In my kitchen: Chef Robbie Jester of Limestone BBQ + Bourbon

Robbie Jester l Photos by Ron Dubick

By Peter Osborne

Chef Robbie Jester has seen the power of TV syndication.

People still come up or write to him about his four Food Network appearances on “Guy’s Grocery Games” (GGG) and “Beat Bobby Flay” in 2015 and 2016, most likely because they still air on a continuous loop (and on demand) three years later.

For the record, he won on one of his GGG appearances and then beat the rarely vanquished Bobby with the shrimp scampi recipe across the page (“he’s very cordial but it’s also very clear he doesn’t like to lose”). And his restaurants (Stone Balloon in Newark and Limestone BBQ + Bourbon off Kirkwood Highway) have also seen the benefit in increased traffic and sales given the exposure.

What did Robbie learn from those appearances?

• More acidity: “I like richer flavors, but the judges suggested I add acid (sourness, sharpness, tartness) for balance. You can get palate fatigue.”

• Keep it Simple: “Simple food uncomplicated and great technique will win every time. I planned to do more on Guy’s show but found I didn’t have time. I had to figure out what to omit on the fly.”

• Be helpful: “I believe in giving to other people but believing it and doing it are two different things. I gave garlic to a competitor who didn’t have it (he was praised by a judge for doing it). Richard Blais (another GGG judge) lost the first season of “Top Chef” because he helped someone.”

“You don’t see all the feedback on TV,” says the 33-year-old Jester. “It’s so thorough. One judge talked to
me at length about chilling my crepe batter a bit longer.”

Jester’s TV appearances came with some emotion. His father was battling lung cancer (he passed away in January 2016) and his maternal grandfather passed away just before one of his appearances (his mother made him skip the funeral to compete). He spoke about his dad on the shows, and Robbie says he openly lost it during one exchange that didn’t make it to air.

A life in cooking

Jester grew up working in his father’s restaurants. At age 9, he showed up on weekends at the Village Pub and Prime Time on Del. 4 in Newark with his grandfather, cleaning up from the night before (“I was paid in quarters and spent it all in the Crane Game. My grandfather would then go and empty the machine, roll the quarters back up, and pay me with the same roll the next week.”)

At age 12, he was working at the family’s Harbor House restaurant in Worton, Maryland, washing dishes and making soup, salad and desserts.

He was on the line at 14 cooking and running the line at 15.

Jester and his father had a rocky relationship. “There was a lot of yelling,” he says. “I quit quite a few times, including one Sunday before brunch. I had to walk home about 30 miles after that one.”

But then it was time to go to college. He chose Michigan State University for medical technology but then had
an epiphany.

“I decided that was not what I wanted to do; I wanted to be in the restaurant business,” he says. “I walked into their bedroom the night before I was supposed to leave and told my parents I wanted to go to culinary school.”

“My father told me that was a waste of my effing life and that I was not going to sit around the house. So I went to massage school, graduated, and then applied to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA).”

After graduation, he began interviewing around Wilmington. Dan Butler hired him as a sous chef at Toscana, and he was promoted four weeks later when the chef left.

“My father never made me feel guilty about leaving,” Jester said. “After I graduated from CIA, we both did a lot of growing up, which was helped by the fact that our technical skills were pretty equal. He was not an easy man to work for, but he had a natural, unending curiosity that he passed on to me. He asked ‘why’ about everything. He didn’t care about the answer; he liked the analysis, the organization and structure. He expected the absolute pinnacle of efficiency and productivity. He could not stand a wasted step or movement.”

As a result, Jester says, “I fell in love with food second. I fell in love first with the organization, logistics, structure. I could do 100 covers [entrée plates] by myself.”

A restaurant in despair

After cutting his teeth at places like the DuPont Country Club and Hotel du Pont, Jester found himself working at the 16 Mile Taphouse (located at the original Stone Balloon Winehouse site) when it was acquired by High 5 in 2014 and restored the Stone Balloon name.

“It was a restaurant in despair and a logistical nightmare,” he says. “Everyone quit when High 5 acquired them, but I was given the chance to be executive chef and make massive changes.”

Jester has been recognized in multiple places for his cooking, including Delaware Today awards as Best Upstate Chef in 2017 and 2018. He’s gotten more involved in the community and coaching other chefs, and you can find him a few days each week down at Caesar Rodney High School, coaching the ProStart team that will compete for the national championship in May.

A kitchen tool Jester can’t live without: “A good cheap peeler.”

Here are a few things about Robbie and his kitchen.

• When I’m at home, I normally cook … nothing! I hate to cook at home. At the restaurant all the equipment is out and it’s so much more freeing to cook in my work environment. I want to write a cookbook entitled, “I Hate to Cook at Home: Recipes from a Disgruntled Chef at Home.”

• The lessons that I’ve learned over the years that I’ve brought to both my work and home cooking are … it doesn’t have to be complicated to be amazing if you pay attention to the details. In my restaurants we prepare simple food with thought and attention to technique. Fantastic flavor can come from seasoning properly, searing properly, and controlling the heat.

• The thing most people notice first about the Stone Balloon kitchen is … it’s tiny. Creativity is paramount when space is limited.

• In my pantry, you’ll always find … canned soup. I love the Wolfgang Puck stuff and I’m a huge canned soup fan. I like the white-bean soup and add apple cider vinegar, hand-crushed black pepper and a bit of salt. One of my comfort foods (at 11:45 at night).

• My favorite cooking “trick” is … the versatility of a vinaigrette. You can make a simple vinaigrette and use it as a marinade, dressing, and finishing sauce. They’re also healthier for you than most classic sauces.

• The book I repeatedly cook from: “Happy in the Kitchen” by Michel Richard. This man was a pastry chef who stepped into the savory kitchen and did so with a Santa-like playfulness. Coincidentally he was quoted as saying the kitchen tool he couldn’t live without was plastic wrap. In this book there are tons of creative uses for plastic wrap.

• In my freezer, you’ll always find … frozen peaches. Love me a frozen peach. I buy organic frozen peaches, but also love to go to Lockbriar Farms in Chestertown, Maryland. It has a white peach in June that the juice drips down your chin when you bite into it. Milburn Orchards in Elkton is also fantastic.

• My favorite cooking show on TV is … “Top Chef.” More of a competition than “cooking” show, but they are some of the best chefs in the game competing.

• The one thing I HAVE to serve at every family get-together is … too many items!!! Can we get back to the world without four starches?!?! Whatever happened to protein, veg, starch, sauce, and strawberry pretzel salad. Can’t forget the strawberry pretzel salad.

• The best meal I’ve ever had is … my mom’s spaghetti and meat sauce.

• The kitchen tool I can’t live without is … a good cheap peeler. You can make veggie noodles and all kinds of other great variations starting with an awesome peeler.

• My time in Delaware has made me a better chef because … of the incredible practical knowledge and mentorship I’ve received.

• My cooking mentor is/was … Billy Hoffman, Pat D’Amico, Dan Butler, my father, a woman I love like a sister named Octavia Pauls, and my mother. It takes a village.

• I collect … useless Disney knowledge (Jester admits with a grin that he knows where all the hidden Mickeys are at Disney World and often leads the Stone Balloon line in singing Disney songs. He also says his family’s time at the park was one of the few times they saw their father not being serious).

• What is the most difficult thing for you to cook/create in the kitchen? I’m awful at biscuits. I overmix them, I know. It’s on my To Do list to master the crap out of them though.

• My favorite person to cook with is … Nick Wallace, the pit boss at Limestone. He’s incredibly talented and knowledgeable and it is a pleasure to cook beside him.


Cavatelli shrimp scampi is a winner

Jester used this dish to Beat Bobby Flay on the Food Network in 2015. He created the recipe for one portion but says it’s fine to double for two people and quadruple for four servings (just like he did on “Beat Bobby Flay.”)

Ingredients:
• 7 ounces cooked cavatelli pasta
• 7 extra-jumbo shrimp
• 2 ounces halved grape tomatoes
• 1.5 ounces chopped fresh garlic
• 6 ounces favorite white wine
• 3 ounces butter, cold and cut into cubes
• 1 lemon
• half-ounce arugula
• 1 ounce rosemary garlic Parmesan bread crumbs (you can just crush your favorite croutons if you prefer)
• 2 ounces olive oil

Start by placing a medium-size sauté pan over high heat. Pour in the olive oil and and allow to heat for several seconds. Once the oil is just barely smoking, add the shrimp. Once the shrimp are turning pink on one side, add the cherry tomatoes and garlic. The garlic should cook until it is beginning to change color but not fully brown. Flip the shrimp over and add the white wine. Toss in the cooked pasta and allow it to cook and the wine to reduce by half. Now reduce the heat and add the butter and lemon juice. Swirl the pan by tilting it in a circular motion with your wrist so that it emulsifies. Add the arugula and toss gently. Taste the sauce and season with salt and pepper. Spoon the scampi into the serving bowl and top it with garlic parmesan bread crumbs.

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