Alex Lempka and Gerry Akins Are Hamlet & Ghost’s Dynamic Duo

When Alex Lempka took over as executive chef of Hamlet & Ghost in 2021, the legacy of his predecessor loomed like a lingering spirit: celebrated chef Michele Hunter had transformed Hamlet & Ghost’s food menu from a cocktail hotspot’s sideshow to a crowd-drawing, main event. She’d even won Choppedon national TV along the way.

“That first season I took over, there was certainly a lot of trepidation,” says Lempka, who worked as Hunter’s sous chef for four years before she stepped down to create the food menu for Unified Beerworks. “That’s a big role to fill.” Fortunately for Lempka, whatever fear he felt at the beginning has since eased into well-earned confidence.

“I can rely on what Michele and a few other mentors I’ve had have taught me,” he says. “And now it’s like everything is starting to come together.”

Alex Lempka is known for his inventive dishes such as Chioggia beets from Edible Uprising dressed with pistachio vinaigrette and garnished with pickled blackberries and Chevre d’Argental Espuma. (Photography by Shawn LaChapelle)

This is, of course, Lempka’s exercise in modesty. The cocktail connoisseurs and foodies who keep Hamlet perpetually bustling know that to sip your way through the restaurant’s exquisite drinks or taste your way through its adventurous-yet-accessible dishes is to experience harmony itself: Libations are crafted with an emphasis on balance and skill, while meals are dictated by local harvest cycles. At Hamlet, there is synchronicity and balance behind all things. Most of all, it’s witnessed in the relationships of the people who are making it all happen.

At Lempka’s right-hand side is Bar Manager Gerry Akins, the mastermind behind Hamlet’s renowned cocktails. The two have worked alongside each other for five years, during which time they forged a tight bond that’s reflected in the menus. 

“We spend more time with each other than we do with our actual families,” Akins says. “So Alex is like a big brother to me.” For the two men, this brotherly connection results in being one another’s fiercest—yet most reliable—critics.

Some of Gerry Akins’ concoctions are almost too pretty to drink, such as (from left) the Tomcat Gin Sidecar, the Antique Manhattan and the Fall Cobbler. (Photography by Shawn LaChapelle)

“I like to give him a hard time,” Akins says with a laugh, the pair’s ability to joke and jest bubbling up from a mutual trust in one another’s expertise. “We always, in a healthy way, critique one another.”

“This way,” adds Lempka, “we get to rely on each other’s strengths.”

These advantages have helped carve out Hamlet’s niche in the local Saratoga food scene—marrying metropolitan influences with the local integrity of upstate New York.

In Lempka’s kitchen, ingredients that were grown right here in local soil get treated with techniques that have origins across the globe, with signature dishes including pork belly with fennel and pesto rosso, and beets marinated in reduced red wine and sourdough miso and served with pickled carrots and sheep’s milk yogurt. The same ethos applies to what goes on behind the bar, where your cocktail might be garnished with citrus oil to enhance its aroma. 

While Akins perpetually has his eye attuned to what’s going on in the wider scene—be it in Seoul, Dubai, New Orleans or New York City, he’s always thinking about how innovation can translate locally: “I’m just trying to bring cool stuff to upstate New York.”  

This ethos is shared by Hamlet’s owners, Brendan Dillon and Dennis Kiingati. Dillon says the goal has always been to create a restaurant that could feel at home in both places. 

Alex Lempka and Gerry Akins often give one another constructive criticism on dishes and drinks. (Photography by Shawn LaChapelle)

“We’ve always tried to cater to people who enjoy what we’re doing,” he says. “And that doesn’t matter if you’re 15 years old or 80 years old. We’ve got customers at both ends of the spectrum. If you like that we’re doing some creative stuff and trying to be a little different, anybody is welcome.” 

Recently, that included welcoming chef Alex Napolitano of the esteemed Maker Hotel in foodie mecca Hudson to Saratoga for a collaborative dinner with Lempka. 

“At a lot of the restaurants in the area, you don’t really see these collaborative dinners or menus—at least not very often,” says Lempka. “But in the major food scenes, that’s pretty common. You’ll see chefs traveling across the country and making dinner with other chefs of equal talent.”

Such dinners are can’t-miss events for local foodies. Plus, they provide space for chefs to get creative and take risks. 

“It was really great, because the team got to see a lot of stuff that they don’t typically see,” Lempka says. “That’s what I was most excited about—I got to learn something.” 

Fortunately for us, Lempka’s curiosity and appetite for mastering new skills is insatiable. From the brand-new fall menu to upcoming collaborations, Hamlet & Ghost offers a beacon of food and beverage creativity for the Saratoga locals who are hungry for the new and exciting.

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