Jimmy Parks: Rehoboth Beach was his culinary school
It’s a rare 9-year-old boy who doesn’t thrill at the thought of catching a fish all by himself. But it’s even rarer when he insists on preparing it and cooking it for dinner - all by himself. In spite of mom’s protests, he was adamant, so she drizzled a little oil into the skillet, and he proceeded to drop the fish in too quickly, splashing himself with a few drops of hot oil. “It was my first culinary injury,” he smiles. The event became one of professional chef, butcher and restaurateur Jimmy Parks’ earliest and most treasured memories.
By the time he was 14, Jimmy was working at The Swiss Dairy in what used to be “the small mall” at the south end of the Boardwalk Plaza Hotel. He was the quintessential short-order cook, whippin’ up french fries and hot dogs for hungry sunbathers. “Wow, I was working on the Boardwalk and lookin’ at the ocean! I was livin’ the life!”
After helping open the TCBY on Rehoboth Avenue, 16-year-old Jimmy got a job washing dishes at J/R’s the Place for Ribs on Coastal Highway where Cracker Barrel now stands. After graduation, Jimmy could legally serve alcohol, so he ventured away from the beach to wash dishes and wait tables in Laurel, Md., and Annapolis, Md.
But the beach can be addictive, and by 1994 he was back at J/R’s as a server. Subsequent stints at Rusty Rudder, Mama Maria’s and Mulligan’s (on Route 1 in Rehoboth, where Jakes Seafood is now) prepared him for an epiphany that would change his life. It all started when owner Greg Talcott and young Manager Matt Haley duplicated Washington, D.C.’s Third Edition in the old Fran O’Brien’s space on Lake Avenue (where Stingray is now). Jimmy was fascinated. “This was my first job where food was the main focus,” Parks says. “Suddenly I was learning to make stocks, sauces - everything! When Matt scolded me for throwing out the cold coffee, I learned that it is a perfect starter for a rich au jus.”
Kevin Reading’s Espuma was a popular hangout for restaurant folk, and he and Jimmy hit it off. When Reading needed help, Jimmy worked the bar, managed and haunted the kitchen. “I never stopped asking questions,” he says of Reading. “He’s the most patient person I know.” Parks was working Espuma by night and helping Talcott and Haley construct Bethany’s Redfin (now Bluecoast) by day. Opening chef (and erstwhile musician) Cyrus Keefer eventually moved to Espuma, where Jimmy had his first trial by fire. It was Valentine’s Day, with 286 reservations on the books, and he was drafted to work the line with Kevin and Cyrus. “I’ll never forget it,” he says softly.
Keefer would eventually cook at Dish! (where MIXX is now) and help Kevin open Nage. (Keefer continues to earn accolades in Baltimore, Md.) When Kevin sold Espuma, Jimmy helped open Nage while remaining at Espuma with new owner Jay Caputo. “This guy is serious about what he does,” Parks says reverently. He was fascinated by Caputo’s attention to detail and his respect for the ingredients. Jimmy makes a point of citing the late Darren Beachy, the beloved bartender at Espuma and also one of the only local “bar chefs” who could move seamlessly between mixing cocktails and cooking.
Parks had made friends with a young cook at Ram’s Head Tavern in Rehoboth. When Cyrus needed a sous chef at Nage, Parks suggested that this guy might fill the bill. That guy was Hari Cameron. After going to culinary school, Executive Chef Hari helped keep Nage on the map until he opened his very own a(MUSE.) on Baltimore Avenue. Now both Nage and a(MUSE.) are on the map!
Jimmy wanted to branch out into alternative cuisines. When Hobos chef/owner Gretchen Hanson hired him as sous chef, he was taken aback by the breadth of her knowledge. “I figured vegetarian fare was big salads and maybe a grilled cheese. Her ability to combine ingredients was amazing.” When Gretchen announced she was closing the restaurant to go on a trip for a few weeks, Parks made her a deal: If she’d let him run the place himself, he’d make up any money loss out of his pay. “I worked harder than I ever had, and I took home my paycheck.”
Jimmy eventually teamed up with his sister, Sandy Gallagher, to open a butcher shop in Winchester, Va. Parks mastered the finer points of butchering, but quickly learned that a boutique-style meat cutter was not going to survive in a town where many people were satisfied with the grocery store. Thus was born The Butcher Station restaurant.
Making wise use of equipment auctions (and mom and dad’s inexhaustible talents in carpentry and construction), Jimmy and Sandy put together a culinary tour-de-force that earns a solid 4.5-plus stars from well over 100 reviews on Yelp and TripAdvisor. “We finally became what we are today,” boasts Jimmy. “A farm-to-table restaurant that just happens to butcher everything in-house. And I have my Delaware restaurant friends and mentors to thank. With their help, Rehoboth Beach became my personal culinary school.”