Interview with Chef Chris Cesta, of Camillus, New York’s Inn Between

Cesta makes the most of Upstate New York’s abundant resources

Chef Cesta in his restaurant's dining room.

I recently had dinner at the 45 year-old fine dining establishment Inn Between, in Camillus, New York, outside of Syracuse. It was a memorable meal, elegantly prepared and delightful in every way. I met the chef, Chris Cesta, and asked him a few questions. Below are his answers.

The Daily Meal: How did you get into cooking?
Chef Chris Cesta:
I started washing dishes in a busy restaurant when I was 16; prior to that I grew up in a family with 7 of us, and Mom would make and serve the family meal daily. I helped occasionally and she tried hard but was a horrendous cook. Her favorite dish was a terrible Spanish rice; it was always so dry and she exacerbated that by putting crushed saltine crackers on it just to “get it there.” I knew there was better food to be had out there somewhere.

Do you prefer a particular style of cooking?
I feel that good cooking starts with the most basic of quality ingredients. Our water comes from Skaneateles Lake, one of the Finger Lakes and one of the purest, cleanest unfiltered municipal water supplies in the world. Homemade stocks and broths form the foundation of all our sauces. I am big on butter, cream, and veal dishes due to Upstate New York being a big dairy production area.

What kind of atmosphere do you prefer in the kitchen?
Always a relaxed atmosphere during prep time, which usually starts with about 4 to 5 of us preparing precisely for the dinner hour at around noon. When it comes to fresh food, you need to have exact planning with regards to how much is ready for the service period. Everyone, especially me, knows where everything “lives” and are cognizant of how to wash, prep, cut, peel, blanch, etc.

What do you look for when you hire other chefs in the kitchen?
Employees are always an enigma. I have always looked for a work ethic first. It usually works best to train someone young with basic skills and teach them our system. A willingness to learn and good common sense are the most important traits, and on the job training works the best. They mostly start in the dish room, then pantry, and then prep and line cook.

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What are your plans for the future?
The future? I have been at this game for 40 years. Being a chef is demanding, 60 hours minimum a week. Being a property manager and business owner takes another 20-plus hours a week; it’s a tough pace but that’s what it takes. Continuing to maintain high standards is my goal for now, and I still have the gear for now, but indeed I am looking for a successor to first partner with and then start to slide out a bit. Absentee ownership rarely works in this industry so it will have to be the right person. I am beginning to explore my options but I still have a passion for what I do. It is exciting, rewarding, and never boring.