As many stories go around these parts, Chef Chris Parks found his way to SoDel Concepts thanks to the area’s small-town feel.
A few years ago, Parks and his wife, Korin Miller, a writer, along with their oldest son Miles, now 4, were looking to relocate to the Delaware beach area having grown out of their small New York City apartment.
Parks was working long hours, as chefs tend to do, and it was time for a change of pace.
Luckily for all parties involved, Korin’s mother (her family owns The Little Store in Dewey) went in to see her physician and made small talk about her daughter and son in-law wanting to uproot to the beach. The same physician also had SoDel Vice President of Operations Mike Dickinson as a patient.
One thing led to another, Parks interviewed with the late Matt Haley in 2014 and Parks started anew with SoDel.
A few years later, and with 1-year-old Bodhi (whose name will soon adorn the inside of his father’s right bicep to match the left arm, which features his brother’s name) in the equation, Parks has turned Lupo Italian Kitchen in Rehoboth into one of the state’s best Italian restaurants.
“Anytime you have somebody with New York experience — it’s the dining capital of the world and the level of competition is so intense and the customers are so demanding because they have to many different options — he’s going to make the whole company better,” current SoDel President Scott Kammerer said. “I feel like he helped to push everyone in the whole company to be better.
“We have a lot of great chefs in the company and he adds an element that we didn’t really have before.”
A native of Marlton, New Jersey, Parks attended high school in Maine before returning to the Philadelphia area to attend culinary school at The Restaurant School.
Unsure of what he wanted to do, he was led on the culinary route thanks to a mother that loved to cook, an aunt who always baked and a grandmother from England who left him after she passed old pots and pans that “could survive a nuclear war,” Parks says.
The last conversation Parks, 35, had with his grandmother, he mentioned going to culinary school. She was in support.
His cooking career led him to Northern Virginia until he was 25, when he decided to head to New York City to chase a dream. There, Parks said he built up $13,000 in credit card debt in his first year there.
His line cook job at Craft, Top Chef celebrity Tom Colicchio's joint, didn’t allow him to pay expenses the way New York demands. But the couple stuck it out. He managed to go from working the salad station to becoming junior sous chef in about a year and after a few years he was cooking side-by-side with Colicchio at charity dinners.
“He wouldn’t show up until go-time,” Parks recalled, noting that he, as the sous chef, did all the prep.
After leaving Colicchio, Parks spent time working under Andrew Carmellini. Parks was the opening sous chef at Lafayette, which, Parks said, served around 1,300 people a day and did 750 covers for Sunday brunches. But 80-90 hour work weeks with young Miles at home wasn’t cutting it.
To Delaware they went. And SoDel capitalized. First they placed him at Fish On before sending him to Bluecoast in Bethany for a summer. But after Haley passed away, Kammerer approached Parks with the idea of reshaping Lupo Di Mare, which Kammerer thought needed a facelift having been open since 2007.
“Here was this really super talented guy that the universe brought to us and we wanted to make it a mutually beneficial experience,” Kammerer said. “We were happy to really accept his ideas and what he wanted to do with the food.
“He just brought a fresh idea.”
The first of which was to remove all traces of frozen pasta. Kammerer agreed and invested in a pasta extruder that the company now uses to serve fresh pastas at multiple restaurants.
At Lupo, housed on the bottom floor of Hotel Rehoboth, the pastas shine. Parks estimated that Lupo cranks out about 350 pounds of pasta per week. A prep cook spends six days per week making pasta.
Parks said he finds making agnolotti, small stuffed pasta, to be therapeutic.
“I don’t mind getting lost in my thoughts and making it,” he said. Nervous about being able to execute it daily, especially in the busy summer season, Parks is happy with the result, and people rave about the lemon mascarpone agnolotti.
The only downside to the fresh pasta is that Parks finds himself making some when he gets home late at night.
“If I throw half a box of spinach in it,” he asks himself, “does it make it better?”
Mostly of Scottish and English descent, Parks said he maybe is 1/16 Italian.
“Something draws me toward Italian food,” he says. “Ten years ago I thought it was American cuisine that I was really in love with but it was kind of Italian cuisine. I fell in love with it working in New York.”
New York’s scene may have inspired him to try out 2017’s new item: a pan seared Dorade Royale.
Dorade is a succulent fish with tender white flesh and silver skin. The star of the dish is probably the tomato brodo (Italian for broth), which is made with saffron, onions, tomato paste, vegetable stock and San Marzano tomatoes. Those ingredients steep and simmer before being strained. The liquid is then poured tableside to finish off a spectacular plate that also features country ham, English peas, hen of the woods mushrooms and fingerling potatoes.
The tableside pouring was also inspired by the affogato, the coffee dessert that is formed when an espresso shot is poured on top of a scoop of ice cream or gelato.
“I feel like Rehoboth has really stepped up its game in the last five years,” Parks said.
Parks’ success at Lupo came with more responsibility. In addition to being the executive chef at Lupo, he also oversees the breakfast operation at The Bellmoor Inn & Spa, which is daily, 365 days a year. Parks also oversees the kitchen at SoDel’s Papa Grande’s in Rehoboth.
“They allow me the culinary freedom,” he said. “You don’t have someone breathing down your neck. I’m able to go a little crazy — not too crazy. I keep it simple.”
As far as what the future holds, Parks has no immediate plans. The dream has always been to own and operate his own place, but the thought of putting his family’s downtown Lewes house on the line to open his own restaurant scares him.
“I’m going to stay with this company and soak up as much knowledge as I can,” Parks said. “They’re really good at opening restaurants. They know what they’re doing. They’re really good at finding talent and keeping them.”
So good, even a trip to the doctor does the trick.
If you go
Where: 247 Rehoboth Ave., Rehoboth Beach
Hours: 5-10 p.m. daily