Rafe Hottenstein’s Passion for Cooking Shines at Josephine’s

Growing up in the restaurant industry sparked Rafe Hottenstein’s passion for cooking – a passion he’s now sharing as executive chef at Josephine’s Downtown in Lancaster City. 

Lemon-pepper barramundi with forbidden rice, Indian curry butter sauce, peas and carrots. Barramundi, also known as Asian sea bass, is a white-fleshed fish that delivers a sweet, buttery flavor. It’s native to the Indo-West Pacific region.

Rafe’s parents, Ray and Sue Hottenstein, were the owners of Greenfield Restaurant & Bar (formerly The Olde Greenfield Inn) from 1981 until 2018, at which time they retired and sold the restaurant. As a teenager, Rafe learned the nuances of running a restaurant both in the kitchen and at the front of the house. Then, it was on to Penn State, where he earned a degree in hotel and restaurant management. While his father had hopes he would join the family business, Ray noted in an article that ran in this magazine in 2003 that Rafe was “too young to be worried about making decisions to come into the business. We want him to experience what’s out there.” That support prompted Rafe to explore his options by interning at Pinehurst in North Carolina and then honing his skills at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) at Greystone in Napa Valley, California. 

A decade spent in California prompted Rafe’s interest in seafood, farm-fresh produce and wine.

Upon graduating from the CIA, he worked in restaurants in Napa Valley and San Francisco for a decade before heading back east to Lancaster. “California has great vegetables and produce, as well as seafood and wine. I really learned a lot out there,” Rafe shares. “I love cooking with fresh, high-quality ingredients, and both the Napa Valley region and Lancaster have access to those fresh-from-the farm ingredients.” 

Back Home Again 

Upon his return to Lancaster, Rafe again worked alongside his family – his parents and sister, Kristen – at Greenfield Restaurant & Bar. “There’s just something about working with family,” Rafe says, adding that his own focus at this stage of his life reflects the way he grew up, as it’s on food and family. He’s now married with a family of his own – wife Trisha and their children, 13-year-old Stella, 2-1/2-year-old Callum and 8-month-old Harper. (Ray and Sue are quick to volunteer for babysitting duty.) He also enjoys outdoor pursuits such as hunting and fishing, always preparing what he captures or catches. “I love recreational cooking. You’d think after being in the kitchen all day for work that wouldn’t be the case, but I enjoy cooking for family and friends,” Rafe says with a smile.

Cauliflower velvet with saffron-braised mussels and parsley oil.

Recently he and his son, Callum, have begun making breakfast together. Could the talent for cooking be “in the genes”? Rafe is hopeful, reporting that Callum preps his own eggs in the morning – whisking and seasoning them and getting out a pan before Rafe cooks them for him. 

Full Circle 

After the Hottensteins sold Greenfield, Rafe worked for other restaurants, including Per Diem in Lititz, before landing at Josephine’s Downtown earlier this year. In a sense his career has come full circle – he and Dean Oberholtzer, one of the partners in the Vescor Hospitality Group, which owns Josephine’s, the Belvedere Inn, C’est la Vie and 401 Prime, worked together at the Greenfield; Dean began as a server and worked his way up to manager. “The ownership team’s members are professional restauranteurs, and it’s great to work with Dean again,” Rafe says.

Several of Josephine’s specialty cocktails – Hollywood Libations – are named for stars, including the Marilyn Monroe, which entails elderflower liquor, sparkling white wine, lychee fruit and raspberry.

As for Dean, he considers Ray Hottenstein to be one of his most meaningful and supportive mentors (Dean’s flagship restaurant, the Belvedere Inn is celebrating its 25th anniversary) and says it’s an honor to have his son working with him. “It’s wonderful to have this opportunity to work with Rafe again,” Dean says. “When we worked together before, he was a kid. Now he’s a talented chef – he’s really professional and the staff enjoys working with him. He has a lot of California style, and he’s much about seafood, which is a great addition to Josephine’s.” 

Seafood & Movie Stars 

While Josephine’s has been known for its filet and jumbo lump crab cakes, Rafe’s love of seafood has led to the debut of a new menu. While those two signature items remain on the menu, it now includes more seafood items such as swordfish, rockfish, scallops and tuna tartare, among others.   

Rafe Hottenstein, who is a graduate of Penn State University and The Culinary Institute of America (Greystone), now helms the kitchen at Josephine’s Downtown. Working at Josephine’s serves as a reunion of sorts, as owner, Dean Oberholtzer, began his career at The Olde Greenfield Inn, which was owned by Rafe’s parents, Ray and Sue Hottenstein.

While the menu may have undergone some changes, Josephine’s décor will continue to encapsulate the elegance of a supper club thanks to its royal blue velvet high-backed banquette seating, sparkling chandeliers and a grand piano. The walls of the 120-seat restaurant are filled with photos of Old Hollywood celebs, including its namesake, the renowned singer-dancer-actress of the ’20s and ’30s, Josephine Baker. Specialty cocktails are named for Hollywood royalty like Marilyn Monroe, Betty White, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. There are even two mocktails – Betty Ford and Designated Driver – on the menu. 

Rafe puts a modern spin on shrimp cocktail by pairing it with roasted garlic aioli.

Josephine’s intimate feel extends to its glass-enclosed wine room. There’s also a private dining room that can be reserved for special occasions such as birthday, engagement and anniversary parties. On Friday and Saturday evenings, dinner music is provided by pianist Mark Huber.  

Scallop Crudo “Mi-Cuit” with bagna cauda dipping sauce, shaved radishes and Meyer lemon.

Romancing the Solstice 

Josephine’s and the Belvedere recently received accolades, being named as two of the Top 100 Most Romantic Restaurants in America for 2024 (and tops in Lancaster), according to the nationwide Open Table restaurant reservation service. “We’re very proud of winning this award,” says Justin Ang, one of Vescor’s partners. “Josephine’s has a close-knit team both in the front of the house and at the back of the house; many of them have been with Josephine’s since its opening [in 2019].” Rafe concurs that winning the award is a “validation for both the front of the house and the back of the house.” 

Pan-seared rockfish is accompanied by beluga lentil tabbouleh, pickled onion, smashed cucumber and sumac vinaigrette. Native to the Pacific, rockfish is a versatile fish that has a sweet, nutty taste.

Josephine’s plans to piggyback on that accolade by adding special events to its schedule. Although Josephine’s is usually closed Sundays, it will be open from noon to 6 p.m. on May 12 for Mother’s Day. In June, Josephine’s will host a summer solstice party and wine dinner. Justin says he’s hopeful that the June celebration can be held outdoors.  

Josephine’s Downtown is located at 50 West Grant Street, Lancaster. Hours are Tuesday-Thursday, 4:30-9 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 4:30-9:30 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday. For more information, call 717-299-7090 or visit josephinesdowntown.com and Facebook and Instagram. Reservations are suggested and can be made by phone or online via a link on Josephine’s website or through Open Table.

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