Every now and again, the window display of Gordon Commons’ Oasis station looks not like a shrine for EnjoyLife cookies and energy bars, but like an exhibit for exquisite animals carved out of fruit, be it an apple swan or an orange bear, sometimes accompanied by a tomato rose. Seeing these displays of food art as I complete my usual lap across the meal stations has never failed to make me smile.
Last week, I was fortunate enough to sit down and have a chat with the man behind the masterpieces, Assistant Chef Benito Vona. We had only exchanged a handful of “how are you”s and “thank you”s across the shielding glass up until that point. But after many friends animatedly expressed how much they enjoy his artistic creations and eagerness for kind conversation, I’ve been itching to learn about the story behind Benito’s food carvings and his path to Vassar.
As I made my way over to the bottom of the GoCo stairs, I didn’t recognize Benito at first. He was dressed in a t-shirt, shorts and trainers, instead of his usual chef’s jacket with a white label slot containing an embroidered, cursive “Benito.” It was a Thursday, which meant a day off from his usual 1-9PM shift for him. We made our way upstairs, and as we asked each other about how the other was doing, Benito put on a bright smile, proudly mentioning the yard work he was able to accomplish, a favorite pastime of his—besides cooking, of course.
As we found a table to set up camp not too far from the entrance to the upstairs dining area, I asked Benito to share a little more about his background. Benito and his family moved from Italy to the United States in 1973, making him a first generation immigrant. Food always played a huge role in his life: “I started cooking when I was two-and-a-half years old,” he explained. He learned how to make many Italian foods from scratch, like mozzarella cheese or his grandmother’s homemade pasta. Both of his grandfathers were also cooks, making food a central force in his upbringing that always brought people together. His paternal grandfather, for example, never stopped cooking even after retiring by he came to America. “Christmas time was, like, 30, 40 people at my house … it was loud, and a lot of food,” Benito fondly recalled.
Benito attended Orange Ulster Boces, a trade school located in Dutchess County, in his penultimate year of high school, where he would eventually earn a two-year culinary degree. “I got kinda tired of Italian food by, like, 16,” he confessed. Attending Ulster Boces right around that time in his life was serendipitous, for it allowed him to branch out and start cooking foods of different backgrounds. Because of his strong performance in his junior year, Benito was placed into an advanced college course program in his senior year—an achievement that accelerated his journey to becoming a chef.
After high school, Benito didn’t attend college after graduating with his culinary degree—his father had passed away when he was 14, so doing so would not have been a feasible option. After bouncing around between a few restaurant jobs, he became a Sous-Chef at the Hilton Garden Inn in Newburgh, which, as he reminisced, “was fun—a lot of stories over there, a lot of famous people.” Compared to cooking in a restaurant, the Hilton’s banquets, big weddings and sweet sixteens made his day-to-day very intense. “Sometimes we would go from cooking for 120 football players to a wedding, which is so much food,” he shared. “It was very fast paced … I get in the zone from the adrenaline, but, you know, I loved it. I couldn’t see myself doing anything different.”
Afterwards, Benito went on to serve as a Chef Instructor at Regional Economic Community Action Program’s (RECAP) Fresh Start Café in Middletown, a not-for-profit vocational training program that strives to equip individuals from vulnerable communities with employable skills. In recognition of his meaningful work there, Benito received the “Champion of Trauma” award from the Trauma Institute of Orange County, which is given to “non-clinical people living or working in Orange County who have shown ongoing care, tolerance, compassion and understanding for traumatized citizens” (Recap, “Chef Awarded for Trauma Support,” 09.03.2016).
“Receiving this award was such an…honor,” Benito reflected, pausing as he searched for the right words to express his gratitude. “The award usually goes to police, military [personnel] or judges.” Thus, it was very special for him to have earned it as a chef. Benito still keeps in touch with an individual he worked with. He shared, “She’s a good friend … she’s like family. She’s part of me, you know?” As he told me about how talented of a baker she was, it was evident how much of himself he poured into his job, including his relationships with coworkers. I couldn’t help but think about how much I hope to be able to share and live my passion as meaningfully as Benito does.
Benito’s first day at Vassar was August 27, 2018 (as was mine, along with the rest of the Class of 2022!). When I asked him how things have been going for him here, he responded simply, “I love it.” He actually applied for the job six years ago, but didn’t get in then, which led him to work at Fresh Start Café instead. “I just figured, let me give it a[nother] shot, and it worked out. I was really excited when I got the job,” Benito elaborated. “I still had the paper from six years ago, and I was like, wow … I finally got it.”
Working at the Gordon Commons has allowed Benito to pursue his love for lifelong learning—of continually having a new and unique experiences, which were all centered around food. As one of 12 Assistant Chefs, he is constantly learning from his coworkers: “We’re all different, we all have different ideas, different backgrounds, so … you’re learning about the person plus the food and the culture.” Having little familiarity with vegan and vegetarian dishes in the past, working at Root has also pushed him to be more creative when it comes to curating menus and learning recipes. “You learn everyday. No matter if I had 40 years of experience, [I’d] still learn, definitely.”
Our conversation proceeded to take a million different turns, from him drawing similarities between Italian and Asian cuisine, to his experience with discovering his gluten and nut allergies last January and navigating the challenges of adopting a new diet. When we circled back to talking about his current position at the GoCo, I asked him about his favorite station to cook at. He responded, “I don’t have one—if you just put me in a kitchen, I’m just happy. No matter how much food or anything, I’m just happy to cook.”