These days, Austin Johnson can be found on the golf course, water skiing, or riding a snowmobile during his free time as executive chef of The Krebs Restaurant in Skaneateles, New York. Otherwise, life isn’t all that different from when he clocked hours alongside Daniel Humm, the 2012 James Beard: Outstanding Chef, at three-Michelin star Eleven Madison Park, and spent more than two years at Humm’s NoMad in two of New York City’s most famed culinary locales.
Professionalism is still key. Johnson asks his staff to be clean-shaven, flawlessly put together, and punctual. “It’s not your average kitchen,” says Johnson, who recently turned 30. “When I worked for Daniel Humm for just under five years in New York City, If you showed up even with a 5 o’clock shadow, you would have to walk to the store, get a razor, and shave, and then come back in the kitchen. There’s no gray area. I kind of have the same mentality and will forever and always have that mentality in my kitchen.”
While The Krebs, geographically speaking, might be a far cry from the Big Apple’s bright lights, situated more than 250 miles from Manhattan, Johnson tries to keep the experience on par food wise. The challenge, however, is more than just a scenic one. Johnson arrived at The Krebs understanding he was joining a concept new in appearance but acutely weathered in nostalgia. Before Adam and Kim Weitsman purchased the building in 2010, the community identified the restaurant as the same space operated along Route 20 since 1899. Jan Loveless, a descendant of founder Cora Krebs, died in 2009. The restaurant was placed on the market and purchased for $1 million, setting off a four-year, more than $4 million renovation that included the hiring of Johnson, who adds the move offered a few incentives outside of the obvious chance to lead his own kitchen.
The restaurant, although still a for-profit operation, plans to donate at least $100,000 a year to local charities, mostly benefitting women and children. “A big part of me coming here was for those reasons,” he says. “I think you could search seven continents and not find a restaurant that donates everything to charity. This is very much a money hungry, greedy style of business. And I just think that we’re so fortunate that we can give back and do it with food and hospitality and wine. I think it’s just a really special part of the restaurant.”
The mission has been a from-start ethos of Adam Weitsman, who also owns Upstate Shredding and other scrap metal businesses.
The restaurant re-opened in August 2014 and was on track to meet that six-figure contribution before a frozen pipe burst in the attic five months in and collapsed a ceiling, flooding different areas of the restaurant, including a portion of the dining room, and forcing The Krebs to close for five weeks. Still, the number was hovering around $82,000 in August, and Johnson says they’re on pace to reach the goal moving forward.
When Johnson took the position around a year and a half ago, most of the renovation was already completed. He did some cosmetic touches in the kitchen and brought in new equipment, including tableware he felt was a better fit for his French cuisine. As far as the food goes, Johnson says he was navigating a unique situation where some old ties had extremely deep and local roots.
On one occasion, he greeted a table where the couple was celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary, a relationship that began with a blind date at The Krebs well before Johnson was born.
“I felt going into it, it would be even more challenging,” he says. “But the local community, and even the region, has been really accepting to what we’ve done here. I think the reason being is the food we’re cooking is delicious. We’ve stayed true to the deliciousness of food, and the standards of service.”
Johnson looked at the old menus with the hope of understanding the restaurant’s ingrained personality. A legendary dish was the Lobster Newburg. He decided to pay homage with a personal version, shipping the product in from Maine, fortifying it with sherry, cream, butter, and crème fraîche, and serving it with puff pastry and baby vegetables. “The feedback has been great,” he says.
Other menu items include: Suckling Pig with spatzle, cranberry, kalettes; Duck with apples, beets, and almonds; Striped Bass with mushrooms, wild rice, and sunflower; appetizers such as Foie Gras with torchon grape, beets, and tarragon; Hamachi with quinoa, turnip, and sesame; and dessert choices like Soufflé with gingerbread, eggnog, and rum; and Malt with coffee, potato, and canelè.
“I’ve grown. I’ve doubled my strength in cooking since Day 1 here,” Johnson says. “Really, I give it all to my team. I’m in the kitchen all day, every day, but without these guys giving me their blood, sweat, and tears, not only would I not be a chef, but we wouldn’t have a restaurant.”