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Friends and mentors help jump-start a successful career

July 14, 2017

Culinary bad boys seem to be all the rage nowadays, from TV’s snarky Anthony Bourdain to one-man kitchen wrecking ball Gordon Ramsay. Once you dig through all the bluster, however, many of these guys end up crediting their success to bosses who believed in them. Even the angelic Bobby Flay pays tribute to his first employer, noted New York restaurateur Joe Allen, for keeping him out of jail and hounding him into culinary school.

Sussex County’s Ryan Cunningham, head chef at Abbott’s on Broad Creek in Laurel, is not without his own inspiring story. He’s the first to say that his younger years were fraught with frequent guest appearances on local police blotters. He’s also the first to acknowledge his gratitude to noted restaurateurs Kevin Reading, Steve Taylor and Jonathan Spivak for helping him become who he is today. 

Born and raised in Lewes, Ryan started messing around in the kitchen at an early age. In spite of culinary inspiration from his grandmother, his mom says that she likes his food much more now than she did when he was a kid. He was just 12 years old when he took his first job bussing tables and mopping floors for his uncle, Charlie Marsh, at Angler’s Restaurant. When Charlie sold the business to Irish Eyes, Ryan sacrificed pretty much every teenage pastime to land a position in the kitchen. Shortly thereafter, he enrolled in the culinary arts program at Johnson & Wales University. 

Fresh out of school, Ryan became the sous chef at Ann Marie’s restaurant (where Saketumi is now). When Ann Marie’s head chef moved on to cook for Jonathan Spivak at the now long-gone Fusion, Ryan moved into the top position. But it was too much too soon. His son Jacob was just a year old, and the pressure took its toll. He followed his former superior into downtown Rehoboth. 

It’s hard enough being a young couple with a baby, but it’s even harder when you work in a busy restaurant. At the end of the 2003 summer season, Cunningham had had enough. He left his job to work as a house painter, but quickly realized that the grass was greener (from a bank account perspective) there on Wilmington Avenue. Jonathan kindly welcomed him back. 

In late 2004, his former boss and friend Steve Taylor asked him to return to Anne Marie’s. His affection for Taylor won out. “He treated me like a son,” he says. “I owe him a lot.” When one door closes, another one usually opens. When Ann Marie’s doors closed, he took over the lunch shift at Kevin Reading’s Nage. “The minute I walked in, I knew I belonged.” Though he loved the bistro atmosphere and the progressive menu, even more doors were about to open. 

Cunningham says he’ll never forget Reading’s encouragement when he was offered the head chef position at the new Bonz Restaurant at Harrington Raceway and Casino. Though the experience was unparalleled, his second son Jackson was already a toddler, and he confesses that the hours eventually cost him his marriage. 

Kevin moved on to open Abbott’s Grill in Milford, leaving Nage in the capable hands of longtime friend and business partner Josh Grapski. Reading felt that Cunningham would be perfect for his kitchen. “Cooking side-by-side at Nage with Kevin and [then] Chef de Cuisine Hari Cameron helped me develop my own style.” Abbott’s former marketing director Karen Stauffer (now the communications guru for the Delaware Restaurant Association) agrees: “Ryan is this young, tattooed guy with a wicked sense of humor, yet he turns out such sophisticated dishes based on traditional French cooking.” 

When Reading opened his second restaurant, Abbott’s on Broad Creek in Laurel, Ryan was the obvious choice for head chef. He instantly made it his own, distinguishing himself in various tongue-in-cheek contests (just how many things can you stack on a Thomas’ English Muffin!?!) and poking fun at his loyal and talented staff on social media. A few years ago, I had the pleasure of attending a cooking class taught by Ryan and I can tell you that under all the Facebook fun he is certainly the real thing. 

If you happen to drop by Abbott’s on Broad Creek to enjoy a sip, a bite and the view, be sure to say hi to Ryan. He always finds time to acknowledge anyone and everyone who visits his little domain there in Laurel.

  • So many restaurants, so little time! Food writer Bob Yesbek gives readers a sneak peek behind the scenes, exposing the inner workings of the local culinary industry, from the farm to the table and everything in between. He can be reached at byesbek@capegazette.com.

    Masthead photo by Grant Gursky. Used with permission from Coastal Style Magazine.

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