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Saltwter Portrait

Lee Stewart turns to teaching the art of good food

Former Po’ Boys owner trains new generation of chefs
Former Po’ Boys owner Lee Stewart has found a new career teaching the next generation of Cape Region chefs. Stewart is teaching classes at Del Tech and at Sussex Correctional Institution in Georgetown, where he teaches culinary skills to inmates who are set to be released. RYAN MAVITY PHOTO
May 23, 2017

Thirty-plus years ago, Lee Stewart left behind a desk job to begin work in the kitchen.

Now, he is imparting what he's learned to the next generation of chefs on Delaware's Culinary Coast.

Stewart has spent the last several years teaching kitchen and culinary skills to students at Delaware Technical Community College and inmates at Sussex Correctional Institution. It's easy to see how Stewart would be successful at teaching: he's got an easygoing, friendly manner and with his bushy sideburns, forearm tattoos and Social Distortion T-shirt, he definitely has the funky look of the coastal chef. His wisdom has been earned by working his way up from the bottom of the cooking pecking order to being the boss.

Born in Newark, Stewart, the founder of the popular Po' Boys restaurant in Milton, said he had been coming to the Cape Region all his life, moving to the area full-time in 1985. He said his first job was typesetting.

"I was sitting at a computer for eight hours a day and I couldn't stand it," Stewart said.

He said he always liked to cook, so he entered the restaurant business, first steaming crabs at a restaurant called Crab Cafe. Stewart said he began getting serious about becoming a chef when he worked for Back Porch Cafe founder Victor Pisapia and Joyce Felton at Tijuana Taxi in Rehoboth Beach.

"They were two of the big people in the restaurant scene back then. They kind of started the whole upscale restaurant scene in Rehoboth," Stewart said. "Working with Victor was where I got really excited about food, got a lot more into it."

After working for a few other Rehoboth-area restaurants, Stewart moved to Destin, Fla., but he didn't like it as much as Delaware. Still, it is where he learned how to make sushi.

"That's probably the hardest thing I had to do," he said. "It's like learning how to do things all over again. The only thing that really helped me was my knife skills."

Stewart then moved back to Delaware and began working at Café Solé on Baltimore Avenue in Rehoboth, where, he said, he helped get the dinner business off the ground. After nine years there, Stewart was laid off and decided to take the plunge with his own restaurant, Po' Boys.

He said he learned traditional Cajun-style cooking in Florida, and he decided to apply those skills to his new venture.

"We were trying to think of something in this area that had never been done before. There's really nothing here that did traditional Cajun. Like a little hole-in-the-wall place like you would see in Louisiana. That's what we were shooting for. Something fun and funky, like you were coming into somebody's house," Stewart said.

Po' Boys quickly grew a following and became a popular spot in Milton. Stewart said he had to make Po' Boys work.

"There was really nothing else like it in the state," Stewart said before slipping into teacher mode. "That's one of the things, too, that you really need to think of when you're opening a business, especially a restaurant business. What needs to be in that area? You have to do something that people are going to drive out to from all over, that they can't find anywhere else. You have to do something to stand out."

In 2014, Stewart was tired of the grind of running a restaurant and was looking for a new challenge.

He sold Po' Boys to Michael Clampitt, a former colleague at Tijuana Taxi. Stewart said he was happy Clampitt was the one to take over, "He's definitely the perfect guy for the place."

Stewart moved into teaching, first leading Delaware Technical Community College's Commercial Kitchen Safety program, a 32-hour program that teaches kitchen safety and basic culinary skills. Stewart then partnered with Delaware Department of Correction to teach food safety and basic kitchen skills to inmates set to be released from prison.

"So that way they kind of have a direction to go to once they are released. A lot of them, when they are released, they don't know what to do. They fall back in with the same crowd and end up going right back in again," Stewart said.

He said he's held 12 classes, which last three weeks, all at Sussex Correctional Institution in Georgetown; inmates have found work at restaurants after their release.

"I don't think of it as teaching inmates; I think of them as students. Some people might be weird about teaching a course in prison, but for me, it's just another class, just in a different setting. It's been a really good program," Stewart said.

He has also begun teaching adult culinary classes at First State Community Action Agency, training people to work in the restaurant business.

"I'm trying to get some decent, skilled people out there that want to learn, that want to get in the restaurant business," Stewart said. "Talking to my chef friends, they're having a really hard time finding good kitchen help."

He said his last class had 10 students, and all 10 have been offered internships at area restaurants. Other disciples who worked at Po' Boys and at Café Solé have gone on to start A Different Kitchen in Paynter's Mill in Milton. He's even tried passing on his passion to his 11-year-old son, Kevin.

"We'll make pizza here from scratch. Every kid loves pizza. We'll make the dough from scratch. We make noodles from scratch," he said.

Stewart said it was bittersweet to let go of Po' Boys, but the restaurant is in good hands and he is enjoying his new career teaching. "It's a lot less stressful and a lot more rewarding, seeing how they get excited about learning new things," he said.

 

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