La Fia Bistro is quiet most afternoons.
If you happen to step into the little French eatery before the dinner rush, though, you’ll find executive chef Dwain Kalup in the kitchen, busily preparing for hours before his staff arrives.
His skillful use of ingredients and reimagination of already perfect plating is why La Fia Bistro owner Andrea Sikora says Kalup is one of the best chefs ever to grace the restaurant, which she owns with husband Bryan.
Kalup and Bryan crossed culinary paths about seven years ago at an event.
“He tried a piece of the cake that I made and was asking me what I did to make it taste so good,” Kalup remembers. “He was just very interested in what I was doing, so I could just tell he was all about the food.”
It was a match made in confection heaven.
He could tell that Andrea, too, was a foodie.
“They [both] love the culture … so I’m excited to work with both of them.”
The Sikoras opened the bistro in 2013, which attracted patrons with its European-style vibe: intimate tables, a smattering of cheerful plants, good wine. The restaurant received praise from the beginning for its French/Mediterranean–inspired fare. But with Kalup, they believe they’ve found their top chef. Since he took over, Andrea says, the response from patrons has been outstanding.
Kalup favors inventive, seasonal fare—focused on local and sustainable ingredients—served as traditional small plates, small courses or full entrées. The restaurant prides itself on making much in-house, from oven-baked breads to desserts.
Many Delawareans remember Kalup from the now-defunct Domaine Hudson. The Brookhaven, Pennsylvania, native found his love for cooking while working in a retirement home for nuns. One day, he was asked to help out in the kitchen and “kind of fell in love with it,” he says, inspiring him to study culinary arts and train as a chef at the Art Institute of Philadelphia.
His background is primarily in traditional French cooking, but when working in the kitchen, he takes inspiration from almost everything.
“I read a lot of cookbooks to get different ideas and techniques,” he says. “I love to grill at home … experiment with different things to see what could potentially work at the restaurant.”
After leaving Domaine Hudson in 2018, Kalup moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, cooking at The Hermosa Inn’s Lon’s Restaurant in nearby Paradise Valley.
“Working in Arizona exposed me to a different array of ingredients that I wouldn’t normally use, like mesquite syrup, mesquite flour, different cactus and cactus fruits,” Kalup says. He also used a lot of the state’s local ingredients.
Kalup and his wife returned to Delaware in March after their first child was born. With his connections to the Sikoras, it only made sense to reach out to let them know he was back in Wilmington.
Since starting at La Fia in May, Kalup has honored the restaurant’s roots while also refreshing the menu. Dishes like the Tuna Crudo (tomatillo buttermilk, grapefruit, basil and pomegranate) and the Charred Spanish Octopus (creamy pancetta polenta, lemon aioli, Calabrian chile vinaigrette, crispy garlic, shallot salad) have been invented as works of art; they’re almost too beautiful to eat.
The popular charcuterie board includes a rotating list of meats and cheeses that Kalup himself enjoys. And the Grilled Foie Gras Sausage (rhubarb compote, Sicilian pistachio purée, tarragon) showcase his ability to take something simple and elevate it.
Since the pandemic limits dine-in seating, the restaurant began offering the La Fia a Casa option, where customers can reserve a multicourse dinner early in the week and then pick it up for the weekend to enjoy at home. (The meals, ranging from French and Spanish to New England lobster rolls, have reheat instructions, so patrons can put dinner on the table with ease, Andrea says.)
With many customers working from home and not as much of a market for upscale dining these days, Andrea says La Fia will continue to make an effort to cater to current events. Look for lower-priced menu items in the future.
(The Sikoras also plan to reopen Merchant Bar across the street as soon as this month, where Kalup is working to revive the gastropub’s menu.)
La Fia Bistro, 421 N. Market St., Wilmington, 543-5574, lafiawilmington.com