A local chef is matching his culinary skills against one of the top chefs in the nation.
Bill Clifton, executive chef and co-owner of The Counting House Restaurant and Pub in Georgetown, will appear on the Thursday, May 2 Food Network hit show “Beat Bobby Flay,” which airs at 10 p.m.
The show was filmed a year ago in a Brooklyn, N.Y., studio during a 12-hour marathon day, Clifton said. He said he can't wait to see how the show is edited down to 30 minutes. “It could easily be a one-hour show,” he said. His brother, John, accompanied him to New York to be part of the audience, and instead, he ended up as part of the show.
Clifton said can't reveal the outcome other than to say he did very well.
The format of the show includes a cook-off between two chefs whose dishes are judged by two of Flay's invited guests. The winner then competes against Flay with the contestant's signature dish, which is blind-taste tested by three judges. Iron Chef Flay has an 18-season record of 154-80.
Clifton said he plans to have a family party when the show airs in May.
Clifton said show staff contacted him via email last January. That led to at least six email interviews, he said, including one via Skype. “After that interview, I knew I had it,” he said.
Clifton said producers were planning for their 19th season and his name popped up during a Google search. “I matched what they were looking for. I was really surprised and called back to see if it was real. I thought at first it might have been a scam,” he said with a laugh.
He was also required to submit several recipes before one was selected for him to prepare for the first round of the show. He and Flay will go skillet to skillet preparing Clifton's signature recipe.
From pizza to No. 1 restaurant
It took Clifton less than 20 years to make the jump from working at Grotto Pizza to an internship at French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., in Napa Valley, the No. 1 restaurant in the country in 2008.
After working at Cape Region restaurants during and after high school, including several years at Just In Thyme in Rehoboth Beach, Clifton knew he had to step up his game. He enrolled in Kendall College in Chicago, which has a top-ranked culinary program.
Another reason he picked Kendall was its location in the city of his beloved Chicago Cubs, a team he has followed his entire life. “I lived 13 blocks from Wrigley Field,” he said. “Let's say I skipped quite a lot of classes to see games.”
While attending school, he landed a job at prestigious Blackbird Restaurant. “It was the first time I had seen a restaurant use farm produce. Growing up on a farm, I had just taken it for granted,” he said. That farm-to-table concept stuck with him, and is an integral part of his menu at his own restaurant.
Clifton was the first Kendall student to intern at a Michelin Guide-starred restaurant, French Laundry. He said two Kendall chefs took him under their wings to give him a preview of what he would face at the restaurant and to fine-tune his skills in the art of French cuisine. “They hammered me. They didn't want me to embarrass myself or the college,” he said. “They were right, because it was tough.”
After graduation, he landed a job at North Pond Restaurant in Chicago, another Michelin-starred restaurant. “Making $10 an hour as a line cook, I was going broke,” he said. “It was time to go home.”
After his return to Sussex County, he played a pivotal role in starting Dewey Beer Company and Henlopen City Oyster House in Rehoboth Beach, where he was executive chef for nine years. He was working there when he received the call to appear on the TV show. Clifton said he wanted to branch out on his own, and with partner Miguel Batiz, last summer he purchased the former historic Brick Hotel Restaurant on The Circle in Georgetown, renaming it The Counting House Restaurant and Pub.
They completed some renovations, and moved the pub and restaurant door to the building's Market Street side. The restaurant offers lunch and dinner, and provides space for special events. Lynn Lester, former owner, still operates the Brick Hotel lodging section of the building, which dates back to 1836.
After graduation from Milford High School in 1998, Clifton said he knew one thing for sure – no more school. He went to work at Grotto Pizza. “I was good at it and stuck with it,” he said.
Over one Thanksgiving holiday, he prepared a complete meal for the staff. That was a turning point for him and set him on a path to become a chef. “I like to see people appreciate what I’ve done,” he said.
Clifton, who grew up on a third-generation farm in the Milford area as one of seven children, has cooking in his blood. His mother, Ruth, operates Fortunata's Bakery in Milford. He lives in Greenwood with his wife, Lea Rosell, who is Lewes library director, and their 1-year-old son.