A New Man At The Ebbitt
IT might seem a little bit like changing your quarterback halfway through the season, but one of Cape May’s finest restaurants has brought in a new Executive Chef. The Ebbitt Room last week replaced Lucas Manteca with Tony Micari, who left his post at the new Revel Resort in Atlantic City for the much more genteel surroundings of beautiful Jackson Street, home of the Virginia Hotel, which is, in turn, home of The Ebbitt Room.
So why make a change in the middle of August? “We had the opportunity to bring Tony on to our team and we are very happy to welcome him back. I worked closely with Tony when I promoted him to Executive Chef while I was general manager of the Chelsea,” said Patrick Logue, Director of Operations of Cape Resorts Group, which owns The Virginia Hotel, along with Congress Hall, the Beach Shack and the Chelsea in Atlantic City.
Chef Tony said he is “excited to be able to build on The Ebbitt Room’s legacy of innovative American cuisine.” And, not surprisingly, he can’t wait to get his hands dirty at the company’s 65-acre Beach Plum Farm, in West Cape May, where he can partake in the farm-to-table revolution that’s taking hold in America (and what a very good thing that is). “To be able to visit a farm that’s less than two miles from your restaurant and pick fresh produce you can make that night… that’s a chef’s dream,” said Tony.
Tony worked at the Chelsea from 2008-2010 as chef de cuisine of the hotel’s Chelsea Prime restaurant, which was awarded the distinction of “Best New Restaurant in South Jersey” by New Jersey Monthly during his tenure (we can add that the filet mignon there is the best steak dish we have EVER eaten). He then went on to work as Executive Chef at the acclaimed BLT Steak restaurant in Manhattan before joining the Revel.
“We’ve had a history of bringing in talented young chefs at The Ebbitt Room,” said Patrick Logue. “Back at the beginning, there was Joe Lotozo and Chris Hubert, who are two of the best-known, well-loved chefs in town. Later we developed Andy Carthy, who joined us as a dishwasher and went on to cook dinner at the James Beard House in New York. And we’re grateful to Lucas Manteca, who continued that tradition for the past three years – we wish him well in his future entrepreneurial endeavors.”
Lucas, the dashing, surf-loving Argentinian who brought a touch of Latin flair to The Ebbitt Room, isn’t about to take a break from working in the kitchen. He and his wife Deanna Ebner took over the Cape May Point General Store earlier this year, winning rave reviews for their breakfast concoctions in particular. Now, Lucas is throwing himself into the endeavor full-time – as of this week The Red Store (the name of their restaurant) is now serving dinner.
So what can we expect from Chef Lucas? “I’m extremely excited to open for dinner. I’ve been shopping all morning from local farm stands for food — peaches, corn, tomatoes, eggplant. We’re going to be changing the menu weekly, based on what’s fresh. We’re dividing the menu, into sections: raw, seconds, thirds and something sweet. You can sample from whichever, or do a tasting from all. We want you to leave satisfied, but not uncomfortably full. Whichever dish you want from that section will cost the same. It’s very bistro style.”
We’re excited to see what Tony brings to The Ebbitt Room, which is still one of Cape May’s unmissable dining experiences. And we’re excited to try dinner at The Red Store, too.
Line In The Sand
IN ANY town, it’s difficult to find activities that are enjoyable for the whole family — kids, text-crazy teeny-boppers, and Great, Great, Great Aunt Mildred. For 12 years, one such event has been Cape May’s amateur sand sculpting contest — run by New York-based sculpter Matt Long, who you might recognize from his regular spot on the Travel Channel’s Sand Masters. We know how much the community looked forward to this event… last year, there were nearly 80 entrants, some in teams of up to 10, and many planned their vacations around it, according to Matt. And we know how much he looked forward to the contest, too. “This has always been my passion; I love putting it on, And I love Cape May,” he told us. So we were surprised to receive an email a couple weeks back from the city saying that this year’s event, scheduled for August 3, would be canceled.
Michael Chait, Cape May’s Assistant Director of Marketing, cited a scheduling conflict when we emailed asking for an explanation. So, last week, we met up with the sculptor to find out what that could be. When we found him on the beach, he was busy making a castle by the water’s edge. “Things change,” he said, brushing the sand from his knees. “It’s upsetting. I really enjoyed it. I ran it out of my own expenses.”
At least, Matt explained, he ran the contest out of his own expenses for the first nine years, and always during his own Cape May vacation. Then, it got to be too much. Without factoring the cost of his time (soliciting sponsorships, writing press releases, maintaining the contest’s website, running sand sculpting clinics in the month leading up to the contest, and devoting two vacation days each year to making the event happen), expenses added up to approximately $2,500. It would have been more, had he needed to pay for help, but Matt and his family assembled a team of 15 volunteers each year, bringing in friends from New York and Pennsylvania.
Matt emailed then-Director of Recreation, Terry Brown, explaining the situation, and in response, the city awarded him a yearly stipend of $1,000. “It still wasn’t enough to cover expenses,” he said, “but again, I loved doing this contest.” And, he says, the event had always coincided with his own vacation, so he was putting out for the hotel room, anyway.
But this year, the city scheduled the event without checking with Matt first, and it did not line up with the sculptor’s own trip to Cape May. When this glitch had happened in year’s past, the city had rescheduled, but Matt was told this wouldn’t be the case this year. Adding to this disappointment was the hurt he had felt earlier in the year when he’d been in town for a sculpting event sponsored by Congress Hall. “I had a small window to make the sculpture,” he told us, “so I asked the city if they wouldn’t mind having their beachcomber make me the pile of sand I needed the night before. They told me they couldn’t do it, because the sculpture was for Congress Hall.”
In preparing for this year’s contest, Matt submitted a proposal to the city, asking not for his “regular day rate for sculpting” — upwards of $2,500 per job — but that his $1,000 stipend for this year’s contest be paid, along with his meals and accommodation. “I was looking for two rooms for two days,” he said. “I don’t mind traveling. Wildwood would have worked.” Michael Chait responded to matt by saying that he would check with City Manager Bruce MacLeod, and then, ultimately, that this expense “wasn’t in the budget.”
We couldn’t help but wonder if the city had reached out to any local hotels who might be willing to put up Matt and his family free of charge, so we emailed Michael Chait. “It is unfortunate that the contest did not coincide with Mr Long’s vacation as it has in previous years,” he responded. “His fees for the event almost tripled and it’s not something the city anticipated. The program was canceled for 2012 and will be re-evaluated for the future.”
We’re hoping this will be the last year without a sand sculpting contest in Cape May, and we plan on doing what we can to make sure that is the case. It’s an event that’s good for everyone involved.
Tag, You’re (Paying For) It
NO ONE likes dishing out cash — that’s a given. But the way we figure it, if you don’t like the beautiful beaches of Cape May enough to contribute to their upkeep, then you’re not all that much of a beach lover to begin with. We’re talking about beach tags — those little plastic pieces you can’t set foot on Cape May sand without. The people tasked with distributing these tags — and collecting the money for them — are vilified in this town… more so, even, than the bike cops who write those $35 parking tickets. We call them “yellow shirts,” but for taggers, we reserve the harshest names: “tag hags,” “beach naggers,” “beach Nazis.” You’re not as sweet as you appear, Cape May. At least, not according to Michele Godwin, a tagger of two years.
“I once had a group of women kick sand at me when they found out they needed to buy tags,” Michele told us. We caught up with her at the entrance to Perry Street beach, sitting underneath her blue umbrella, next to a little area of toys — a brain teaser, a windmill, and a “motion duck” — she sets up for the wee ones. “The ladies ended up sitting on a bench on the promenade, yelling obscenities and continuously taunting me. They said I’d be better off on welfare instead of doing a job that’s not honest, because the Lord is who gives us the beach. I had to be transferred from Windsor Avenue to Perry Street, in case they came back. I just smiled. I figured I’d eat them up with my happiness.”
And then there’s the hassle of dealing with the elements. “If it’s pouring rain, we’re still out here,” Michele says. And never mind having to deal with the heat. “That’s a killer, and we’re not allowed in the ocean,” she says. And never mind the one and only bathroom break. It’s the nasty treatment that’s the toughest to deal with, and it’s all a part of daily life for Michele, who’s had people hail her like Hitler, compare her to a used car salesman, throw beach safety brochures in her face, set up camp nearly on top of her after being refused beach access and, just three days ago, steal her umbrella. “These guys decided to parade down the beach with it,” she said. “Like a giant mushroom. We found it later, buried about 20 feet into the dunes.”
Then, she says, there are the people who try and sneak around her. “They’ll show me a homemade tag, or one from another town. That’s why I’m so familiar with the tags from Long Beach Island. You’ve got to give these guys credit.” And the people who, even worse, try to sneak their kids around her. “If you’re under 12, you get on the beach for free,” she explained. “So a child will have a little mustache and yet parents will say he’s 11.”
The locals, who sometimes feel entitled to the beaches of Cape May, are no better than the tourists, Michele says. They often grow disgruntled because they didn’t realize there was a tag rule in place or because their hotel mistakenly (intentionally?) led them to believe the price of a tag would be included in their stay. “People expect me to recognize them,” Michele said. “I feel like saying, ‘You’re special, but I just can’t.’”
It’s a shame that beach-goers would take their frustrations out on the taggers, Michele says, because they’re good people. They don’t get paid for cleaning up the trash you leave behind (tsk, tsk) or for findng lost children. “It happens a lot,” Michele said. “It happened this morning.”
Michele points to her mother, Mary, who’s been tagging for four years, as an example. “She works four jobs, she is raising an adopted child, and she cares for a deaf woman with a disability in her spare time,” she told us. “I get goosebumps just thinking about her. Often times, when they’re being mean, people don’t consider that.”
But the job is made worth it, Michele says, by all of the “incredible” people she meets, who more than make up for the bad apples. “I call them my sandy family,” she told us. “There is rarely a day that goes by that someone doesn’t bring me lemonade, a sandwich or a salad. They’ll even pour cold water from the ocean on me to help me cool off if I ask them.” Some go above and beyond. “I have bone cancer,” Michele said. “And I’ve had people bring me information, mulit-vitamins, even a Mayo Clinic book.”
As if to confirm that this “sandy family” does exist, a thirty-something couple made their way past us and on to the promenade as we finished up our interview with Michele. They joked about how much they looked forward to hassling her the following day. We asked the gentleman what he thought of having to buy his way on to the beach. “In all seriousness,” he said, “tags are a good thing. I don’t mind paying at all.” Our thoughts, exactly.
“The bottom line,” Michele said, “is that these beaches are beautiful… I don’t get a bonus for saying it.” She also, contrary to popular thinking, doesn’t get any kind of bonus for selling more tags, and she has to pay to get on the beach, too. “If I come on my day off without one,” she said, “ I’m not allowed on. That’s the rule. Just keep it clean and buy the tag. This place is worth the money.”