Jesus “Zeus” Gordiany’s charismatic personality complements his cooking demonstrations on WBOC TV, which caught the eye of recruiters for Hell’s Kitchen, who signed the chef to appear on Season 21 of the popular show.
In the season’s first episode, which aired in September 2022, the television cooking competition’s oldest chef cheekily prepared bangers and mash for British-born host Gordon Ramsay, who gave it a four out of five. Gordiany also bared his head to show a scar, which he told the celebrity chef he got from a great white shark. The injury happened when he was sourcing fresh seafood. After being stitched up, he went back on the line, he says matter-of-factly. The younger contestants stared at him, mouths agape.
“Gordiany remembers customers who belly up to the chef’s tables and loves recognizing them when he’s out and about.”
On the surface, Gordiany has what it takes for reality TV. But on the second episode, he left, deciding the competition was not for him. Perhaps that’s because the prize was a head chef job in Ramsay’s operation and Gordiany had already found his footing in Delaware.
Lisa and Walton “Poncho” Johnson were too busy running an event venue in Milford to open a restaurant, but that didn’t stop area residents from suggesting it. The devout couple left the decision up to God: If a restaurant were in their future, the right chef and location would cross their path.
Then Gordiany came calling. “Well, there he was, right at our door,” Lisa Johnson recalls.
It was 2014, and the chef was working for BK Specialty Foods. Knowing the way to a sale is through a client’s stomach, Gordiany prepared a meal for the couple using company products. “We said if we ever have a chef, he’s the one,” Johnson recalls. “He can really cook, and he has personality.”
In early 2020, the trio opened Benvenuto in the old Abbott’s Grill, a location off Route 1 with parking. The restaurant pays homage to the Johnsons’ love affair with Tuscany. For instance, dining rooms are named for Italian villages, and artist Nadia Zychal painted relevant trompe l’oeil features throughout the restaurant.
The food is equally impressive. While locals are pleased to have a chef with Gordiany’s urban talents, many question the move to a rural county. But for the chef with the colorful background, it was meant to be.
The loquacious chef’s accent reveals his Delaware County, Pennsylvania, upbringing. But Gordiany took a roundabout journey to wind up in Delaware.
He was born in Puerto Rico, where his mother, a native, met his Italian-American father while the New Yorker was stationed on the island. After their separation, she took their three children to live with her sister in Chester, Pennsylvania. “She didn’t speak a word of English,” he says. “The language barrier was tough.” Things improved when they moved to a Darby community.
At 13, Gordiany became a dishwasher; by 15, he was sautéing. On a good week, he made $500—not bad for the early 1990s. The long hours kept him out of trouble, and his teenage dates were dazzled when he cooked dinner. Knowing a degree would lead to more dollars, he graduated from The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill in Philadelphia and worked in the city’s finest restaurants, including the venerable Le Bec-Fin. “George Perrier, in my eyes, is a legend,” he says of the French restaurant’s founder.
At BK Specialty Foods, Gordiany opened client restaurants in exchange for their business. “I created menus and the portion-cost analysis—recipes were fully costed out,” he explains. The work took him throughout the mid-Atlantic states.
Over time, his friendship with the Johnsons grew so strong that he agreed to leave BK when the Abbott’s Grill location became vacant. However, he insisted on a year’s notice. His new employers used the time to gut and renovate the restaurant.
Benvenuto is the polite word for “welcome” in Italian, and the gregarious Gordiany grins when he greets guests. “He’s authentic—there’s no show,” Johnson maintains. He is proud of the restaurant, which sports realistic-looking LED flames that flicker down the center of one dining room.
There are granite counters—even in the secluded service areas—and immaculate bathrooms are worthy of a Greenville manse. Wine racks throughout the restaurant hold empty bottles with customers’ notes, the remnants of their good times. There is also a table just for wine tasting, regular wine dinners held in a back room with a fireplace, and a wine director, Diego Lascano.
In two dining rooms, curved banquettes let guests see and be seen, and the open kitchen gives the workers the same advantage. Gordiany remembers customers who belly up to the chef’s tables and loves recognizing them when he’s out and about.
He credits the tasteful appointments to Johnson, an interior decorator since age 22. “She has such an eye,” he says. “She’ll stare at something for an hour. You can see the wheels turning.”
Gordiany, however, is also a perfectionist. Wearing a spotless white chef’s coat and jaunty newspaper boy cap, he moves about the neat kitchen, pouring pumpkin-and-butternut bisque from an alabaster pitcher and grating lemon zest over a chocolate-raspberry dessert.
His approachable menu appeals to southern Delaware residents yet showcases craftsmanship and a commitment to quality ingredients. Meat comes from Creekstone Farms in Kansas, and the requisite crab cake—it is Delaware—has a market price that can raise eyebrows. It’s worth it: The baseball-sized broiled orb contains snowy, sweet lumps. Of course, there are Italian favorites: shrimp-and-sausage bucatini, frutti di mare and the must-have chicken Parmesan.
The chef hints that there are more Milford restaurants in the works. Time will tell, but for now, Johnson says, “We’re family.”
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