Seasoned chef spices it up on The Avenue

Executive Chef R.J. Willoughby of The Peninsula Golf & Country Club will help you prepare the perfect Valentine’s Day dinner for two. PHOTOS BY BOB YESBEK
February 4, 2014

So here’s a little quiz: What do you get when you put a talented executive chef into a store that’s jam-packed with spices, teas, salts and sugars? I’ll leave the answer to Executive Chef R.J. Willoughby of The Peninsula Golf & Country Club: “It’s like letting a big kid loose in a candy store, but instead of candy, it’s spice, spice and more spice!”

And that big kid will run amok from 6 to 8 p.m. this coming Wednesday, Feb. 5, at Spice & Tea Exchange. As part of owner Joy Quinn’s Taste & Learn Chef Series, Willoughby will demonstrate how to prepare a perfect romantic dinner for two, including a unique cocktail, an appetizer, a featured entrée and dessert. Participants will enjoy small-plate nibbles of the final results.

Chef R.J. is no stranger to professional kitchens. As a young teenager, his first job was at an Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips franchise in his hometown. (The chain was named after the English actor who played Jeeves, “the perfect butler,” in several Shirley Temple films. Treacher was also Merv Griffin’s TV announcer in the mid-‘60s, adding his English accent to Merv’s show. See? You never know what semi-useless wisdom you’ll pick up on this page.)

Anyway, at the tender age of 19, R.J. co-owned and operated Gourmet Productions in Chester County, Pa., but it wasn’t long before he moved to Washington, D.C., to work at a boutique catering operation serving up dinners for state department functions and other government events.

When his dad passed away, his mother moved to Lewes, and he came here to comfort her for a while. He never left. In ’97 he started working for DiFebo’s in Bethany Beach and spent nine years in the kitchen with chef and co-owner Lisa DiFebo. As rewarding as the job was, R.J. says he “got tired of pasta,” so he teamed up with Pete McMahon (now the executive chef for Highway One L.P.’s restaurants) at JD Shuckers. After an interim stint at Casa DiLeo, Willoughby accepted the coveted head chef position at The Peninsula Golf & Country Club in Millsboro.

In spite of the rumors that the club is chock-full of television celebrities (it’s not), R.J. loves the friendly and generous community that has formed there. As I’ve written before, country club cheffing is very different from restaurant cheffing. At the country club, he feeds the same people all the time. He strolls the front-of-house in his dress-whites asking club members how they like today’s menu and what they would like to see on tomorrow’s. He’s on a first-name basis with many of the club members, and pays special attention to several of their young children who are budding foodies, eschewing chicken fingers and mini-pizzas for more adult (and creative) entrees. “Every day is different,” says R.J. “We’re their personal kitchen, so we strive for perfection and settle for excellent,” he smiles.

So the combination of Peninsula’s executive chef and the quirky foodie haven Spice & Tea Exchange couldn’t be more perfect. First off, as soon as you enter the place, you must inhale deeply. The panoply of aromas is an olfactory merry-go-round, and will stay with you during your entire visit. The store is cleverly organized, with single tastes like Vietnamese cinnamon, burgundy wine powder, star anise and lots more - including a particularly intense catnip - all grouped together. Custom blends such as Baker’s Secret, Earthly Delight, Herbal Garden, Italian Street Fair and Parfume de Sel are gathered in another area of the store. Specialty blends in cute grinder bottles are scattered about on tables, with items like pepper/salt shakers, salt blocks and assorted culinary bric-à-brac near the front. Foodies are encouraged to break out of their parents' dry soup-mix shackles and create something all their own.

Feeling romantic? Join Joy, Brenda, Chef R.J. Willoughby and the helpful spice girls and boys at 10 Rehoboth Ave. on Wednesday, Feb. 5. You can pick up some culinary skills, sniff your way around the store and get a little taste of Chef R.J.’s creations - all for only $35 per person or $60 for you and your valentine du jour. Call 302-227-3327 or email for tickets.

  • 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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