Last winter I wrote about the proliferation of cooking classes here at the beach. What a clever way to lure people out of their igloos - and keep the restaurant lights on at the same time! One clever incarnation of this concept belongs to the perpetually busy Spice & Tea Exchange in Rehoboth Beach. With two local stores under her belt (the other one is in Ocean City at 67th Street, across from Touch of Italy), owner Joy Quinn-Whelan has cleverly co-branded her classes with local restaurants. Her Taste & Learn Chef Series business model is pretty straightforward: A local chef does a cooking demo using spices, sugars, salts, teas - whatever - available for purchase in the store. A multi-course tasting ensues, lubricated by a bit of wine or beer. At around $45 per person it’s a fun way to spend an evening.
Much depends on the individual chef, of course, and last week Joy and her crew hit the jackpot with the always effervescent Lisa DiFebo Osias, co-proprietor of DiFebo’s restaurants in Bethany Beach and Rehoboth Beach. Lisa was born in Wilmington, where Bob DiFebo (her talented dad and Master of the Red Sauce) owned a restaurant. So Lisa grew up amongst the pots, pans and pasta. She relocated to the Bethany area in 1987, and a tiny beach house/sandwich shop on Atlantic Avenue eventually became DiFebo’s Café & Deli.
Lisa is no slacker in the education department. She attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York to become the first female to do a fellowship at the award-winning American Bounty restaurant (the on-campus eatery at CIA). That must be why she’s such an engaging teacher.
Lisa was ably assisted by R.J. Willoughby, veteran DiFebo’s chef and quite a star in his own right. R.J. worked his way up from the fast pace of an Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips franchise to his own catering operation - at 19, yet! In ‘97 he started in the kitchen at DiFebo’s. After short stints at JD Shuckers and Casa DiLeo, he accepted the coveted head chef position at The Peninsula Golf & Country Club in Millsboro. Country club cheffing and restaurant cheffing are two entirely different things, and after a few years R.J. returned to his kitchen family at DiFebo’s. The dynamic between the two old friends last week was palpable, and it made the evening even more enjoyable.
Lisa and R.J. kick-started the show with a bloody mary built around Spice & Tea Exchange’s Bloody Mary Spice blended with horseradish, Old Bay, Worcestershire, lime, lemon, celery seed, pepper, and of course Tabasco. Yes, I WILL have another, thank you….
Round two was built on bruschetta, a DiFebo’s menu staple. But this one was kicked up with Spice & Tea Exchange’s Tuscany Blend seasoning and a schmear of mascarpone spiked with Cranberry Apple Tart Herbal Tea. The apples in the tea magically reconstituted to blend perfectly with a chiffonade of fresh basil and lime juice.
Nothing’s more fun than breakfast for dinner, and Lisa treated us to that cozy concept with eggs Benedict. Having been set loose in a spice store, neither she nor R.J. were going to crank out anything close to a regulation-style Benedict. So they braised the shredded short rib in Sweet Onion Sugar and Joy’s Everything Bagel mix. Garlic. Onion. Short rib. A happy marriage, to be sure.
My respect for Chef Lisa went up even more when she brought in reinforcements to ensure that the poached eggs were perfectly executed. Properly poached eggs are not easy, especially while cooking in front of 40 people. So Lisa drafted DiFebo’s brunchmaster himself, Steve Cox. It was a show within a show to watch this guy manipulate and perfectly time these finicky little orbs. Even after being held in a bowl during the demo, the eggs arrived at our tables perfectly runny on the inside and fittingly firm on the outside. The unpredictable Chef Lisa spiked the hollandaise with a touch of Smoked BBQ spice. And it all worked. The intrepid Gazette columnist-in-attendance got two. My life is just one trial after another….
The garlicky Everything Bagel did a repeat performance with potatoes, roasted with olive oil, rosemary, garlic and Spice & Tea Exchange’s Signature Spice Blend. The breakfast theme continued with steel-cut oatmeal (simmered forever in a crock pot), decorated with Bourbon Black Walnut Sugar and raisins soaked in … wait for it … Jim Beam. There are no words.
The DiFebo’s crew worked flawlessly with Dan Slagel, Chris Asmussen and Brenda Pfautsch of the Spice & Tea Exchange to serve the dishes, bus the tables and keep our beverage cups full. If tasting and learning sounds like fun (hint: it is), sniff your way to the Spice & Tea Exchange just steps from the Rehoboth Boardwalk, and on Coastal Highway in Ocean City.
Bob Yesbek is a serial foodie and can be reached at byesbek@CapeGazette.com.