In the kitchen with Bryan
Gallery: Cantwell's Tavern [3 Images] Click any image to expand.
Let's just assume that you are gifted with the basic tenets of cognitive presumption – the certainty that a singular thought will yield a chain link of other logical and connected thoughts. You see that the sky is blue. Therefore, it is not raining. Therefore, you leave the umbrella in the stand. That sort of thing.
And so it goes, that safe and efficient tumble order of your mind, until the first time you walk into Cantwell's Tavern in Odessa. You ascend the stone steps of its entrance, enter and notice the creaky wooden floor beams, the 1700s-era maps of Odessa framed on the walls, and the pewter reminders of the history that is documented to have happened in this old building and in this old town.
Your first thought is, ‘I’m going to be greeted by a swarm of people dressed like its 1776.’ Wrong; there's not a chambermaid or Minuteman militia re-enactor in sight. You are then seated at your table and given a menu, and here's where your mind really begins to trip you out.
There's nothing on your menu that even faintly matches the throw-back, 1700s culinary kitsch that you ate on your last trip to Colonial Williamsburg; no mutton or pheasant served with a side of revolt and gunpowder. Instead, your menu appears that its contents have been rubbed with the flavors of the Mediterranean and the Southwest, with a little Southern inspiration tossed in for good taste. Smoked BBQ pork with pineapple salsa. Pan roasted tuna made with herbed jasmine ice and red pepper coulis. Grilled salmon with bacon bourbon maple sweet potato mash and haricot verts and crispy bacon.
The building that houses Cantwell's Tavern is courtesy of American history, but for the last two years, its menu – one that is drawing critical raves and full houses every week – is courtesy of 27-year-old Bryan Crowley.
“On one hand, we wanted to offer a traditional American type of menu, but on the other hand, you look around at the restaurant scene in the Middletown area and you begin to realize that there's not much variety there,” Crowley said. “Here, customers can enjoy an American-based menu, but with a wide variety of variations on the traditional cuisines.”
It was with his older brother that first introduced Crowley to the notion that a restaurant experience was potentially more than just a visit, but an event. While a high school student at Newark High, Crowley would often visit his older brother, who would take him to restaurants in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. They visited several places, but one stood out: The Charleston near the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, a Cindy Wolf-owned eatery that featured New American dishes.
“That was the first restaurant that really blew me away,” Crowley said. “It had a tour de force menu, a great wait staff, and the food was amazing. It was through that visit that I slowly began to become inspired to think about cooking.”
After high school, he enrolled in the culinary program at Del Tech, where he learned under Culinary Arts Department Chair Ed Hennessey, who was at the Stanton campus at the time. The classroom taught him a lot but it didn't give him the everyday kitchen experience that every young chef needs. Hennessy came to Crowley and said there was an opportunity to work at the Hotel duPont in the banquet department. Crowley jumped at the opportunity, and soon, he was working side by side with Chef Tom Hannum.
Although the bulk of his job was in arranging for large banquets, Crowley would often steal a glance at what was going on one aisle over from him – to where the food was being prepared for the Green Room. Eventually, Crowley joined them: Hannum, now the owner and executive chef at Buckley’s in Centreville; Bill Hoffman, now the owner and executive chef at The House of William & Merry in Hockessin; Andy Feeley, now the executive chef at Eden in Rehoboth Beach; Pat D’Amico, now the executive chef at Harry’s Savoy Grill in North Wilmington; and Bruce Galloway, who remains a chef at the Hotel DuPont. He was suddenly an arm’s length away from some of the best chefs not only in Wilmington, not only in Delaware, but the entire mid-Atlantic Region.
“They're the reason why I decided to stick with my career direction,” Crowley said. “They were amazing. That's when I first got to see what was really going on in a kitchen, and the passion of what needs to go into a kitchen in order to make it run. They pushed me to try to go further.”
Crowley took his experience from the Hotel DuPont and enrolled in an intensive, six-week culinary arts program at the Arizona Culinary Institute. He spent six days a week in the kitchen, intensifying the skills he’d learned on the job back home. He learned the art of southwestern cooking, as well as Mediterranean cuisine while working at T. Cooks at the Royal Palms in Scottsdale.
He returned to Delaware and worked with Chef Julio Lazzarini at Orilla's in Wilmington, who gave Crowley the loosest of reins to work in. Within these confines, Crowley worked to perfect his approach to Mediterranean cuisine.
When Crowley began his current role at Cantwell’s Tavern in 2013, he was told that he had full rein of the menu, as well as the opportunity to cater banquets and ceremonies on the restaurant’s property. At first, he wanted to build his own menu and have everyone love it. Most did, but Crowley realized that creating a distinctive menu is more than just taking experience to paper. It’s a document that is created, tweaked and improved upon through a collective and never-ending conversation an executive chef has with his or her line cooks, sous chefs, wait staff and customers. He listened. He is always listening.
“Over time, what you find is that you work with the customers and it brings you around to working with their ideas and blending them with your own influences into the dishes you want to see – to add Italian red chilies in the seared tuna crudo, for instance,” Crowley said. “We go back and forth with our customers some times. We pushed for doing a classic American theme at first, then we thought we would utilize some of the farms around here, which we still do.
“But the customers wanted more of what some of the better restaurants in Wilmington offer. They wanted pastas, and at the same time they wanted me to have deviled eggs on the menu. The demographic around here wants variety, an infusion of Spanish, Italian and American and Latin American.”
Crowley calls Cantwell’s Tavern a “working classroom,” livened with a school atmosphere that encourages fresh ideas. In fact, Crowley keeps a board in the kitchen, where everyone can leave suggestions on how to improve every aspect of the restaurant.
“On any given day, one of the chefs will walk by and write the names of vegetables and fruits he’d like to prepare. It allows us to offer new recipes that the customers have not yet seen before.”
During the course of his relatively brief career, Crowley has already worked alongside a Who’s Who of local chefs. He’s gone West to learn more, come back home, now runs one of the most popular restaurants in Delaware, and is about to participate in his second Midatlantic Wine & Food Festival this May. He has done all of this and he is still a few years shy of 30. At the Tavern, he said his only goal is to keep his kitchen striving for perfection, where things run smoothly, the food quality is perfect, the imprint of the restaurant continues to leave a substantial mark, and the customers continue to be happy.
It is logical, therefore, to assume that someone of this rising stature in his career is bound to eventually look back at his time in Delaware as a mere blip on a resume, a roadside stop on his way to fame and fortune at a big city restaurant, where he will be able to someday lend his name to a cornucopia of culinary opportunities.
Here is where your cognitive presumptions are wrong again, because while Crowley knows that all of these things are in his future, they’ll have to wait for now, because he says he is still learning. He’s still in love with the fast-paced environment, working with people who are as passionate about great food as he is. He still loves the line cook in him. He still loves the heat of the kitchen and the yelling and the running around and the burns and the scrapes that adorn the hands and arms of chefs like badges of honor.
Most of all, however, he loves teaching.
If you walk through the Cantwell’s Tavern kitchen on any day of the year, chances are that you’ll run into a young culinary student from Delaware Tech who has fanciful but unrealized dreams. Crowley sees himself in them. One of the aspects of his job that he enjoys most is coming up to one student who is currently working the dishwasher and giving him the job of making salads or as a sous chef. He enjoys spending his time teaching younger people about the principles of what it means to cook in a restaurant, one that on any given day, will churn out 500 dishes.
In a way, through his mentorship of young culinary students, Crowley has developed his own method of Paying it Forward, just like Hannum and Hoffman and D’Amico and so many others did for him nearly a decade ago. Recently, he was a judge at the Pro-Start high school culinary competition for high school students. Hannum was there right beside him, judging with Crowley. So was Hennessy.
“I'm a colleague of theirs now, but at the same time, I'm still in the position where there is still so much more for me to learn.”