Chefs to Watch

These kitchen masterminds are bringing fresh ideas to the Culinary Coast.

While sunbathers are soaking up the last of summer, coastal chefs are still feeling the heat in the kitchen—and they will for months to come. The Culinary Coast lives up to its nickname all year long.

To be sure, the beach is home to some of the best chefs in the state. Consider Hari Cameron. Nominated for a James Beard Foundation award, Cameron owns a(Muse.) in Rehoboth Beach, and recently opened grandpa(MAC). Jay Caputo, another James Beard award nominee, recently opened Beachside Bar & Grill, a casual companion to his fine dining restaurant, Espuma.

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The list of celebrity beach chefs rolls on: Kevin Reading of Abbott’s Grill, Lion Gardner of Blue Moon, Doug Ruley of the SoDel Concepts restaurant group, Timothy McNitt of The Back Porch Café, Ian Crandall of Kindle, Rob Stitt of Shorebreak Lodge—also the founder of Eden. And that’s just to name a few. So whose star is on the rise? Here are 10 exceptional chefs, listed in alphabetical order, whose culinary careers are on the fast track. 

Photography by Dave Norbut

Dru Tevis

Pastry chef, Nage, The Pantry @ Nage, Bramble & Brine and the soon-to-open Crooked Hammock Brewery

In 2009, while working as the manager at Blue Company Seafood, now closed, in Rehoboth Beach, Tevis (pictured above) asked the chef if he could make a dessert for restaurant week. A month later, Tevis was creating the entire dessert menu.

The Westminster, Md., native, who has a degree in pastry arts from the French Culinary Institute in New York (now the International Culinary Center), started working at Bramble & Brine in December 2013 and La Vida Hospitality Group, which owns Nage, in October 2014. To say the least, he’s busy. “I love this industry so much … but I’ve forgotten what it’s like to have a weekend off,” he says. 

It helps that he truly enjoys presenting plated desserts that are elegant yet approachable. “No one wants a dessert with 10 ingredients you can’t pronounce,” he says. “Dessert should always be somewhat familiar and nostalgic.” That said, he likes to experiment with unusual dessert ingredients, such as corn, curry and black sesame.

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He appreciates the seasonal nature of the beach, and the different customers who gravitate there each season. But no matter whether these customers come in summer or winter, he has one goal: “I want the customer to leave saying, ‘I need to have that again.’”

Aaron Berg

Executive chef, The Buttery, Lewes

A native of Anchorage, Alaska, Berg learned to cook in his grandmother’s kitchen. She evidently taught him well. In one year, he went from being the dishwasher in a restaurant to being its sous chef. He was just 18. “I’ve always been able to combine flavors,” he says. “And I was a beast on the line.” To hone his skills in classic French, Italian and modern American cuisine, he got jobs in restaurants with chefs he admired.

For seven years, he prepared upscale buffets in an oilfield camp. “I had an endless budget to play with,” he says. It was here that he met his wife, who is from Pennsylvania. When they had their second child, they moved to the Delaware area to be near her mom, who lives in Newark. Berg worked at The Wedge in Landenberg, Pa., and the Back Burner in Hockessin. He landed his gig at The Buttery in 2013.

Berg, who loves to cook with foie gras and pork belly, is giving the landmark restaurant a whimsical touch that is still rooted in classical cuisine. “I like to be creative and play around,” he says. “Food is fun.”

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Joe Churchman

Chef/owner, Bramble & Brine, Rehoboth Beach

Cooking at a hot-dog stand at age 15 was just a job to Churchman, but by the time he was 19, the switch had flipped. “I really started to enjoy what I was doing and found cooking compelling,” he says. “I started going more in depth into the process of food.” The self-taught chef credits his first attempt at making bread for his fascination with the science behind the food.

Churchman, who studied film and Web design at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, says working at Eden was an on-the-job learning experience. He also worked at Philadelphia’s Le Virtù, Luca in Millsboro, and JAM Bistro and Planet X in Rehoboth.

Churchman and then-wife Megan opened Bramble & Brine in October 2013. It closed briefly after their split, and Churchman reopened last May. He hesitates to categorize his style. “I use influences from around the world, simple ingredients with modern techniques,” he says. Working with duck has long held his interest, but lately, he says, “I’ve been into pig head.”

Learning and evolving is important to Churchman, whether that means growing Bramble & Brine or eventually opening another restaurant. He also wants to have his own garden for vegetables and herbs, which he’ll serve at Bramble. “I want to make a connection from the earth to the plate,” he says.

His secret desire is to open a drive-through restaurant. He better find a venue with a long lane. Given Bramble’s popularity, there’ll be lines.

Sean Corea

Executive chef, Nage, Rehoboth Beach

Corea, a Dover native, has come a long way since 2006, when he started his restaurant career as a dishwasher at Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats after high school. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Corea has worked at Restaurant Daniel in New York, Bibou in Philadelphia and Espuma in Rehoboth Beach. Corea, who started working as sous chef at Nage in 2014, became the executive chef when Paul Gallo returned to Abbott’s Grill.

Corea favors contemporary cuisine with French and Italian influences, but he’d like to explore Indian and Ethiopian cuisine. “Chefs should never stop educating themselves,” he maintains. No matter the cuisine, he likes the challenge of cooking fresh fish. Sweet corn is a seasonal staple for Corea, who grew up on a farm and ate corn raw from the field for lunch.

The coast, he says, is inspiring—not just the food but also the people, the scenery, the culture and the well traveled tourists. It all becomes fodder for his food. “I send out something that I have conceptualized for hours, then watch how, in a matter of minutes, it disappears into the mouths of friends, family and diners,” he says. “In that moment, my happiness is shared with others, making room on the plate for something new and exciting—yet another opportunity.”

Jason Dietterick

Executive chef, Bluecoast Seafood Grill, Bethany Beach

Born and raised in Newark, Dietterick got his first taste of the culinary world as a freshman at Paul M. Hodgson Vocational Technical High School. His appetite increased while working at the Back Burner in Hockessin, where his uncle was the chef. He continued working at the restaurant while attending The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College in Philadelphia. He also worked for well-known Philly restaurant guru Stephen Starr.

Dietterick was just 21 in 2001 when he started at Redfin, Matt Haley’s restaurant in Bethany Beach. He also helped open Haley’s NorthEast Seafood Kitchen in Ocean View and Bluecoast Seafood Grill. Dietterick has also honed his skills at Liquid Assets, Solstice in Berlin, Md., Nage in Rehoboth and the Stone Balloon Winehouse in Newark. He returned to Bluecoast in 2014.

To be sure, Dietterick is at home when surrounded by seafood. He often hits the water after work and fishes until about 4 a.m. Equally comfortable on land, he’s made cheese with milk from the goats that cleared his neighbor’s land.

Of course, he’d like to own his own place one day. “We all do,” he says. But after watching the growth of SoDel Concepts, the company Haley founded, he’s content for now to be part of its future.

Wilson Gates

Executive chef/co-owner, The Gate House, Lewes

Cooking is in Gates’ blood. His mother and business partner, Gretchen Gates, is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, and his brother, Taylor, is also a chef. When the boys were growing up in Kennett Square, Gretchen ran her own bakery, and Wilson helped out. Cooking, however, had yet to become a passion.

Then, while studying architecture in college and working in a restaurant, he realized he’d rather cook than go to class. He took off for the Culinary Institute of America. After leaving CIA, he worked in restaurants in Arizona, California, upstate New York and, more recently, Ocean City, Md. He and his wife were considering a move to Florida when Café Azafran in Lewes came up for sale. The Gate House, now in its second year, was born.

Gates loves Lewes’ small-town vibe. On an average night, he knows about 50 percent of the diners by first name. With so many regulars, he changes the menu to keep things interesting and showcase seasonal ingredients. (Frozen fish is a no no.) Eventually, he’d like to open a second and maybe a third restaurant. But he’s keeping The Gate House exactly the way it is.

Toby Gilbert

Sous chef, a(MUSE.), Rehoboth Beach

When a(MUSE.) chef-owner Hari Cameron called Gilbert to ask if he wanted to work at the Rehoboth Beach restaurant, Gilbert, who was working and living in Berlin, Md., hesitated. An hour later, Gilbert called Cameron back. “When you’re cooking around Delmarva, it doesn’t get too much better than cooking under Hari,” he says of Cameron, the local guru for experimental chefs.

Gilbert, who grew up in Berlin, started his career at age 14 in a doughnut shop. As a teen, he also worked in Ocean City, Md., burger joints and breakfast spots. Jobs at fine-dining restaurants, such as the now shuttered Marlin Moon Grille in West Ocean City, made him appreciate the kitchen over the dining room.

The avid surfer initially went to school in California before transferring to Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla., where he earned a business degree. He never stopped working in the hospitality business. After graduation, he had restaurant jobs in Puerto Rico, Fire Island, N.Y., and St. Thomas before he was offered the sous-chef position with Grove Market in Bishopville, Md. He also helped open Blacksmith, owned by Justine Zegna of Planet X fame in Rehoboth. He started at a(MUSE.) last March when Hari and brother Orion were immersed in opening grandpa(MAC).

Gilbert describes his style as “coastal” with a modern approach. Fried whole minnows are “basically the best fish stick you ever tasted.” In addition to seafood, he’s using local seaweeds, sea beans and sea lettuces in his dishes. He often experiments with fermentation. Garlic is a popular subject. He also makes sauerkraut and kimchee.

Gilbert waffles between owning a restaurant—he’s toying with a general-store concept—and working at one. “I grew up surfing. It’s a big part of what keeps me happy,” he says. Lately, the 80-hour weeks have kept him from the beach. “I’m trying to figure out how to make myself happy and still make a living.” Meanwhile, he helps keep a(MUSE.) diners very happy indeed.

Jen Myers

Head chef, Plate Catering, Lewes

As a child, Myers wanted to become a chef for one reason: “I was—and still am—a very picky eater,” she says. “I wanted to learn how to manipulate ingredients in ways that would be more enjoyable to me.”

At her first job in a small catering and lunch spot in Haymarket, Va., she learned classic techniques and knife skills from an Austrian chef. She was just 15.

Myers, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, likes to bring out a food’s flavor with minimal flair. “Dishes don’t need thousands of ingredients,” she says. “If you start with a great product and you’re skilled at knowing flavor pairings, the food will speak for itself.”

Myers, who started with Plate Catering in 2010, says that catering requires organizational skills along with culinary talent. “The hours are long and the job is demanding,” she says. “But all the time and effort is worth it when you get to see someone really enjoy eating what you’ve created.”

Christopher Parks

Executive chef, Lupo Italian Kitchen, Rehoboth Beach

Parks was a teenager in Maine when he realized that if he wanted spending money, he needed a job. So he started working in a restaurant. “I had a knack for it,” he says. After graduating from The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College in Philadelphia, he delved into Italian cuisine in the Washington, D.C., area, where he also met his wife, Korin, a journalist.

The young, ambitious couple headed to New York, where he was the sous chef at Tom Colicchio’s restaurant Craft, then executive sous chef at Colicchio & Sons. He helped friends open restaurants before landing a position at The Guilty Goose in Chelsea. When their son was born, the couple tired of the city’s fast pace. “You could never get ahead in New York,” he says. “We wanted to buy a house and settle down. We got New York out of our system.”

Since Korin’s parents own The Little Store in Dewey Beach, they relocated to the Delaware coast in 2014. Parks worked for SoDel Concepts’ flagship restaurant, Bluecoast Seafood Grill, before heading up Lupo. “I’m most comfortable cooking Italian cuisine, but I’m drawn to new American cuisine,” says Parks, who’s currently playing with basil, heirloom tomatoes and peaches in the kitchen.

Parks, who says it’s hard for him to sit still, loves prepping all day and plunging into the rush of the dinner service. But even though his hands are at work, his mind is rarely at rest. “I’m constantly thinking,” he says. And tonight’s thoughts become tomorrow’s specials.

Robin Rankin

Chef, Patsy’s, Bethany Beach

Rankin is a chip off the old block. She’s the executive chef of the restaurant founded by her mother, Patsy Dill Rankin, in 2000. They’re also both graduates of the L’Academie de Cuisine Professional Culinary School.

Patsy Rankin, who enrolled in culinary school at age 46, opened the restaurant with a Key West-inspired menu. That’s still the case, but now the menu also mines Asia, Mexico and the Mideast for inspiration. Credit the adventurous Robin Rankin, who’s well traveled and experimental. “You have to evolve,” she says.

Robin is into spices, such as za’atar, sumac and garam masala, which might appear on seared fish. Those who prefer less exotic fare needn’t worry. “We try to keep it pretty simple with fresh ingredients we get locally,” she says.

A vegetarian until she was 18, Rankin helped establish Patsy’s as a place that caters to people with dietary needs. 


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