Seven Cape Region restaurants: All in a day’s work
It was oddly warm for Presidents’ Day weekend. Temperatures approached 72 as traffic streamed toward the Delaware beaches. Restaurateurs were drawing the battle lines: Pantries were filled. Windows were cleaned. Menus were written. Managers, kitchen personnel, servers and bartenders braced themselves for the first onslaught of 2011.
That Friday, I accompanied Matt Haley on the rounds of his six, soon to be seven, restaurants. I arrived at Lupo di Mare in Rehoboth at 2 p.m., where manager Zach and Chef Felipe were preparing for dinner. Timing was critical as Matt fine-tuned menus via email and texts.
2:08: Head south via Silver Lake. I ask why he’s taking the scenic route. Matt smiles at the sparkling water and says, “It reminds me why I’m here.” In between calls, he outlines the structure of SoDel Concepts and Highwater Management. In addition to the properties he owns with his partner, Bryony Zeigler, they also manage Fins and Claws restaurants in Rehoboth, Waterman’s Seafood in Ocean City, Md., another eatery and two liquor stores in northern Delaware, and provide food service for the Lewes Historical Society, the Cordrey Center in Millsboro, and 5,000 to 7,000 in-season fans at Georgetown’s Sports at the Beach.
2:29: Northeast Seafood Kitchen, Ocean View. A bottle of expensive wine has broken and stained the others in the case. Matt advises Chef Antonio to feature it by the glass. It’s a win-win: The blemished labels remain hidden, and customers get a delicious vintage for a good price. Out on the deck, Matt positions plants, server stations and tables. We run into the fish purveyor - this won’t be the last time we cross paths today.
3:26: Catch 54, Fenwick Island. Matt shows me blueprints of his Mexican-themed Papa Grande’s, opening in 2012 adjacent to Catch 54. Plans include dredging and new docks. I meet Craig, the chef. They strategize on specials as Matt calls for service on the A/C, repair of a set of blinds, and weather-related fixes to the exterior. We load a bench from the dock into his truck. Another one wobbles dangerously, and he summons a handyman to repair it before tonight.
4:11: Blue Coast, Bethany Beach. Chef Doug, who oversees all of SoDel’s kitchens, has come up with a lobster toast special for tonight. Matt takes a bite, looks at me and says, “I couldn’t have come up with this. It’s delicious.” As he reviews job applications, in walks the fish purveyor. On our way out, Matt snaps a picture of the lobster toast and emails it to Bryony.
4:52: Matt’s Fish Camp Classic Seafood and ToGo, near the Indian River bridge. Unload the bench. $60,000 worth of stainless steel sits like Stonehenge in the parking lot as fabricators install the kitchen hoods. Bryony maps out the computer stations. She, Matt and Scott Kammerer, who oversees Highwater Management, decide that the wall paint should match my shirt. I feel like part of the action. Matt gets a call from Lupo di Mare; a dishwasher is on the fritz. A repair person is on the way. In a half-hour they’ll be packed. I get nervous, and I don’t even own the place.
6:47: Betty’s Pure and Simple, Rehoboth Beach. I meet Jesse, the head chef. Matt glowers at a not-quite-perfect prime rib, angrily snapping its picture and emailing it to the meat purveyor. The roast is 86ed. He makes a last-minute change to a salad recipe and authorizes Lupo di Mare to treat the dishwasher repairman to dinner. Matt and Korean-born chef Maurice discuss a wedding reception they’ll be catering. Matt’s excited about “infusing a bit of Delaware into Korean food.” Lo and behold: There’s the fish guy.
7:52: Fish On, Lewes. The place is hoppin’. Head chef Phil, who also oversees Lupo di Mare, consults about the do-it-yourself s’mores kits for the patio fire pit. He frowns at the photo of the offending prime rib. Matt walks the line, inspecting each plate, shifting effortlessly between Spanish and English as he glides from station to station. Workers barely notice him as trays are filled and bustled out to customers.
9:17: Home, Rehoboth Beach. Collapse. Remember fondly why I sold my last restaurant.