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This holiday buffet blends family traditions with new tastes

December 3, 2021

While standing in the buffet line at the Big Fish Grill Rehoboth Thanksgiving feast, my internal struggle (Turkey? Ham? Prime rib? All three? Is this plate big enough?!) was interrupted by a voice behind me whispering, “More Neva’s potatoes. Gravy running low. More chocolate cake. Green beans almost empty.” I turned around to see one of the Big Fish Grill managers intoning the state of the huge buffet into a headset microphone. In fact, much of the staff was similarly wired, keeping track of special orders, clearing tables, delivering drinks, and managing the crowd at the front door.

The scale of this deftly orchestrated Thanksgiving chaos is daunting. More than 1,200 hungry guests – each expecting the perfect holiday dinner – were being fed by a radio-linked army of employees both in the dining room and in the cavernous kitchens. Let’s face it: When a dinner and carryout service requires 700 turkeys, plus 200 pounds of breast meat and 300 pounds of dark meat all in one day, somebody must be doing something right.

Those somebodies are Norman and Eric Sugrue. As kids, they bussed tables, ran food, and did the heavy lifting at various beach eateries including John McDonald’s Garden Gourmet, Summer House and Grotto Pizza. Norman eventually earned his degree in business, honing his skills in mortgage banking and real estate. But his passion for all things food still simmered on the back burner.

Eric applied his degree in economics and finance to a friend’s eatery in Knoxville, Tenn. His knack for money matters eventually landed him a managerial position at a 300-seat restaurant in Rockville, Md. But the brothers had their eyes on a decades-old crab joint near the canal in Rehoboth Beach. The old Crab House needed extensive renovation, so in 1997 they converted it into Big Fish Grill. The massive eatery that now graces that spot bears little resemblance to the semi-shack that started it all. The adjacent warehouse contains Big Fish Wholesale Seafood Company and the allied Diamond State Meats. Both supply fresh product to hundreds of industry accounts.

In order to make sure every guest gets his or her fill of celebratory goodies, the preparation must begin weeks before, taking into account delivery times, perishability and quantity of product. Turkeys go into the ovens on Monday of Thanksgiving week. Remember … there are 700 of ‘em, so even that huge restaurant had to rent equipment to cook them all. When it comes time to make the gravy (300 gallons, to be exact!), Norman does not waste the ultra-savory drippings caramelized onto the turkey pans. He and his team immerse around 30 of the sheet pans in a 60-gallon steam-jacketed kettle along with cream, water and additional turkey broth made from the bones and his own secret mix of spices. (Don’t tell Norman, but I know that two of them are rubbed sage and Big Fish’s proprietary steak seasoning.)

Ever seen 1,500 pounds of potatoes in one place? It takes that many to make the mashers. The obligatory stuffing (or dressing, as you may prefer) starts with 400 cases of prepared and seasoned bread cubes that are sautéed in-house with butter, celery (lots of it), onion (hundreds of them) and Norman’s own tried-and-proven spices.

But it’s not all about the turkeys. Thanks to their association with Delaware’s Diamond State Meats, Big Fish Grill also offers carved-to-order prime rib that’s trimmed, roasted and then halved for the carving station. In yet another chafing dish, boneless short rib meat starts as richly marbled chuck flaps that are sliced into bite-sized portions and slow-cooked overnight with red wine, bay leaves, tomato, garlic, onions, celery and carrots. Lots of ‘em … you get the idea.

The applewood smoked hams are sourced from Neuske smokehouse in Wisconsin. Why mess with success; they’ve been spicing, curing and smoking meats since 1933.

When I asked about what I was sure would be BFG’s own magical style of cranberry sauce, Norman laughed. Yes, he does in fact have a tasty recipe that includes oranges, spices, juices, crushed cranberries and all that good stuff. He proudly prepared it for their first buffet several years ago – and all he got were complaints! Apparently people do love the jellied cranberry sauce – yup, the version with the little can rings around it. So this year, Big Fish Grill kept the masses happy with the canned delicacy, attractively presented in a grand serving dish. Go figure!

All the breads (mountains of them) are baked on the premises. The soups and the desserts (including that pumpkin cheesecake and those amazing chocolate cakes) also start from scratch there at the restaurant. The list goes on and on – including a raw bar, sushi, salads, sides and at least 12 different appetizers – but unfortunately this page does not go on and on.

Buffets are difficult to pull off gracefully, especially when you mount them only once a year. And as long as restaurants are operated by humans, there will be the occasional mistakes. Sugrue tells me that the great majority of people are patient and understanding. “This isn’t Golden Corral,” he smiles, “Everything is made to order, and very little is pre-bought or pre-cooked. We do it because people love it. A lot of people simply have no desire to cook at home, so we serve them a holiday meal that, who knows, might even trigger a few childhood memories.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Only the strong survive in this business of eating.

  • 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 byesbek@capegazette.com.

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