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Benchmark Hospitality Chefs Invited by The James Beard Foundation to
Cook at the Prestigious James Beard House in Manhattan
"Benchmark Holiday Dinner" Will Take Place on December 27, 2007

New York, November 2007 - Benchmark Hospitality chefs from restaurants, hotels and resorts in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas have been invited by The James Beard Foundation to cook at the prestigious James Beard House in Manhattan.  The dinner, entitled the "Benchmark Holiday Dinner," will take place on Thursday, December 27, 2007 beginning at 7:00 p.m.  This is the third consecutive year that Benchmark Hospitality chefs have been invited by the James Beard Foundation to cook at the James Beard House.  Each year the dinner has sold out weeks in advance.

The Benchmark chefs include Richard Varga, executive chef, and Tom Drake, chef at The Heldrich of New Brunswick, New Jersey; Konrad Meier, executive chef and Thomas Pratt, executive pastry chef, Bedford Springs Resort in Bedford, Pennsylvania; Rick Shell, executive chef for The Chattanoogan of Chattanooga, Tennessee; and Derek Fontenot, executive chef at Hotel Contessa, located in San Antonio, Texas.  Mary Watson, sommelier at Benchmark's Lansdowne Resort of Leesburg, Virginia, has paired each course with wine.

The Benchmark Holiday Dinner commences with an hors d'oeuvres and wine reception.  A five-course chefs' tasting menu will be served starting at 8:00 p.m. Reservations can be arranged by calling the James Beard House at 212-627-2308 and are $125 per person for members of the James Beard Foundation and $155 per person for the general public.

"It is a privilege to cook at the prestigious James Beard House," said Bob Zappatelli, vice president of food & beverage for Benchmark Hospitality International. "To be invited back three times is a honor.  Our chefs and sommelier represent the very best of Benchmark Hospitality and have planned a superb menu with wonderful wine selections that we think will set a new standard for holiday dining and for culinary excellence.  We look forward to a marvelous evening."

"The Benchmark chefs are becoming a holiday tradition here at the James Beard House," stated Izabela Wojcik, director of house programming for the James Beard Foundation.  "For the past two years they have cooked the Benchmark Holiday Dinner - selling out each year.  We look forward to their return in 2007 and to the establishment of a new benchmark in holiday dining." 

The James Beard House was home to the Dean of American Cookery, James Beard, from 1976 until his passing at 81 in 1985. The multifaceted Beard, who established cooking schools and published over 20 important cookbooks, many of which are still in print, left a legacy of culinary excellence and integrity to generations of home cooks and professional chefs. His name remains synonymous with American cuisine.

The Benchmark Holiday Dinner for 2007 includes:

Reception Hors d'oeuvres
Crispy sweet potato polenta cake, ginger lacquered duck, soy syrup
Cape May Salts Oysters, Minus 8 Gelee
Rock Shrimp Beignet, American Sturgeon Caviar
Foie Gras Terrine, Sauternes
Salmon Pastrami on Potato-Meringue Crisp with Quail Egg
Cabrales with Fig Marmalade on Rosemary Cookie

First Course
Petit Medallion of Ballotine Rabbit stuffed with Boudin Blanc over
Mustard Greens with Fennel Au Jus

Executive Derek Fontenot, Hotel Contessa

Second Course
Olive oil poached Georges Bank cod, Eastern Shore oyster-parsnip, 
sweet potato chowder sauce, chorizo strudel

Executive Chef Rick Shell, The Chattanoogan

Third Course
Sauteed Veal-Sweetbread Medallion With
Lobster Filled Morels & Leek Fondue

Executive Chef Konrad Meier, Bedford Springs Resort
Fourth Course
Confit and Chestnut stuffed roulade of Hudson Valley Goose, Crispy Butternut
Squash Noodles, Cranberry Caviar, The Chef's Garden Rainbow Swiss Chard
Executive Chef Rich Varga & Chef Tom Drake, The Heldrich
Dessert Course
Rum scented Posset Panna Cotta Toasted Walnut Chrabeli
& Spiced Gastrique
Executive Pastry Chef Thomas Pratt, Bedford Springs Resort

Meet the Chefs

Derek Fontenot is Executive Chef of Hotel Contessa, located on the famed Riverwalk in San Antonio, Texas.  He is a graduate of The Culinary Arts Institute of Louisiana, a Cordon Bleu affiliated school, and Louisiana State University.   Chef Fontenot was trained in classic French cuisine for the first decade of his career in the New Orleans restaurant community until opening his own restaurant in Baton Rouge in 1997.  He sold his restaurant in 2000 and moved to the gulf coast as the Executive Chef for The Beach Club Resort in Gulf Shores, Alabama.  Chef Fontenot now lives and works in San Antonio, overseeing Hotel Contessa's food & beverage programming, including Las Ramblas, serving Spanish-inspired cuisine.

Rick Shell is Executive Chef for The Chattanoogan, in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  He discovered his passion in life at age 13 when he started working in a restaurant, making bread and preparing food for others. When he was 17, he entered the internationally renowned Culinary Institute of America in New York, and he hasn't stopped preparing incredible cuisine since. 

Shell began working at Benchmark Hospitality International's The Chattanoogan in July of 2001. He has received numerous awards and recognitions since he joined the upscale urban resort.

Chef Shell is responsible for overseeing the daily operations of The Chattanoogan's three dining establishments, The Broad Street Grille, The Foundry and Strouds, as well as the hotel's in-room dining.  Shell enjoys mixing flavors and textures, and likes to blend unusual ingredients.  He believes the most important elements of outstanding cuisine are flavor and presentation. 

An 18-year industry veteran, prior to joining The Chattanoogan, Shell served as the executive chef for several upscale facilities in Nevada.  Before moving west, Shell was the chef de cuisine at Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg, Virginia.  When living in Virginia, Chef Shell cooked for former President Clinton, preparing meals for several of the President's retreats. 

When he is not in the kitchen, Shell enjoys photography and fine wine.  He loves living in Chattanooga and pleasing the palates of guests at The Chattanoogan. 

Konrad Meier is Executive Chef of Bedford Springs Resort.  In this position he oversees the culinary program at the historic property located in Bedford, Pennsylvania. Chef Meier is also a part of Benchmark Hospitality's Food & Beverage Task Force, assisting in the opening of the French Lick Resort Casino and West Baden Springs Hotel.

Prior to his time at French Lick, Chef Meier oversaw the culinary program at Lansdowne Resort, the Washington D.C. region's premier resort and executive conference facility. Lansdowne houses four restaurants, including the Lansdowne Grille, the resort's award winning steakhouse.  Meier also directed menu preparation for hundreds of large scale social events, banquets and weddings each year.  Meier developed a unique teaching and demonstration program extremely popular with the resort's group guests, and has also developed the Culinary University program, an intimate look at varying styles of cuisine.

Chef Meier has a distinguished background in the culinary arts, having worked at fine restaurants and hotels throughout the United States and abroad. He came to Lansdowne from the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C.  Previously, he served as executive chef at the Mid-America Club in Chicago and served in varied culinary capacities at both the Pittsburgh Vista Hotel and the Boston Vista International Waltham.

Chef Meier received his formal culinary training from the Culinary Institute, Lubeck, Germany, and served an apprenticeship at the Historische Weinstuben Restaurant, Lubeck, Germany during his three year program at the Culinary Institute.

Chef Meier was awarded the 2002 Leader of the Year for Lansdowne Resort. He was recognized for his true leadership and mentoring skills, community involvement as well as outstanding culinary knowledge and showmanship.

Richard Varga is Executive Chef for The Heldrich, the new luxury hotel in New Brunswick, New Jersey.  A highly respected culinary professional, Richard Varga was previously the executive chef at the Old Mill Inn of Basking Ridge, New Jersey.  In this role he was responsible for overseeing all aspects of this historic Inn's food & beverage programming, including the Grain House Restaurant and the property's extensive banquet operation.  Prior to this position, Mr. Varga was executive chef at the Hilton at Newark Airport, where his responsibilities included the Garden State Restaurant and Amelia's Lounge, as well as room service and catering. 

Chef Varga has served as executive sous chef for the Five Diamond Hilton Short Hills, New Jersey, overseeing the property's Terrace Restaurant, The Dining Room restaurant, garde manger and pastry shop, as well as banquets.  Earlier in his career, he was employed by the Hilton of East Brunswick, New Jersey, in several positions of increasing responsibility.  These included serving as executive sous chef, as banquet chef, garde manger chef, and as restaurant chef.  He began his culinary career at the storied and historic Breakers Hotel & Resort of Palm Beach, Florida.  Richard Varga is a graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, located in Hyde Park, New York.

Thomas W. Drake III is the acclaimed young chef for Christopher's Restaurant, at The Heldrich in New Brunswick, New Jersey.  Chef Drake has worked internationally with some of the finest restaurants.  He was previously entremetier for The Dining Room at the Hilton Short Hills, New Jersey, where he was responsible for the preparation and presentation of all accompaniments to hot appetizers and entrees for this Five Diamond restaurant.  Prior to this appointment, he was the executive sous chef for the popular Triumph Brewing Company of both New Hope, Pennsylvania, and Princeton, New Jersey.  In this role he oversaw kitchen operations, developed new menu concepts, and supervised a large staff of 25 culinary professionals.

Tom Drake has had the remarkable opportunity to work in short-term assignments for Drei Husaren and Steirereck, both Michelin 2 Star Restaurants located in Vienna, Austria.  He has also worked with The Fountain Room at the prestigious Four Seasons Philadelphia, Lacroix at the Rittenhouse Hotel in Philadelphia, and at Le Bernadin in Manhattan, each a Five Diamond restaurant.

Earlier in his career, Chef Drake was executive chef for Santa Fe Grille of Rocky Hill, New Jersey, and sous chef/saucier for Spring Mill Country Club of Ivyland, Pennsylvania.  He interned at Deux Cheminees in Philadelphia where he developed his skill and interest in recipe creation for sauces, desserts, breads, vegetables and meats.

Tom Drake is a Certified Sous Chef with the American Culinary Federation.  He is an honors graduate of the Culinary Arts program at The Art Institute of Philadelphia.  Chef Drake is a recipient of The Art Institute President's Scholarship Award, the Outstanding Achievement Award, and was a Dean List student during his entire college career.  An avid collector of culinary publications, Chef Drake's personal library includes over 1400 cookbooks.

Executive Pastry Chef Thomas Pratt of Bedford Springs Resort in Bedford, Pennsylvania began his culinary training at Le Cordon Bleu in Minneapolis.  Following graduation, he completed an internship at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in Grand Rapids Michigan. Upon the close of his internship, he was appointed production supervisor of the bake shop.

During his four years at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, he entered and placed in three chocolate competitions, including the Best of Show Award in 2006. His desserts were chosen to be served at the movie premiere events for The Polar Express and Zathura.

In 2006, Chef Pratt was appointed the assistant pastry chef at French Lick Resort Casino in French Lick, Indiana.  He was soon promoted to the position of executive pastry chef. Pratt also assisted in the opening of the historic West Baden Springs Hotel of West Baden Springs, Indiana.  In June of 2007, he was appointed executive pastry chef for Bedford Springs Resort.

Mary Watson-DeLauder is Resort Sommelier at Lansdowne Resort, located in Lansdowne, Virginia near Leesburg.  Ms. Watson's expertise has been recognized both nationally.  She has received the Wine Spectator Award for 18 consecutive years.

At Lansdowne, Mary Watson developed several new and extremely popular programs.  She directs an extensive weekend Food and Wine Camp each summer, as well as regular Culinary University classes, which provide an in-depth look at a variety of American and International cuisines and wines.

The local and national media often turn to Watson for her expertise.  She has been featured on Fox Morning News, NBC-4 and WTOP Radio, as well as in the Sommelier Guide to Restaurants in America, Washingtonian Magazine, Southern Living Magazine, Santo Loudoun Magazine, Wine Spectator, Virginia, Living, WashingtonPost/ and The Washington Business Journal.  Her programs have also been mentioned on NBC's The Today Show, and she is an active member of many associations, including the Women Chef Restaurateurs, Knights of the Vine, Society of Wine Educators and the Virginia Viniferea Wine Growers Association.

In addition to national recognition, Mary is very active in the local Virginia wine community.  She has received the Gold Cluster of Virginia Award for the past six years and has judged The Virginia Wine Growers Association Wine Competition for the past 15 years, as well as judging the American Wine Competition and the International Wine Competition.  In 2004 Mary was a finalist for the "Best Wine Program" for the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington.

The James Beard Foundation, based in New York City, is the definitive culinary arts organization in the United States dedicated to showcasing American chefs' talents. It is named after the great American chef, Dean of American Cooking, and Father of American Gastronomy, James Beard, who authored over 20 cookbooks and hundreds of articles, many of which are still in print. Beard appeared on network television's first cookery program in the 1940s and established a renowned cooking school. The Foundation and The James Beard House, where chefs from around the world showcase their talents, are situated in Manhattan in Beard's original townhouse home, located in Greenwich Village.

The mission of The James Beard Foundation is to celebrate, preserve, and nurture America's culinary heritage and diversity in order to elevate the appreciation of the nation's culinary excellence. The Foundation is a national not-for-profit ­ 501(c)(3) organization. According to the James Beard Foundation, all performing artists deserve a great stage: Musicians have Carnegie Hall; Opera singers have The Metropolitan Opera House; and Chefs, Winemakers and Cookbook Authors have The James Beard House. More than 20 dinners, lunches and workshops are held each month at The James Beard House to showcase culinary artists from America and around the world. 

Benchmark Hospitality International, an independent hospitality management company based in The Woodlands (Houston), Texas, operates resorts, conference centers, hotels and condominium resorts both domestically and internationally.  For locations of Benchmark Hospitality properties and for additional information, visit Benchmark's Website at 


Ken Ellens
Ken Ellens Communications
201-758-2864 / 201-758-2865-Fax


Also See: Benchmark Hospitality's Top Five Dining Trends for 2007 / August 2007


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