Chefs return from big-city resort to run a tiny Eastern Oregon cafe

PENDLETON — After years in New York City and the fast-paced life of a professional chef, an Echo graduate is back and ready to invest in her hometown.

Challis Buck and her German husband, Danny Besser, both 28, are the new owners of one of Echo's most enduring businesses, the H&P Cafe. It means a pay cut for both of them — they were working prestigious jobs at upscale New Jersey resorts — but they said the move is not about money. "We're not trying to get rich," Buck said. "We're trying to get happy."

The H&P Cafe, named after longtime owners Noel "Harsh" Harshman and his wife, Patty, holds a special place in Buck's heart. Her first job as a teenager was at the cafe, and she learned her first food and customer service lessons there. "It was always a joke that someday I would buy it," Buck said. "I never thought I would."

Challis attended the Art Institute of New York City after she graduated from Echo High School in 2001.

She met Danny Besser while apprenticing at the Manor Restaurant in West Orange, N.J. From Blankenburg, Germany, Besser apprenticed at restaurants in his home country before moving to the United States.

After the two were married — the ceremony was in Echo — they continued to focus on their careers. By the time they decided to return to Oregon, she was the executive sous chef at Minerals Resort and Spa and he oversaw all four restaurants at Crystal Springs Golf Resort.

Billed as "the most luxurious of northern New Jersey," the Crystal Springs resort features the four-star Restaurant Latour, where Besser had the freedom to purchase nearly any gourmet food item he could imagine.

However, Buck and Besser often worked 12 hours a day, six days a week and nearly every holiday.

And Buck grew tired of big-city life; she lived in a condo for five years without knowing most of her neighbors.

"(Echo) just seems like it's a more conducive life to settling down and having a family," she said. "And it's a better place to be able to afford and have your own restaurant."

"Life is much slower out here," added Besser, "It's much more laid back."

Buck and Besser will live in the home attached to the restaurant the Harshmans lived in for many years. They've built a greenhouse, where they will grow produce for the restaurant — they hope to mostly source the cafe with growers and producers within a 60-mile radius. It's a lofty goal, but they are determined to offer something special and fresh at the new H&P.

At the same time, they plan to keep what has made the H&P a success — an open door at 6 a.m. for local farmers and a menu of reliable comfort food. "I look forward to seeing my customers and learning what they like and dislike," Buck said.

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