‘I’m doing my thing until I can’t’
I’ve written time and time again about how our brave restaurateurs weather the vagaries of a seasonal resort. I know for some of them, it’s (in the late Matt Haley’s words), “all in a day’s work.” But coping with unpredictable weather, visitor attendance and the difficulty of finding qualified help (compounded by the recent restrictions and shutdowns) is certainly a special kind of challenge.
But Monday’s passing of fine-dining-chef-turned-food-truck-entrepreneur Jamie Parsons gave a whole new meaning to the word “brave.” I had the pleasure of hosting him on my radio show several times, and I always enjoyed his sense of humor and upbeat attitude.
Jamie was born in Delaware and is a Cape Henlopen High School alumnus. At 22, he migrated to Boston where he worked for celebrity chef Todd English’s Olive Group Management, which at that time boasted more than 20 eateries, including Figs Restaurant, Olives Restaurant, Todd English P.U.B., Brasserie Ca Va, Tuscany, and Todd English Food Hall. As one of the organization’s executive chefs, Jamie honed his fine-dining skills, eventually taking them to Kennebunkport, Maine.
But the siren song of Delaware’s Cape Region is hard to resist, and he eventually returned to cook for DiFebo’s restaurants. He was cooking for Cheryl and Garry Tilton at Gilligan’s Milton when restaurants everywhere were shut down in what, with hindsight, seems to have been a somewhat arbitrary move, given that so many larger businesses remained open. But in spite of all that, Jamie wanted to continue cooking, and he purchased a food truck from local sandwich maven Vincent Manuele, aka “Fat Vinny.” And thus was born that bright lime-green SmashMouth Burgers bus that’s been lighting up the Big Chill Surf Cantina in Rehoboth.
My most recent interview with him and his wife Nichole was just two weeks ago. He was a shadow of his former self, moving slowly with a cane. One of the first things he said (with a chuckle) when we went on the air was, “Can you tell I’m a little under the weather?” In February he had been diagnosed with aggressive stage 4 lymphoma. When Nichole, who is an RN with Delaware Hospice, said that, Jamie interjected, “Sounds exciting, doesn’t it?” As she described her position with Delaware Hospice, he commented, “I’ll have a comfortable exit.” Shortly before airtime, he sternly warned both me and Nichole “not to be sad.” That was a difficult request to fulfill.
All this time he came to work every day, even investing in a second SmashMouth Burgers truck to use for outdoor events. Though it was becoming impossible for him to retain his beloved post at the onboard grill, he still involved himself in all the daily operations. But shortly after he started chemo for the lymphoma, Jamie began to show symptoms of leptomeningeal metastases. This cancer of the cerebrospinal fluid made it almost impossible for him to talk, eat or even walk. Nichole described all this during our show, finally admitting, “Things are moving a lot faster than we’d like them to – but we’re livin’ our best life ... .” She kept a brave face, but her eyes were sad.
Jamie remained positive about the continuation of his legacy: “The truck has to run without me. I have a great staff, and everybody cares!” Along with his trusted employees, who include Steve and Jesse, Nichole’s son Cale will also be directly involved in continuing Jamie’s SmashMouth Burgers enterprise.
Toward the end of our broadcast, I couldn’t resist asking him how he managed to cope with all this infirmity and pain. “It is what it is,” he quickly responded as best he could. “I’m doing my thing until I can’t.” He again publicly admonished me and Nichole to not engage in what he called “gloom and doom.” “I’m not sittin’ in the house every day waiting for it to take me,” he continued. “Every day I get up, I get dressed and I go to work.”
Nichole looked me straight in the eyes across the forest of microphones and said, “I want him to go as long he can and go out with his hair on fire!” Jamie laughed. And indeed, he “did his thing” until Monday morning, when he just couldn’t do it any more.
Jamie Parsons, your skills, your everlasting humor and your positive attitude will be missed. And in the words of your brother Jeremy, “SmashMouth will continue.”