Rehoboth chefs unite for sustainable Sussex

a(Muse.) chef/owner Hari Cameron tries to reason with a runaway softshell. BY BOB YESBEK PHOTOS
August 21, 2012

Most restaurant owner/chefs are not shy. It takes a robust ego to command the people-machine that is a busy kitchen while overseeing servers, bartenders, etc. Money and competition are always paramount, especially when facing the seasonal vagaries of a beach resort. Payday, rent/mortgage payments and food bills come around like clockwork whether the customers come to you or not.

So it’s a pretty big deal when owners/chefs/high-level managers put their egos aside and get together for a good cause. If it was going to happen anywhere, it’s no surprise it happened here in Rehoboth Beach. The newly-formed Rehoboth Inspired Chefs Initiative (RICI) is a non-profit organization formed to promote Rehoboth dining by supporting local food-related charities and encouraging healthy eating and sustainable, local ingredients with a community garden.

The founding members of RICI are a veritable who’s who of Rehoboth dining. Each brings his or her unique talents to the table, all of which add to the breadth and width of the initiative. And future members will make this list even more impressive.

One of the founders who helped to brainstorm the whole thing is Gretchen Hansen, chef/owner of Hobos on Baltimore Avenue. Gretchen hit the ground running over three years ago by providing upbeat cuisine for vegetarians, vegans and diners with food sensitivities. This year has certainly been her year, with Hobos packed just about every night. Who knew healthy food could taste good too?

Meg and Lion Gardner recently celebrated the 30th anniversary of the iconic Blue Moon restaurant after they and their partners purchased it in 2008. The Moon has seen its share of drama over the years, but Lion’s talents in the kitchen have kept the upscale eatery firmly positioned at the top of the Rehoboth Beach food chain shared with just a few fine-dining stars.

Of course, no mention of upscale is complete without Chef Jay Caputo. Jay took over ownership of Espuma from Kevin Reading and, like the Gardners, has kept guests impressed and happy since then. Caputo pioneered year-round fine-dining here in Rehoboth, and recently partnered with Dewey restaurateur Greg Plummer to open Cabo. Jay’s crew cranks out plate after plate of Mexican goodies (and potent margaritas) at Second Street and Wilmington Avenue.

Close to that corner is Confucius Gourmet Chinese. Hunan Province-born Shawn Xiong and his wife Danielle live up to the name with fresh, made-to-order Chinese cuisine. It’s no secret that there are lots of bad Chinese joints, and the Xiongs’ personal crusade is to show locals and visitors what good Chinese really tastes like. By the way, if you like yours spicy, be sure to tell Shawn. He has an evil side to him, and expresses it with an arsenal of powerful peppers. Hard to believe, from such a quiet, unassuming guy!

Operations manager Danielle Panarello is not only a pastry chef extraordinaire, but she also oversees the day-to-day action at both Eden and JAM Bistro on the ocean block. Working in concert with head chefs Andrew Feeley (Eden) and Gary Johnson (JAM), Danielle runs the show with her characteristic grace, aplomb and breathtaking desserts.

I saved the newest ‘til last, and Hari Cameron’s fledgling a(Muse.) restaurant is definitely making waves on Baltimore Avenue. Though Hari was instrumental in putting Nage Bistro on the map, his boss and friend Josh Grapski encouraged the creative toque to go solo. A phalanx of small plates with slyly amusing names (Cameron never met a double entendre he didn’t like) leads up to larger plates on a menu that reads like an outline for a term paper. The bar is upbeat, and the chef is militant about locally sourced and sustainable ingredients.

The next obvious step is to integrate other Rehoboth restaurateurs into the RICI fold, and Jay, Danielle, Meg, Lion, Shawn, Hari and Gretchen have their work cut out for them. These people could all make more money in a year ‘round environment like Philly, New York or Washington, D.C., but they all share a love for the beach and everything Sussex County grows, catches and raises.

Those of us armed only with our forks, credit cards and taste buds should be thankful for that.

  • 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

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

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