In my kitchen: Bill Clifton of The Counting House on frozen pizza and fatherhood

Bill Clifton at the grill.

Bill Clifton, executive chef and co-owner of The Counting House restaurant in Georgetown, faced off with celebrity chef Bobby Flay on The Food Network on May 2, getting to the final round before he lost with his signature dish, corn and crab chowder, in part because The Food Network wanted him to add a corn fritter as a garnish

“I had other garnishes in mind,” Clifton says. He added that the show requires a level of execution he’d never experienced and that he practiced for the first round two and three times a day for two weeks.

In terms of the show, family and co-workers said, “that was exactly who you are.” Clifton says he got wrapped up in the finish and making sure he was happy with the dish. “But I overlooked a few things, including letting my chowder itself cook too long at too high a heat, and I blended it all the corn for the base when I wanted to leave some for texture. I also should have left more time for plating; I went for all-white and Bobby chose a blue rim which made it pop.”

Clifton was working at Henlopen City Oyster House in Rehoboth Beach when he got the call from the Food Network this past winter. He and his partner, Miguel Batiz, took over the restaurant in Georgetown’s historic Brick Hotel last August, renaming it The Counting House. Clifton, whose first job was at Grotto Pizza and has worked at the world-renowned The French Laundry in Napa Valley, says he’s been asked to about appearing on other shows and isn’t saying no. He answered a few questions for DBT after the show aired.

• When I’m at home, I normally cook … breakfast just about every day, and it is usually some form of eggs with scrapple or sausage.

• The lessons that I’ve learned over the years that I’ve brought to both my work and home cooking are … organization. I prep everything up just like I would to set the work stations in the restaurant. I consolidate my refrigerator and pantry the same way we do the walk-in and storage.

• The thing most people notice first about my kitchen is … the cast iron pan. I use it for everything, and it is seasoned like a dream.

The kitchen tool I can’t live without … knives first and foremost, but a food processor is the king. You can cut and clean so quickly and easily, and also make sauces, dressings and dough. It really is an all-purpose machine.

• In my pantry, you’ll always find … stocks. If I do not have my own in the freezer or refrigerator, I always have a chicken or beef stock on hand. They are so versatile for adding flavor, deglazing a pan, or making soups and sauces.

• My favorite cooking “trick” is … making hollandaise in a blender. It saves your arm, time, and cleanup. The first time someone taught me how to do it was the “duh” moment. It made perfect sense.

• The books I repeatedly cook from are … I don’t think there is a single book that I cook from on a consistent basis. I have a very large library and use them all as references when I start to create a dish or menu. I enjoy cross-referencing different styles to fit my own.

• In my freezer, you’ll always find … frozen pizza. When you really feel like being lazy, it is the best thing to have on hand.

• My favorite cooking show on TV is … “America’s Test Kitchen” (PBS and available online). What a great show! It breaks down everything and they put an emphasis on being able to relate to anyone. It is so well put together and informative.

• The one thing I HAVE to serve at every family get-together is … the American standard: Mashed potatoes.
I cook my potatoes whole in very well-seasoned water. They take a little longer, but the result is always better.

• The best meal I’ve ever had … I have eaten at a bunch of great restaurants and Babbo in NYC stands out. But when I think of a meal, it usually involves company of friends and family so this is no way to pick just one. That is like trying to pick your favorite song. It is all about the moment and the feeling. There are countless great meals.

• My time in Delaware has made me a better chef because … that’s easy. My friends and family are honest. If something is just not right, they are not shy to share how they feel and I value their input and experiences.

My cooking mentor is/was … I have had a lot of great chefs that I have gathered inspiration from and • have admired. If I had to choose one, it would be Jon Orlando of Just in Thyme in Rehoboth. He and his wife Leslie have owned a restaurant in Rehoboth for more than 30 years, I believe. They are not hoity toity, just great solid people who have been successful.

• When I entertain, I like to make … something that has to be cooked low and slow. Whole animals or primal cuts that are best braised or smoked to create layers of flavors.

• I collect … watches. I have never been a jewelry guy, no necklaces or rings. Something you are always working with in the kitchen is time, and I always have a watch on. I feel naked without it. I have over 20 watches that differ in size, color and materials.

• The most difficult thing for me to cook/create in the kitchen is … desserts come to mind first, and that is an easy excuse, but I would say everything. I try not to repeat myself, so I am constantly trying to improve upon what I have made or am creating until it hurts my face thinking about it.

• My favorite person to cook with is … right now, it is my son. He is 1 year old and I put him in his high chair and cook for him like it is an episode of “America’s Test Kitchen.

– By Peter Osborne

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