In winter’s chill we seem drawn to the places where our deepest love and dearest memories live. We crave the warmly crowded kitchens and glowing fires that entranced us as children; we gravitate to the people who hold soft places in our sometimes heavy hearts.
We gather to chat, to drink, to laugh. We sit together to eat … and eat … and eat. Year after year, smooch after smooch, auntie after auntie, it all is somehow the same, yet marvelously fresh and vital: The holidays conspire to renew friendships and faith, to make weary souls thankful again for all that life and living bring.
Restaurants can feel this spirit too. Grumbly owners and flinty-eyed managers suddenly soften. Perpetually ratcheted chefs find time to unclench and unwind, yet they typically resist the rest: They can’t help indulging everyone within reach, can’t resist the kick of pleasing people with the rarest delicacies, made from the heart, served in style.
So, they fire up the appropriately corny holiday tunes, lift the kids up by their side and create the season’s joy from scratch, passing these moments and those great gourmet gifts down to their children. Oysters and foie gras—lobster and caviar—and maybe someday, chilly, fizzy glasses of champagne. And the cycle rolls on, nudged by love and laughter, sustained by bottomless bowls of food, for generations to come.
Join us as we peek into the kitchens and homes of some of Delaware’s top chefs as they share their holiday celebrations and the moments that make them dear.
Kent County restaurateurs Dennis and Caroline Forbes gather their family together for a holiday meal that consists of dishes that pull from his rural Delaware upbringing and her childhood in Kentucky.// Photo by Steve Legato
When their eyes met 42 years ago while working at the old Coral Reef restaurant in Little Creek, Dennis and Caroline Forbes sensed something special was about to happen. But they may not have imagined how ginormously special it would all be, and how love and family and food would prove to be so thoroughly intertwined with their success.
Today, the couple and their daughter have built and sustained two of Kent County’s most-adored restaurants—Cool Springs Fish Bar & Restaurant and Restaurant 55. None of it would have been possible without tending those family ties—whether it’s Dennis and Caroline running Cool Springs together, or Dennis helping Desiree call the shots at Restaurant 55, or even Desiree’s grill-loving husband Dwayne pitching in by making his pulled pork and chicken.
“He’s become a foodie, I can tell you that, ever since he’s come into our lives,” Dennis says of Dwayne. “He has to.”
But it all runs even farther back than that, back to Dennis’ childhood days and the bottomless bounty of his father’s garden (“It’s been ‘farm-to-table’ all my life.”), and his mother Evelyn’s peerless mastery of mom-style down-home Delaware cooking (“She did pole beans like no one else.”). He thinks of the pepper relish his dad would make over the holidays, and the endless supply of home-canned garden vegetables that sustained the family all winter.
Now, in so many ways, it’s all so much different—but still so much the same.
Holidays used to be about hustling across Kent County to visit the many relatives, until it was decided that utter exhaustion was incompatible with the holiday spirit. Today, they stick to traditional holiday feasts at home: “If people want to come, they can,” Dennis declares.
And how could they not come, with Caroline at the stove?
“I got lucky and married a Kentucky girl who’s a fantastic cook,” Dennis says. “It will be turkey and homemade stuffing, mashed potatoes. Cole slaw and ham. Her Kentucky green beans are one of my favorites. I gotta have those.”
Chef Dennis Forbes defers to his wife, Caroline, and daughter, Desiree, when it comes to classic dishes like Kentucky green beans and the “grandchild approved” macaroni and cheese.// photos by Steve Legato
“I’ll tell you, there’s no nutritional value, they’re cooked to death with fatback, but they’re great,” says Caroline, who relinquishes her kitchen supremacy to Dennis for just one duty.
“The only thing that I do is I make the gravy,” he says without the slightest trace of disappointment or disgruntlement. “I’m a traditionalist. I don’t want anyone else messing with the gravy. It’s made with the drippings and everything.”
“It’s got to the point where I just leave the kitchen,” sighs Caroline, who judiciously describes their decades-long stint living and working together day after day as a “special” sort of experience. “All the men will go into the kitchen and watch Dennis make the gravy. The first time, all the women were sitting in the living room, wondering what’s going on. Eventually, we all agreed there’s nothing wrong with it, the men should all be in there—making the gravy.”
Desiree even pitches in—compelled by youthfully strident forces she has no hope of controlling—to cook the mac-n-cheese for the kids. “She has to make it, to be sure it’s grandchild-approved,” Caroline says. “Now, the grandchildren, even they are learning to cook.”
And that bodes well for many Forbes family Christmases to come.
Hoffman prepares to drizzle Cabernet jus over slices of bison tenderloin and sliced sweet potatoes.// Photo by Steve Legato
Well before the first hints of Christmas’ impending arrival—before the always-too-early holiday ad blitz, before society’s slightly unhinged seasonal obsessions get officially under way—Bill and Merry are thinking about one thing: food.
What can we serve for the holidays this year? What kind of splurge-tastic spread could they lay out for those waves of friends and family who routinely invade their home-based restaurant each Christmas? Fresh West Coast oysters are a given—Kumamotos from Puget Sound, please, served (naturally) with champagne. Maybe Uncle Mike Klawitter from Alaska will bring a haul of fresh king crab again, just begging for a warm and buttery dunking.
It’s a given there will be a pâté-fortified charcuterie, and of course a gourmet cheese plate, and maybe even some crispy octopus in saffron aioli. “We usually have caviar somewhere around,” Merry says innocently, as if this alone wouldn’t be sufficient to cause drooling, frenzied foodie riots throughout the Hockessin vicinity.
But there is more. So much more.
(From Left) Hoffman’s salad features organic greens, pecans and walnuts, Pinot noir cherries and Valdeón blue cheese with smoked maple vinaigrette; Octopus with Marcona almond, Valencia orange and saffron oil.// photos by steve legato
After the “nibblies” are vanquished and the family moves on bravely to dinner, there’s prime rib larded with truffles, accompanied by garlic-whipped potatoes. Beef Wellington with all the side dishes. Every few years—irresistibly—they do a nice osso bucco, paired with saffron risotto.
And every year, they coax a little more cooking help from the kids—Nickolas, 15, and Elise, 5. “Eli is a natural cook. She’s been a natural ever since she was born, practically,” Merry says.
“She has that look in her eye,” Will agrees.
“Nick, he just kind of sticks his finger in the pot and says, ‘What’s going on?’” adds Merry.
“Those are the memories you hold for a lifetime,” Bill says. “I remember cooking with both of my grandmothers during the holidays, and you want to carry that on.”
They even wonder with a laugh if Christmas somehow maintains some deeper hold on their identity—Merry’s name seems so naturally festive, and her mom is somewhat improbably named Noelle.
“Maybe there’s a Christmas theme in our souls,” Bill jokes. “We definitely see it as a time to go completely over-the-top, because you never know what the next year is going to bring, or even what the next day’s going to bring.”
Cameron helps son, Maxwell, peel potatoes.// photo by steve legato
Though his real-life “Grandpa Mac” is gone, Hari Cameron still cherishes his great grandfather and the lessons he taught. He told young Hari: Eating is meant to be a celebration among people. Food sustains us, but also can become part of who we are, what we cherish.
It makes Hari think back: To the startling and snappy burst of tobiko caviar between his teeth on the sushi excursions he enjoyed with his father at age 6. To the holiday celebrations at relatives’ homes, little Hari underfoot and begging to help the aunties: “OK, here, Hari, peel these potatoes for me.” And later: “Hari, we need you to mash the potatoes now!”
Harry happily “helped”—“until they kicked me out of the kitchen”—and time would carry that spirit forward to the Rehoboth home he now shares with wife Stephanie and son Maxwell (now brimming with the kind of seasonal zeal only 3-year-olds comprehend). Soon young Maxwell will know the drill well: Climb in the car and drive north to Wilmington, where Stephanie’s Polish-American lineage leans toward comfort-inducing delicacies like kielbasa, beet horseradish and pierogi (inspiring Hari one winter to concoct his own foie gras-stuffed pierogi at the restaurant).
“It’s great that once you’re in a relationship, your holiday traditions will change a little bit,” he says. “I love the cultural ties of cooking. I like the fact you’re nurturing someone else with the food you give them. I think all of that factored in to me becoming a chef.”
Christmas in the Cameron household might include Rohan duck—a special hybrid of heritage breeds—roasted then smoked over applewood coals.// Photo by Steve Legato
Back at home, when Christmas Day arrives, poor Hari is once again kicked out of the kitchen by women, this time by the acknowledged master of home-cooked holiday meals: his wife, Stephanie. But he cannot resist: Some years, he will cook turkey three ways (roasted, deep-fried, and for stock), or whip up some Rehoboth Bay oyster stuffing fortified with oyster stout beer and bacon. “I also like making char-roasted Brussel sprouts that still have lots of texture, but also lots of caramelization,” he drools.
This year will be the first holiday in their new house with Maxwell, adding a momentous charge to their celebrations, along with the promise that some new traditions will be created. Hari now has what he needs to bake breads, make pizza, even smoke meats. He can almost see it now—Maxwell butchering defenseless potatoes with his child-safe knife; Stephanie steadfastly resisting Hari’s tradition-tweaking suggestions.
Yet this master of artful cookery knows he will not be able to completely stifle his avant-garde inclinations, like he did one year with humble sweet potatoes—cutting them into “batons” with a mandolin slicer, then layering with gruyere, onions and breadcrumbs before popping it all into the oven.
And, he knows there is always the risk he could find himself suddenly tossed back on mashed-potato duty. “My wife cannot not have mashed potatoes,” he says with finality.
In a time like this, on holidays like these, there’s room for all our joys, he believes.
“To me, the winter is just a great time to be in the kitchen with people,” he says. “Sometimes, I find myself cooking food that pushes the envelope. But there are times when you want to cook food that pulls people in and gives them a hug.”