Success is the antidote to 'restaurant ADD'
I enjoy doing the occasional shout out to some of the people who risked their time and their money help to make our Cape Region the dining destination it has become. One of those people is none other than Kevin Reading, owner of the Abbott’s Grills in Milford and Laurel, and a partner in Smyrna’s Brick Works. Kevin started young! He tells me that he landed his first job at 14 in a restaurant where all the serveware was made of pewter. Full trays could weigh well over 40 pounds! To this day, he credits heavy metal for his good physical shape.
Successful people make a habit of turning adversity into advantage, and Reading was no different. One day, as general manager of Taboo restaurant in West Palm Beach, he found himself faced with the unthinkable: confronting the head chef about unacceptably long ticket times. Some chefs (usually those, I have found, who lack confidence in their abilities) make themselves unapproachable through defiance and verbal abuse. Kevin laughs as he remembers silently imploring, “Please don’t quit, please don’t quit,” as he was propelled out of the kitchen by the chef’s icy stare.
It was a defining moment. Reading knew then and there that he had to be proficient at every job in the place - including the chef’s. Being held hostage by the quirks of an obstinate cook gave him the energy to enroll in the Culinary Arts program at The Philadelphia Restaurant School in 1994. Shortly thereafter he opened Fox Point Grill in Wilmington. Friends warned him that upstate diners wouldn’t tolerate anything unusual. His second defining moment was to ignore their advice. He opened the doors to a menu that included wild game, terrine of eel, cactus salads and elk. Food critics loved his anything-but-conservative fare, and the place took off. Would his out-of-the-box thinking work everywhere?
When fire damaged the restaurant in 2001, Reading brought his concept south to Rehoboth Beach. And thus was born Espuma. But Wilmington’s taste for his progressive menu apparently didn’t exist in Rehoboth Beach - at least not for the first year.
Defining moment No. 3 came when Kevin’s staff insisted that he stay open in the off-season. He bought a snow shovel, reined in the menu, turned on the heat, and bingo! Espuma’s numbers skyrocketed 70 percent. The few Rehoboth fine-dining icons that existed in those days were closed for the season, so Espuma became the perfect place to warm up on the ocean block.
It wasn’t long until Kevin and pastry chef Andrew Hooven opened Sweet Dreams Bakery on Coastal Highway, immediately garnering Delaware Today’s Best Bakery award. Again, the unthinkable: Hooven suffered a brain aneurysm and was Medevac’d directly to the hospital. The good news is that Andrew recovered and is back in kitchens again. But the bad news was that during that ordeal Kevin unlocked the bakery every day at 4:30 a.m., worked until mid-morning, then opened Espuma; finally leaving around 1 a.m. Every day. For the entire summer. Something had to give.
He sold Espuma (now just a part of Rehoboth history) and proceeded to create Nage out on Coastal Highway in the space where the bakery had been. It would take a special cook to help Reading realize his vision for his fledgling Nage, and he finally chose a young and enthusiastic Hari Cameron. By 2007, Nage was earning awards and critical acclaim throughout the state. When former culinary schoolmate (and chef/entrepreneur in his own right) Josh Grapski joined the team, the bistro’s concept was extended to Washington, D.C. Hari went on to garner multiple James Beard nominations for his own a(MUSE.) restaurant.
Reading tells me he has “restaurant ADD.”
He thrives on developing dining concepts, but doesn’t relate well to the day-to-day operations. To that end, he reduced his involvement in both Nages and opened Abbott’s Grill in Milford. But the unthinkable has a way of sneaking up on Kevin Reading. Abbott’s grand opening in ‘09 was just in time for the devastating back-to-time for the devastating back-to-back snowstorms that crippled Delaware for a month. He obviously weathered the storm.
Reality also has a way of catching up: The last time I was at Abbott’s Grill, the multi-award-winning chef and restaurateur was busing tables. So much for his restaurant ADD! He has since partnered with talented entrepreneur Eric Williams of Mispillion River Brewing Company, and the two go-getters created Brick Works in Smyrna. And word on the street is that they aren’t finished yet! evin’s accolades are way too numerous to mention. But he’s most proud of a customer comment card left on a table after a particularly hectic dinner rush. It read, “We felt as if we were the only table in the restaurant.” In the food biz, words like that help fuel the endless hours of effort and risk that are an inescapable part of The Business of Eating. We who live - and eat - at the beach are fortunate to have the likes of Kevin Reading, Josh Grapski, Hari Cameron, Eric Williams and Andrew Hooven among us.