A modest crowd has gathered under the open-air tent in the garden behind the New York Wine and Culinary Center on a balmy Friday evening in early June. Servers in starched uniforms offer cucumber cups from blackened slate slabs and pour glasses of chilled white wine for guests in linen dresses and pressed collared shirts. The NYWCC is hosting another installation of its pairing dinners, which bring together the culinary skills of Executive Chef Andrew Chambers and the products of local organizations. Black Button Distilling, Naked Dove Brewing, Leonard Oakes Winery, and several other similar businesses have already participated.
Tonight, it's a pairing dinner with Fulkerson Winery, which is based in Dundee, on the west side of Seneca Lake. Steven Fulkerson, the winery's general manager, grabs a microphone before every course to explain the wine and how it pairs with the dish, but there's one voice that's stayed largely quiet tonight. It's the soft-spoken voice of 28-year-old Chambers, who splits his time during the dinner between plating in the kitchen and (briefly) appearing several times to greet the event's guests and ask how the food tastes.
Each time the center mounts a pairing dinner, Chambers pieces together a six-course menu to complement the organization's product line, which is usually a beverage. It's an incredible responsibility — and not one he takes lightly.
"It's really cool to build these relationships because there's a lot of pride and work that goes into what people do in the area," Chambers says. "I want to showcase their products in the best light."
Chambers is a champion for this sort of thing. At the beginning of the year, he sits down with his NYWCC team and plans out what crops and specialty items he'll need from partner farms and purveyors, of which he estimates there are 87 total. Many of the ingredients he uses in the kitchen come from within 60 miles of the center, and he aims for using roughly 90 percent New York State products overall.
"The average American eats a meal that travels 1,400 miles or more before it reaches their plate — that's not the case here," he says. "We really try to show what New York State can do."
So how is it that a 28-year-old from Penn Yan leads the culinary efforts for one of the state's biggest food and drink education centers?
His background certainly helps. Chambers began working at an early age in his family's vineyard, where they grew table fruit grapes like Concord Niagara and other native varieties. When he was in his early teens, his parents purchased a diner, and throughout high school, Chambers worked his way up: first washing dishes, then making food (so he could avoid doing dishes), and then opening and closing the diner by the time he was old enough to drive. At Penn Yan Academy, he also completed a culinary career track.
"I was really interested in everything about it," he says. "That's why I decided to leave the area and go to culinary school."
He attended the College of Culinary Arts — a nationally ranked culinary school — at Johnson and Wales University in Charlotte, North Carolina, worked at the Esperanza Mansion in Penn Yan during the summers, and finished both his culinary arts and baking degrees in two years.
The New York Wine and Culinary Center recruited him in 2008 to be the in-house pastry chef, and just like he did at the family diner, Chambers began to work his way up the ranks. After spending four years as sous chef, he was promoted to executive chef in 2014, at age 26. Now he's at the top of the NYWCC ladder with no plans to move.
"I really believe in what we do here," he said. "We have amazing partners and we work with inner city kids during the summer. We're educating people and getting them excited about the region."
One of the events he's most looking forward to is a brand new dinner series that will be held off-site on July 14 at Maplestone Farm in Stanley (between Canandaigua and Geneva). The entire dinner menu will be built from the farm's produce.
"I'm excited to do different dinners like that to show people where the actual farm is," he says. "You get to meet the guy who's out there early in the morning and late at night."
Chambers currently lives in Penn Yan with his wife, Heather (who works at Roots Cafe in Naples), and their 2-year-old daughter. When he gets a rare day off, he usually spends it doing things that resemble his day job: cooking, eating a nice dinner, exploring the region's food and drink options. But that's what Chambers loves, and he has high hopes for the future.
In the next five years, the Finger Lakes "could be a resource hub for not only the state, but the country — maybe the world," he says. "We have some of the most fertile soil here, we have amazing wineries and breweries, and people can come here and learn. It's been a work in progress for 20 or 30 years, but now we've reached a tipping point where it's starting to take hold."