop, a service that connects chefs with 120-plus farms, most located in New Jersey. This resource makes the process of buying local ingredients in bulk accessible to chefs throughout the state. 

“We’re the Garden State. If you’re not trying to use the produce around you, you’re doing it wrong,” Beninato states, noting that he routinely draws inspiration from farms in Middlesex County. 

Joe Beninato is rooted in the history of The Frog as a place that has been so paramount to his career. Yet, at the helm of the restaurant he grew up in, the chef sets his energy and imagination forward. He’s unafraid to experiment and is eager for what’s to come. 

“I owe so much gratitude to this place. I’m very happy to work at The Frog.”

 


THE FROG AND THE PEACH, 29 Dennis Street, New Brunswick. 732-846-3216. Website: www.frogandpeach.com. Follow on Facebook and Instagram @thefrogandpeach.

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