Award-winning chef is defined by his smart decisions
Successful chefs often work their way through the ranks by doing the “heavy lifting” back in the kitchen and in the dining room. At the tender age of 14, Kevin Reading landed his first job in a restaurant where all the serving ware was made of pewter. Full trays could weigh well over 40 pounds! To this day, he credits all that heavy metal for his good physical shape.
As general manager of Taboo restaurant in West Palm Beach, Fla., Kevin found himself faced with the unthinkable: Confronting the head chef about how long customers were waiting for their food. Some chefs make themselves unapproachable with an intimidating defiance, and Kevin laughs as he remembers silently imploring, “Please don’t quit; please don’t quit,” as he was propelled out of the kitchen by the chef’s icy stare.
It was a defining moment. Reading knew then and there that he had to be able to do every job in the place - including the chef’s. Being held hostage by the quirks of an obstinate cook can be the kiss of death. So in 1994 he enrolled in the culinary arts program at The Philadelphia Restaurant School.
When he opened Fox Point Grill in Wilmington, friends warned him that upstate diners wouldn’t tolerate anything unusual. His second defining moment was to ignore their advice. He opened the doors to a menu that included wild game, terrine of eel, cactus salads and elk. Food critics loved his anything-but-conservative fare, and the place took off. Would his out-of-the-box thinking work everywhere?
When fire damaged the restaurant in 2001, Reading brought his concept south to Rehoboth Beach. And thus was born Espuma. But Wilmington’s taste for his progressive menu apparently didn’t exist in Rehoboth Beach - at least not for the first year.
Defining moment No. 3 came when Kevin’s staff insisted that he stay open in the off-season. He bought a snow shovel, reined in the menu, turned on the heat, and bingo! Espuma’s numbers skyrocketed 70 percent. Fine-dining icons Blue Moon and Back Porch were closed for the season, so Espuma became the perfect place to warm up on the ocean block.
Shortly thereafter, Kevin and pastry chef Andrew Hooven opened Sweet Dreams Bakery on Coastal Highway, immediately garnering Delaware Today’s Best Bakery award. Again, the unthinkable: Hooven suffered a brain aneurysm and was Medevac'd directly to the hospital.
Luckily, he recovered. But in the meantime Kevin unlocked the bakery every day at 4:30 a.m., worked until mid-morning, then opened Espuma, finally leaving around 1 a.m. Every day. For the entire summer. Something had to give.
Enter Jay Caputo from Tangerine in Philadelphia. The chef had dreamed of owning a restaurant by the ocean, and when he saw Espuma, it was love at first sight. Kevin proceeded to create Nage in the space where the bakery had been.
Reading experimented with several talented chefs, finally choosing the young and enthusiastic Hari Cameron. By 2007, Nage was earning awards and critical acclaim throughout the state. When partner Josh Grapski joined the team, the bistro’s concept was extended to Washington, D.C.
Reading tells me he has “restaurant ADD.” He thrives on developing dining concepts, but doesn’t relate well to the day-to-day operations. To that end, he reduced his involvement in both Nages and opened Abbott’s Grill in Milford.
The unthinkable seems to have a way of sneaking up on Kevin Reading. Abbott’s grand opening in ’09 was just in time for the devastating back-to-back snowstorms that crippled Delaware for a month. He weathered the storm, and now runs the restaurant with his bar manager and nephew, Scotty Johnson (yes, the very same Scotty who charmed diners at the Rehoboth Nage). The last time I was in Abbott’s Grill, the multi-award-winning chef and restaurateur was busing tables. So much for his ADD.
Kevin’s accolades are way too numerous to mention. But he’s most proud of a customer comment card left on a table after a particularly hectic dinner rush. It read, “We felt as if we were the only table in the restaurant.” In this business of eating, words like that will always define the bottom line.