On any hot August afternoon, if you step inside the sleek lobby of Auburn’s Hilton Garden Inn, you’ll be greeted by the friendly front desk staff. But you’re not here for a room; you’re off to the hotel’s cozy restaurant and lounge, which evoke a cool city vibe.

In fact, it’s more metropolitan than you might think, with Executive Chef Robert Gushue (pronounced goo-shay) in charge of the kitchen and banquet facilities. Chef Rob, as he likes to be called, is decidedly calm, cool and collected in a laid-back Maine kind of way. But when he starts talking about food and cooking and his Brooklyn accent slips out, it’s obvious that he’s an integral part of the Hilton’s big-city vibe.

Gushue started his restaurant career at 13, working as a dishwasher in Brooklyn. After high school he continued working in restaurants, managing a Two Boots restaurant and then attending the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.

During his final year at CIA, he apprenticed at the former Terrace in the Sky, a penthouse restaurant located on the Columbia University campus. He graduated from CIA in 1993 and stayed on at the Terrace, which he credits as his first “fine dining” experience.

After that, he went to work as a sous chef at restaurant mogul Andrew Silverman’s City Crab and Seafood Company. He says it was a “simple seafood and crab house” that seated 300. Following that, he went to work as a chef at Johnny Mac’s in Brooklyn, a classic corner neighborhood bar and grill, featuring burgers and salads.

Wanting to learn the hotel dining business, Gushue took a step back to work as a sous chef at the former Regent Hotel in New York City. He said if you wanted to grow as a chef, you had to move around. “It was a learning experience. It was five-star fine dining. I really learned a lot there.”

His next sous chef job was at 55 Wall Street, which, prior to 9/11, was “mostly a lunch place.” Plus it had a “huge banquet space, the second-largest indoor space besides Grand Central Station. . . . We had an army of cooks there.”

A quick detour opening up a new restaurant and then Gushue, as chef, helped open up the Woolworth Tower Kitchen. The concept was a big (7,000 square feet) art deco-style speakeasy. While it was not “fine dining,” it was a “higher-end lunch place,” said Gushue. “You can make a very good burger when you keep it fresh.”

Following 9/11, Gushue and his girlfriend started visiting Maine. Her job at the Deutsche Bank building next to the World Trade Center felt less comfortable. They married and moved to Maine, with Gushue commuting during the week to his job at the Woolworth Tower Kitchen. His family was still in Brooklyn and it was an easy commute from there.

In the early 2000s, Gushue said he witnessed firsthand the explosion of Maine as a great food location. “It’s amazing to see the transition. Even in the Lewiston-Auburn area, you see it. People expect more when they go out.”

After being a “commuter chef” for three years, he quit the travelling and continued his career in Maine. He ran Sydney’s Restaurant, a seasonal dining establishment, for four years, and then moved to the Higgins Beach Inn in Scarborough.

In 2015, he accepted the position of executive chef for Hilton Garden Inn Auburn Riverwatch.

“It’s great” he said. “Great people to work for. Hilton properties have a set menu, but the banquet area is all my menu.”

Gushue said that although the menu is essentially established by the larger Hilton organization, food purveyor Native Maine Produce helps keep things as fresh and local as possible. Native Maine is also Gushue’s supplier of Pineland Farms’ meats and cheeses, which are part of the menu.

In addition to the standard menu offerings, Gushue creates a daily special of his own, like his seafood paella. “It’s a Maine bouillabaisse, with lobster, mussels, clams, chorizo, chicken, olives (and) Arborio rice.”

“On Sundays, once in a while, I’ll stop by the farmer’s market . . . and if there’s something nice, I’ll pick it up and use it as part of a special too.”

Banquets are a big part of the Hilton’s food business and Gushue brings his big-city experience to the job, creating unique menus for special events that include weddings, business meetings and conferences.

A cool city guy in a hip hotel space creating simple and delicious food? Yes, some of the time. But when he steps away from the breakfasts, lunches, dinners and banquet menus, he’s also enjoying “the way life should be” — growing a few vegetables at his home and going to his son Niall’s Little League games.

Chef Robert Gushue: The one-minute interview 

Coffee or Tea: “Coffee with light cream from Circle K on Center Street” on the way to work. “Surprisingly good coffee.”

Rob, Bob or Robert: “Rob or Chef Rob.”

Favorite drink: “Jameson’s on the rocks with a Budweiser chaser. It gets me in trouble.”

Red or white wine: “Red.”

Favorite comfort food: “Red beans and Spanish rice, with kielbasa, using the packaged rice in a tube.” (Chef Rob says this is a specialty he and his son, Niall, both enjoy.)

Do you collect anything? Old cookbooks.

Chefs who inspire you: David Burke, New York restaurateur and entrepreneur; Larry Forgione, chef and James Beard Award winner

Best cooking advice ever given to you: “You control the flame, the flame does not control you.”

Will your son Niall be a chef someday? (Laughs.) “No, he wants to be an orthodontist.”

Hilton Garden Inn Auburn Riverwatch

14 Great Falls Plaza, Auburn

Restaurant hours:

Breakfast: Monday-Friday, 6:30 to 10 a.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 7 to 11 a.m.

Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Dinner: Sunday-Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Maine blueberry dressing

2 1/2 cups Maine blueberries (fresh or frozen)

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

The zest and juice of half a lemon

2 ounces cornstarch

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar

1/2 cup canola oil

Combine blueberries, sugar, cinnamon, lemon zest and juice, and the cornstarch in a heavy-bottom sauce pan. Place over medium heat and stir with a wooden spoon until thickened into a paste consistency (3-5 minutes).

Add the apple cider vinegar and stir until you reach the consistency of syrup (1-2 minutes).

Place in a glass bowl, cover and place in the refrigerator for about an hour or until cool.

Whisk in the canola oil in a slow steady stream.

Store in your refrigerator, covered, for up to two weeks.


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