Choosing the right menu took about 10 months. Choosing the right blueprint for their now 10th restaurant took nearly that long, too.
But even with the layout designed entirely around the restaurant’s open kitchen — setting the stage for the chefs of SoDel Concepts more so than ever before — choosing the right chefs for the job took hardly any time at all for SoDel Concepts President Scott Kammerer and Vice President/Corporate Chef Doug Ruley.
“It was important to us to make the open kitchen a focal point, so you could see the action and from every seat,” said Kammerer of the new Bluecoast location on Route 1 in Rehoboth Beach, which celebrated its grand opening earlier this month.
“An open kitchen connects you more to the food and connects you more to the chefs. We’re a chef-driven company at SoDel Concepts. The chefs are the stars — and these are three of our biggest.”
Along with Ruley overseeing operations, the second location of the company’s first-ever venture (the original Bluecoast north of Bethany) will feature longtime SoDel veterans Scott Viselli and Jason Diettrick to headline the nightly show.
A native of Newark, N.J., now living in Ocean View, Diettrick has been with the company since getting his start in the culinary arts at 18, skyrocketing through the ranks to be put in charge of two restaurants by 21 and most recently holding the head chef position at Ocean View’s Northeast Seafood kitchen and Bluecoast Bethany.
Viselli grew up in Northern Virginia, where he ran his own restaurant and seafood market, eventually making his way to Delaware in 2011 before getting his start with SoDel as the sous-chef at Catch 54 near Fenwick Island.
It wasn’t long after that he’d be called upon to take over as the head chef at Papa Grande’s right next door, going on to be named Coastal Style magazine’s Sussex County Chef of the Year in 2015 after taking over at The Cove at Bayside.
With that kind of experience, it’s no surprise that the sailing has been more than smooth for the culinary “dream team” behind the limelighted-line of the restaurant’s new state-of-the-art kitchen. That’s despite averaging upwards of 500 guests and breaking company records nearly every night since opening the doors in Rehoboth in early June — all the while living up to the name of a restaurant once named one of the Top 10 destination restaurants in America by Attaché magazine.
“The first night we opened, it was like we had been open for a whole year. That’s how it felt,” said Ruley of the leadership from both Diettrick and Viselli. “They both have a lot of experience — Jason has been with us forever, Scott’s been with us for years now — and they’re just both guys that have proven themselves and that we know we can count on.”
What’s new at Blue
While the chefs may be the stars, Kammerer said the vision for what’s been a brand new concept for SoDel was to be able to offer something for everyone.
Whether it’s sitting down for a dozen oysters at the raw bar, going elbows-up on a double-stack burger and a local craft beer during happy-hour, heading outside to the fire pit to enjoy live music five nights a week with a four-legged friend (even pets are welcome on the patio), fine-dining with the grandparents in the restaurant’s “library,” or even just stopping in for lunch before heading back to the beach, Bluecoast Rehoboth aims to cater to locals and visitors alike, while at the same time carrying out the tradition for which SoDel Concepts has become famous.
“We wanted to build a timeless, classic restaurant with quintessential Delaware seafood that would be able to serve generations of families — beautiful, simple food,” Kammerer explained. “We wanted it to be a restaurant that was accepting and open for a lot of different uses.”
“It’s definitely new,” added Ruley. “The outside is something we haven’t really ever gotten into before. Where else can you go play shuffleboard, cornhole — there’s a basketball out there, for some reason — we’ve got the fire pit, stage for live music, and then you can bring your dog on the patio.”
Of course, for die-hard fans of the original, it isn’t all uncharted waters. There are still plenty of SoDel signature classics on the menu, too.
Some of the past Bluecoast hits include the twin buttermilk fried baby lobster tails with spicy mayo and ponzu, steamed shrimp dumplings and the grilled veal meatloaf with redskin mashed potatoes and veal jus.
Then there’s tributes to some of the other favorite dishes from some of the other favorite SoDel spots, including Northeast making an appearance with the NESK fried chicken, Rehoboth Avenue’s Lupo Di Mare inspiring the lobster cavatappi topped off with white cheddar béchamel and truffle, as well as an array of other pasta dishes, and even Papa Grande’s fresh-squeezed lime and agave margaritas making a menu cameo on the drink list.
“Coastal Classics” on the entree menu include the crab imperial-stuffed jumbo shrimp, fried oyster or fried fresh-catch platter with hand-cut french fries and house-made coleslaw, jumbo-lump crabcakes and fresh-daily softshells (a house favorite so far). And surf-less turf options include the slow-cooked pork chops and ribeye topped with fried egg, among others. There’s a full kid’s menu, too.
Happy-hour runs Monday through Friday, with specials at the bar, and much like the Bethany location, Bluecoast Rehoboth features an extensive wine list and full bar stocked with plenty of specialty cocktails, including the watermelon crushes and seasonal sangria, as well as local craft beers from Dogfish Head out of Milton, Mispillion River from Milford and RAR Brewing out of Cambridge, Md., just to name a few.
At the raw bar, be sure to hashtag #SODELSHUCKS when ordering fresh-daily local oysters and clams, oyster shooters, chilled crab claws, scallop sashimi or the “Sussex Style Caviar.” And whether it’s a late-night libation from the drink menu’s selection of ports and cordials, or an after-dinner indulgence, such as the key lime pie, warm cinnamon bread pudding or caramelized orange and honey crème brûlée, there’s something for fans of both “True Blue” and “New Blue” throughout the lineup.
Considering the lineup in the kitchen, however, unsurprisingly, it’s been the making of that menu that’s been the main attraction.
Dinner and a show
It’s no secret that Ruley, Diettrick and Viselli have all seen their fair share of the spotlight throughout the culinary careers — whether it be displaying their latest dessert at the annual Girl Scout Cookie Throwdown, being featured at the James Beard House in New York (Ruley, three times) or even just putting on their own personal episodes of “Iron Chef” nightly throughout the open kitchens of Northeast and Papa Grande’s.
But the open kitchen at Bluecoast Rehoboth has opened up a whole new way for the faces of SoDel to interface with their guests directly.
“It’s an amazing kitchen. I definitely feel at home here,” said Viselli. “When you’re back there and you can look out the window — no matter how busy you are — and actually get to see somebody enjoying their food, and the smile on their face, for me it definitely makes it all worthwhile.”
“We want to kind of put on a show,” added Ruley. “The hot seat right now is sitting in front of the raw bar — that’s where people want to be. They want to be able to see the action. But, honestly, from any seat in this restaurant you can see everything that’s going on.”
And so far, there’s been plenty of action going on to see.
Behind the SoDel Concepts reputation, it almost goes without saying that the new 4,500-square-foot Rehoboth restaurant, capable of seating 250 guests, can get busy — even for the most seasoned of chef.
But when the line hits full stride, the chef team at Bluecoast trade in the smiling faces of customers to look to another face for inspiration — one that, admittedly, probably wouldn’t be smiling much if there were dishes yet to be plated to perfection during the dinner hour.
‘The King is gone, but not forgotten’
It’s been nearly three years since SoDel Concepts founder and worldwide philanthropist Matt Haley passed away after a motorcycle accident during a humanitarian mission in Nepal.
But even in a brand new restaurant, his presence still looms as large, as it always had before for the chefs who once worked alongside him.
The pieces are everywhere.
On display in the dining room hangs the original menus from Haley’s first restaurant, Red Fin (which eventually became Bluecoast).
Recalling a particular dish from 3rd Edition during Haley’s early days as a chef there, Diettrick suggested that they add their own twist before adding the 3rd Edition spicy-chili chicken wings to the Bluecoast menu as an homage.
The jar of dried curry leaves he once gave to Ruley is on proud display on the line, and while they all may feel him watching over them anyway, his picture hangs above the kitchen, too — smiling bright even during times he himself may not have been.
“That’s just Matt — that’s just who he was,” said Diettrick with a laugh. “It’s always been one of Matt Haley’s visions, is to have open kitchens. You hear the pots and pans, you hear the chatter of the chefs — it just creates a different atmosphere as soon as you walk in the door. There’s still a part of Matt in all of us that have worked with him.”
“His picture is right above my station,” added Viselli. “We’re an extremely busy restaurant, so to know that he’s always right there, staring at me — it’s really like he’s right there staring at me. You’re not going to give up, and you’re not going to send out a dish that isn’t perfect, because you know he wouldn’t have either.”
For Ruley, even as the corporate chef and vice president of a now double-digit number of restaurants and with all of his experience in the culinary arts, Haley is still there with him, too — not only as mentor, but as reminder of what’s really important, and why they do what they do.
“We have the curry leaves that he had given us on the line. We have his picture above us in the kitchen, so we have him with us, he’s there,” said Ruley. “For me, when it gets intense and it gets busy, to know that you could be gone in a split second like that — it kind of brings you back and gives you perspective.
“I think that Matt would definitely be proud of what’s going on with the company and what we’ve done here, and I know he’d be proud of Scott — he’s really stepped up to lead in a big way.”
Sussex County’s Next Top Chef
After the summer winds down, Ruley will hand over the reins for Diettrick and Visielli to continue leading on in Rehoboth while he prepares for whatever the future holds next for SoDel Concepts — all the while looking for the next generation of potential star chefs ready to earn their way to one day running a show of their own.
At Bluecoast, Diettrick and Visielli will do the same.
After all, it’s the SoDel concept of finding the right chefs for the right restaurant and continuing to pass the culinary torch that’s allowed them to continue to grow as a company and continue on their mission to “make beautiful, simple food” while making the communities that they’re part of — and the world beyond — “a better place.”
“The opportunities are there for the right person that wants it,” said Diettrick. “We surround ourselves with those kind of people that want that same thing and have that same drive — that we already know will succeed and become something big in this company.”
“For me, SoDel is pretty much proof that, if you work hard, it pays off,” added Viselli. “They take care of their employees and provide the right opportunities. The work you put in comes back to you.”
While Diettrick and Visielli are already doing their part to mentor young chefs, such as their sous-chef Charlie “The Firecracker” Moronski, as he tries to pave his way to a similarly successful career with the company, for them, it’s not the limelight and the accolades or the awards that keep them going.
Mostly, it still comes down to the reason that they started out as chefs in the first place.
“It’s never really been my thing,” Visielli said of seeking out recognition. “Don’t get me wrong — to be honored with something like the Chef of the Year award and to be recognized with so many other local chefs is amazing but it’s not why I do it — I just love what I do.”
“That’s why we have guys like Scott in our company. They’re humble. They want to come in and work, there’s no egos,” said Ruley. “We have the vision and we have the plan, and we like to bring people in that subscribe to the same plan that we have — that’s basically just to cook good food for good people.”
As for Kammerer, he said he’s just excited to see three of the company’s best doing what they do best as a team.
“I feel like we’ve just been really blessed to have such an amazing collection of talent here. Scott, Jason and all these guys have so many accolades and so many awards that they’ve won, they’ve all done all of these amazing things, and now they’re coming in here together and working as a cohesive unit,” Kammerer said.
“It’s all about the team and it’s all about the food. I couldn’t be more proud of them, and I’m just really honored to be able to work with them and be a part of what they’re doing.”
Bluecoast Seafood Grill & Raw Bar in Rehoboth is located at 30115 Veteran’s Way, directly off of Route 1, in front of the Fresh Market.