He gets by with a little help from his friends
Bad boys in the kitchen seem to be all the rage nowadays, from TV’s snarky Anthony Bourdain to pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini’s wise-guy persona at Jean Georges in New York. In spite of their bluster, many of these guys credit their success to bosses who believed in them. Even the angelic Bobby Flay pays tribute to his first employer, noted restaurateur Joe Allen, for keeping him out of jail and hounding him into culinary school.
Sussex County is not without its own inspiring stories, none the least of which that of Abbott’s Grill head chef Ryan Cunningham. Ryan is the first to admit that his younger years were underscored by frequent guest appearances on local police blotters. He’s also the first to acknowledge his gratitude to owners Kevin Reading, Steve Taylor and Jonathan Spivak for helping him become who he is today.
Born and raised in Lewes, Ryan started messing around in the kitchen at an early age. In spite of culinary inspiration from his grandmother, his mom says that she likes his food much more now than she did when he was a kid. He was just 12 years old when he took his first job bussing tables and mopping floors at Angler’s Restaurant for his uncle, Charlie Marsh. When Charlie sold the business to Irish Eyes, Ryan sacrificed pretty much every teenage pastime to land a position in the kitchen. Shortly thereafter, he enrolled in the culinary arts program at Johnson & Wales University.
Fresh out of school, Ryan became sous chef at Ann Marie’s restaurant (where Saketumi is now). When Ann Marie’s head chef moved on to cook for Jonathan Spivak at Fusion, Ryan moved into the top position. But it was too much too soon. His son Jacob was just a year old, and the pressure took its toll. He wisely followed his former superior to Fusion.
It’s hard enough being a young couple with a baby, but it’s even harder when you work in a busy restaurant. On Labor Day 2003, Cunningham had had enough. He left his job to work as a house painter. He quickly realized that the grass was greener (from a bank account perspective) there on Wilmington Avenue, and Jonathan kindly welcomed him back.
In late 2004, his former boss and friend Steve Taylor asked him to return to Anne Marie’s. His affection for Taylor won out. “He treated me like a son,” he says. “I owe him a lot.” Ryan’s confidence was bolstered by his friend Lazaro Siquina. Learning English along the way, Lazaro had worked himself up from dishwasher to salads to line cook, finally becoming Ryan’s sous chef. They still work in total harmony. “When I come in and Lazaro is here, I get a smile on my face. He is me.”
When one door closes, another one usually opens. When Ann Marie’s doors closed, he and Lazaro took over the lunch shift at Kevin Reading’s Nage. “The minute I walked in, I knew I belonged.” Though he loved the bistro atmosphere and the progressive menu, even more doors were about to open.
Cunningham says he’ll never forget Reading’s encouragement when he was offered the head chef position at the new Bonz Restaurant at Harrington Raceway and Casino. Though the experience was unparalleled, his second son Jackson was already a toddler, and he confesses that the hours eventually cost him his marriage.
When Kevin moved on to open Abbott’s Grill in Milford, he felt that Ryan and Lazaro would be the perfect team for his top kitchen positions. “Cooking side-by-side at Nage with Kevin and [chef de cuisine] Hari Cameron helped me develop my own style.” Abbott’s marketing director Karen Stauffer agrees: “Ryan is this young, tattooed guy with a wicked sense of humor, yet he turns out such sophisticated dishes based on traditional French cooking.”
Our interview keeps drifting back to his two boys, now 10 and 5 years old. “Everything I do I do for them,” he says softly. He then asks me if I would mention them in this article so he can tell them that “Daddy loves you, Jacob and Jackson.”
Yes, Ryan, I’ll be happy to do that.