Rehoboth restaurateur confronts his mortality - and wins!
I’ve always liked radio commentator Paul Harvey’s signature tagline, “Now, for the rest of the story….” I still get emails asking for the rest of the story about noted restaurateur and artist Jonathan Spivak’s battle with cancer and the resulting sale of his successful restaurant, Salt Air. Well (and with a polite nod to Mark Twain), reports of Spivak’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. But first, a bit of history:
Jonathan was born in the Bronx. His fascination with the food industry began in restaurants when at the age of 10 he would escape his parents’ dinner conversations - entirely in Yiddish - by sneaking glimpses into the kitchens as the swinging doors opened and closed.
While traveling for his Washington, D.C. legal consulting firm, he ate in restaurants day after day. He couldn’t help but critique them, and over and over he found himself exiting with one thought in mind: “I can do better than that.” At the tender age of 50, a friend told him that it was about time he put his money where his mouth is. The next day, he strolled into his office, handed his share to his business partner, and said, “I’m going to the beach and I’m building a restaurant.” It was September 1992.
One night while dining at Dante’s Pizza in Bethany Beach, he approached the owner and offered to buy the place. When the owner wrote down his asking price, Jonathan laughed and said, “That better be your phone number, ‘cause I’m not paying that!” They did end up exchanging phone numbers, and in January 1993 the deal was done, and Sedona restaurant was born. His first official act was to hire GM Marion Parrott to assemble a crew for the front-of-house while he went in search of somebody to cook. He eventually hired Jeff Thiemann from Ground Zero in Rehoboth. Sedona was off and running, quickly carving out a fine-dining niche on Pennsylvania Avenue in Bethany Beach.
In ’96, Jonathan and Thiemann entered into a partnership to open Fusion in the old Ground Zero space, but one thing led to another, and Spivak ended up with total ownership. In 2008, he sold Sedona to his longtime friend Marion, and the next year Salt Air came into existence. In Spivak’s words, it was “a major home run.”
But life has a way of interfering with home runs. During an extensive remodel and reinvention of Salt Air, Jonathan was diagnosed with stage 3 lymphoma. He was given a 20 percent chance of survival. His absence from the day-to-day operations resulted in Salt Air’s rapid demise. Local restaurant savants Eric and Norman Sugrue knew this was too good a concept to abandon, and they purchased the property in 2011. They wisely kept the name and the “picnic” feel of the menu, and the Wilmington Avenue eatery is just as good as it ever was. This is where “the rest of the story” kicks in.
Jonathan dropped out of sight while he and his wife Mary struggled with the cancer. At one point he was placed on life support in anticipation of his death. But life changed the game plan yet again, and after several years of treatment, his chance of survival is now up to 85 percent. If there is no return of the cancer within a year, that prognosis increases to 99 percent. All of a sudden he’s back in the limelight, primarily because of his 30-year reputation as an abstract artist. He jokes, “Buy ‘em now, because they’ll be a lot more expensive if I die!” No, I wouldn’t have written that on my own, but that is indeed a direct quote from this funny, realistic and no-nonsense guy.
Now imagine having that guy cook a complete dinner for you and your guests in your very own kitchen! Yes, Jonathan’s back, and has created Home On Your Range, a personal chef service where he conceptualizes and prepares a multi-course dinner for private parties in your home. He even throws in the first bottle of wine. Like Salt Air, the concept has taken off, and he has hosted dinner parties as far away as Westport, Conn.
So that’s the rest of the story. And for anybody who is even a passing acquaintance of Jonathan’s, it has an exceptionally happy ending. Interested in making Salt Air’s founder feel at home on your range? (Who wouldn’t!?) Email him at ChefBoy1@verizon.net.