Kinhaven’s Chef of Note Hugo Fuentes orchestrates menu magic for hungry musicians

By Bob Behr
©2018 Telegraph Publishing LLC

It’s no secret that Kinhaven Music School is bursting with talent. Every summer since 1952, promising young musicians from all over the world have come to Weston to build their skills with teachers who are highly regarded professionals from orchestras, conservatories and universities around the country.

Chef Hugo Fuentes in his Kinhaven kitchen. Photos by Shawn Cunningham. Click any photo to launch gallery

But Kinhaven does have a secret: Hugo Fuentes, who is also one of the most popular people on campus. In fact, Fuentes’ performances have earned him standing ovations – in the dining hall. He’s the school’s chef.

Like the musicians he feeds, Chef Fuentes is a creative guy. Arriving at Kinhaven in 2015, he was told to throw out the decades-old recipe book, filled with heavy dishes, rich with butter and cream and asked to re-think the menu. Now he feeds the students and faculty — a total of 140 plus guests, three times a day — with meals inspired by a world of flavors and traditions from Africa, Asia, Latin America as well as old standards of American home cooking.

Only Friday night dinners could not be changed. More on that in a minute.

Kinhaven co-executive director Tony Mazzocchi – a trombone player – is a huge Fuentes fan, pointing to skirt steak with chimichurri sauce and tres leches cake as a personal favorite.

Kinhaven co-executive director Tony Mazzocchi, center, with staff and guests at Friday night dinner.

“Hugo has brought a level of artistry and care to the food at Kinhaven that mirrors the musical artistry that our world-class faculty and students bring to the school,” said Mazzocchi.

In the course of a week, Kinhaven musicians might enjoy hot dogs and hamburgers as well as Caribbean chicken sancocho and arroz con pollo. At the same time, Fuentes honors the age-old Kinhaven tradition of serving spaghetti with meat sauce, challah and butterscotch brownies every Friday night. It’s comfort food with personality, and Kinhaven’s mostly teenage population is loving it.

Born in Venezuela, Hugo Fuentes’ first cooking teacher was his mother, who worked as a cook and caterer. She inspired young Hugo with her masterful preparation of such dishes as the tamale-like hallaca, a sweet and savory Christmas tradition in Venezuela, and taught him basic kitchen skills.

“She taught me to slice my vegetables down to just the right size, and to not overcook anything,” says Fuentes.

Eventually Fuentes settled in the United States to pursue his career. He spends most of each year in Florida, where he works as a personal chef for the pro-basketball team the Miami Heat, preparing post-game meals in the stadium’s private dining room for players and their families.

Members of Fuentes’ Miami staff come with him each summer.

His work in Miami is demanding and star-studded, but he has a special affection for Vermont and his Kinhaven family. “Coming to Vermont for the first time,” he remembers, “I was amazed. It’s a beautiful, majestic place – the green, the mountains, the weather. Even though I’m working, it’s almost like a vacation.”

Inevitably, Fuentes fell under the spell of Vermont’s bounty. Whenever possible, he buys vegetables, meats and maple syrup direct from local purveyors and he works with local supermarkets for other supplies. Everything— breads, desserts, dressings, sauces, even the granola for breakfast — is homemade, and Kinhaven’s students enjoy getting up close to Fuentes’ creative process.

It’s a busy, morning-to-night kitchen, staffed by a small group of employees Fuentes brought with him from Miami and a revolving group of students doing prep, washing dishes and pots and delivering dishes to the tables.

At lunch, Fuentes points out one enthusiastic young cellist named Alex, who loves working with food and recently organized a weekend breakfast buffet.

When he’s in Vermont, Fuentes works every day, all day with only a brief nap after serving lunch. It’s an exhausting routine, but he finds comfort in the students and their music.

“Sometimes, when I’m very tired at the end of a day, I stop to listen to the students playing, and I realize this is my reward,” says Fuentes.

Fuentes looks out at a full dining room as student musicians chow down.

The dining hall’s positive vibe reflects the school’s overall environment. While it’s a rigorous educational program where young people work hard every day, Kinhaven still has a relaxed and friendly feel. Students must audition to gain a slot at the school, but the competition ends there. When the young musicians arrive for the summer, they learn that it’s all about collaboration and mutual support.

And, of course, there’s forming new friendships and learning more and more about the sheer pleasure of music-making.

Once everyone is in the dining hall for a meal, the friendships and the fun are abundantly evident. The room bounces with laughter, bursts of song and comical reminders to certain students to make their beds. At lunch on Tuesday, there are oohs and aahs when student servers march out of the kitchen carrying bowls of fresh greens and platters stacked high with Reuben sandwiches on homemade bread. Hugo Fuentes stands off to the side watching like a proud papa.

Then, after standing for a moment of silence, it’s time to dig in.

Kinhaven Music School hosts free student and faculty concerts throughout the summer. Its next set of free concerts begins at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 18. The school is located at 354 Lawrence Hill Road in Weston. For more events throughout the region please see new Chester Telegraph Calendar of Events.

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  1. JEngels says:

    Excellent article about a great chef at a long-time Vermont gem. Thank you Chester Telegraph and Bob Behr.

  2. Cynthia Prairie says:

    If you don’t speak Spanish, please use this translator to find out what Corina de Hoffman wrote: Spanish language translator

  3. Excelente y felicitaciones al chef Venezolano Hugo Fuentes. Orgullo de sus éxitos. Les faltó agregar que también es Odontólogo.