Written by Jan Norris
This globetrotting chef eschewed a cushy Wall Street salary for the scrappy bustle of restaurant kitchens
Jeremy Hanlon is proud of the fact that he started out as a dishwasher.
The chef at Benny’s on the Beach, a mainstay on the Lake Worth Beach pier, says he didn’t come up with home cooking as inspiration, though his mom was a decent cook who worked to get dinner on the table.
Hanlon learned about fine food early, going out to dinner with his dad in his native Bridgewater, New Jersey. “My mom was busy taking my brothers and sisters to practices and things, so I went to dinner with my dad. I got introduced to beef carpaccio when I was 10,” he says.
Food was just an afterthought, he says, and a love for numbers manifested early on. He went to college for finance, and got a job on Wall Street at Merrill Lynch. While in the city, he cooked for his brother and his friends on days off, while exploring the exploding restaurant scene.
“The Food Network changed everything back then,” he recalls. Soon realizing food had replaced numbers as his passion, he quit his job, enrolled in culinary school, and went to work as a dishwasher—against all advice from family and friends. “I think my salary was $70,000 at Merrill Lynch. I decided to leave, get paid $9.50 an hour and go to culinary school,” he says.
He picked up kitchen shifts whenever possible, working in the famous restaurants of the day, learning by querying every worker and chef.
Eventually, he landed a job on a line at Zoe’s in SoHo. It was there, after entering a food contest, that he caught the attention of a judge: renowned chef Charlie Trotter. Hanlon didn’t win, but the chef was impressed, and offered him an externship in his kitchen. “That,” Hanlon says, “changed my life.”
Afterward, Hanlon was referred to Trotter’s friend, Daniel Boulud. The rest is straight out of the work-hard-get-ahead textbook.
The young cook would go on to stage in famous kitchens in Europe and the U.S. before reuniting with Boulud, this time in Palm Beach, where he workd with Chef Zach Bell.
His next move took him overseas with Darden Restaurants, opening TGIF-like concepts. “I traveled to 31 countries in three years. About 4 million miles. I not only was introduced to amazing ingredients and techniques, and perspectives on food, but also learned how important the business concept was.”
But Florida called again. He was named chef of Benny’s on the Beach when the pier reopened in 2013.
He prefers a straightforward culinary style. “I’m not a flashy person when it comes to food,” he says. “I like to allow the ingredients to speak for themselves. I think I have a unique twist on things.”
Benny’s menu notes that there no modifications to dishes outside of specific dietary needs. Hanlon’s not so ego-driven he won’t change a dish, but would like diners to give his creations a try before modifying them“just because they can.”
He does love the challenge of cooking for vegetarians.
“When I was at Daniel, I was the entremetier, responsible for the vegetables. When people came in and ordered vegetarian, it was my time to shine. I’d go into my arsenal of vegetables and put together a plate. It would be awesome.”
He’s satisfied at his career choice. “I made a decision, and now, being successful, I’m following my dream.
“I went against everything that everyone thought I should do, and I’m proudly following the trail.”