Being a coastal chef has always been challenging, but staffing needs and shifting expectations can raise the stress level

By Pam George | Photographs by Carolyn Watson
From the October 2016 issue

chefs Can’t Stand the Heat? - Delaware Beach LifeThere was a time when restaurant chefs were cloistered behind the kitchen’s swinging doors, working their alchemy in secret. Frequent guests knew the name of the manager, owner or even a longtime server. The average chef remained as reclusive as the Wizard of Oz.

No longer. Today, coastal chefs regularly appear on WBOC-TV. Radio station 105.9 FM has a restaurant-focused program, “Sip & Bite,” and chefs often appear on various morning radio shows. They challenge each other to high-profile cook-offs to raise money for charities. Every cooking demonstration, wine dinner and charity event is appetite-whetting fodder for hundreds of Facebook fans.

“Chefs have become modern-day rock stars,” says Doug Ruley, corporate chef for SoDel Concepts, which owns nine beach-area restaurants.

“With the birth of the celebrity TV chef, Food Network, bloggers and foodies, I can see why.” To be sure, many look as though they should be strumming a guitar instead of filleting a fish.

Diners now expect to see colorful tattoos, piercings and hip hairstyles.

But looks can be deceiving. “If only they knew how not so glamorous it is,” Ruley says. “You don’t want to be that rock star that is playing the same old song. You must evolve with the times and must also pay tribute to the past.”

There are other anxiety-inducing factors. With the preponderance of new restaurants, there’s more competition for diners. Chefs at the beach must cope with seasonal fluctuations too. And they’re also grappling with a trend that is making national news: a shortage of aspiring chefs whose passion to succeed matches their willingness to pay one’s dues.

In short, a good chef does more than create a pretty plate of food. “People don’t see what it’s truly like,” says Wilson Gates, who in July purchased The Buttery in Lewes.

Exceeding expectations

The Buttery is an iconic restaurant at the corner of Savannah Road and Second Street. It has white linen tablecloths and an air of gentility. It’s a different scene down the street at The Gate House, which Gates opened with his family in the old Cafe Azafran space. The Gate House has a more relaxed yet contemporary vibe.
In both restaurants, however, the pressure is on to come up with dishes that appease the sophisticated diner’s palate. Along with promoting the careers of celebrity chefs, Food Network programs have also educated the TV audience. Once exotic ingredients such as quinoa, hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, ramps, sea urchin and tuna tartare have gone mainstream. Demanding diners even want their comfort food with a contemporary twist. All this is particularly the case in coastal Delaware, which has gained a reputation for its fine dining.

“It takes a nonstopping wheel of creativity,” Gates says. Although a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, he’s not one to go it alone. For a midsummer menu, Gates encouraged the entire kitchen staff, including the dishwashers, to bring ideas to the table. As a result, several cooks contributed items that made it onto the new menu.

Before it went to print, however, the kitchen made all the dishes for the staff to taste. One server, who has been at The Buttery for two decades, approached the owner. “He knew it was my dish, but he said, ‘[Customers] won’t like that. They’re just not going to get behind it,’” Gates recalls. Because of that servers’ knowledge of the clientele, Gates removed the dish.

With so many restaurants clustered together, you might think that chefs are constantly looking over their shoulders to see what their competitors are doing. But they won’t let such concerns distract them from following their own muse. “Everyone has their niche,” says Joseph Churchman, chef-owner of Bramble & Brine in downtown Rehoboth Beach. “I think if you were to lay four menus side by side, they would be very different from each other.”

Patsy Rankin, who has owned Patsy’s Restaurant in Bethany Beach for 17 years, concurs. “I have never cared about what other restaurants are doing,” she says. “We have always designed our menu with what we love and enjoy and our creations.”

That is not to say that the customer will always love it. “We’re here to deal with their request, and if they send it back, we fix it,” says Ian Mangin, executive chef at The Pickled Pig Pub in the Rehoboth Beach area. Cooks who get irate when an item is returned should consider getting out of the kitchen, he says. “I don’t want negative people around me. We’re in the hospitality industry, and we’re there to serve the guests.”

Changing tides

Coastal restaurants are also in the tourism industry. “To succeed on the coast, you must be in tune with the ebb and flow of the seasons,” says Ruley of SoDel Concepts. “There are some chefs who look at winter and spring as a vacation of sorts, but that only creates a struggle to catch up before summer.”

In winter, the company’s executive chefs write their budgets, make capital improvements and start planning for summer. Spring, he says, is all about creating menus, which SoDel’s restaurants change up to four times a year. Staff training also occurs in spring. “In summer, you have to be locked and loaded: all systems in place, repairs and improvements done, vendors locked in, employees trained and menus tweaked,” Ruley maintains.

Many SoDel restaurants are still busy in the fall, when the locals make up the bulk of the clientele and off-season specials begin. Ruley spends part of the off-season traveling to promote SoDel Concepts. For instance, he’s cooked at the James Beard House in New York, the former home of the cookbook author and the headquarters of the James Beard Foundation. “The wheel always has to be turning,” he says. “The fire has to be stoked.”

At the few restaurants that close in winter, the pressure is particularly intense in summer. “You have 100 days to make your money,” says Pete McMahon, the executive chef for Highway One Limited Partnership, which owns three restaurants, including the Rusty Rudder and Ivy in Dewey Beach and the new Jimmy’s Grille on Route 1 in the Rehoboth Beach area. He’s waiting to see how that latest addition, which will stay open all year, will affect operations.

But for all the coastal chefs, summers are grueling. Gates recently had to be at The Buttery at 7 one morning to meet a repairman, and it’s not unusual for him to still be at the restaurant at 2 a.m. after a busy evening.

Pam George, a frequent contributor to Delaware Beach Life, has also been published in Fortune, US Airways Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor and Men’s Health.

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