If you know anything about Delaware dining, you know the Old World grandeur of The Green Room at Wilmington’s Hotel du Pont. As a kid, and with my relatives in tow, if you wanted fine dining outside of Philly, The Green Room was the stuffily elitist hot spot. Even in my late teens, when the du Pont family held events, they held them at the high-ceilinged, classical music-infused Green Room.
Little did we know that Tyler Akin – the chef-owner of Stock restaurants and co-owner of Philly’s Res Ipsa Cafe – was also a Delaware-ian who also had fond, but aptly stodgy memories of the thick curtains and equally dense sauces of The Green Room. It was a no-brainer then that, when the PM Hotel and Buccini/Pollin Groups bought the hotel from the du Ponts, it would be Akin who would be allowed to remake and remodel that aged elegant space into something chicly modern and light, with an equally bright and fanciful French-North African brasserie menu. That’s Akin’s Le Cavalier which opens to the public on September 1 (Delaware already has socially distanced indoor dining at this point, so don’t overthink this).
I spoke with Akin about his spanking new Le Cavalier as well his deep involvement with local, then national, C-19 restaurant politics and forward-thinking funding.
A.D. Amorosi: You took time off from Stock and Res Ipsa at the beginning of the pandemic to work with legislators to fix the PPP and push for the $120-billion Independent Restaurant Stabilization Fund, the RESTAURANTS Act. How do you feel you affected real change going forward for restauranteurs like yourself and others?
Tyler Akin: Groups like the IRC, along with organizations representing other industries for whom PPP did not work as it was initially rolled out, worked to make changes that finally manifested in the Roy-Phillips PPP Flexibility Act. Many restaurants who received those funds when they immediately became available, were able to stretch those funds over a longer period of time and use them for expenses that were actually realistic and applicable. To that extent, we have helped independent restaurants survive in very real terms. The RESTAURANTS Act’s fate is yet to be seen — if it is passed, it will be a true lifeline that will benefit countless restaurants that are pillars of culture and employment in their communities. We are also exploring the possibility that key aspects of the Act may be incorporated into a second round of PPP.
A.D. Amorosi: How much of that politicking comes from your time in law school, where a position of verbal strength and reasoning is de rigueur?
Tyler Akin: I have always been interested in politics. I registered as a democrat the day I was able and volunteered for politicians throughout high school, college and law school. These experiences taught me how to converse with politicians and their legislative teams and how to organize colleagues to do the same.
A.D. Amorosi: Without criticizing one chef over another, do you feel that waiting out the C-19 season in Philly until we hit green for indoor dining was ok, or do you feel like other chefs that diners should have been allowed indoors earlier?
Tyler Akin: This isn’t a time for judgement. Everyone is trying to survive.
A.D. Amorosi: What is your opinion of Philly going green to the tune of 25% of a room… more like 23 or 20 once you consider the C-19 barriers that must be erected, and the distance created?
Tyler Akin: In Philadelphia, we own BYOs with a very small footprint indoors and a negligible one outdoors. For us, this doesn’t change the viability of the businesses. That said, each operator is going to have to make a really difficult decision about whether there’s a way to navigate this that keeps their teams and guests feeling safe and whether this actually changes their bottom line in any kind of significant way. For many, it won’t and for others, the potential risk won’t be worth the small upside.
A.D. Amorosi: Let’s go to Delaware. Growing up in Wilmington, beyond Hotel Dupont, how much of a culinary scene did cosmopolitan Delaware have and what was it all about? What sort of menus were being tended to and eaten?
Tyler Akin: Restaurants like 821, Deep Blue, Krazy Kats and Eclipse Bistro were at the vanguard of progressive cuisine in Wilmington. I was, by no means, a regular at these spots, but, their mere existence made me aware that there was more to food than brewpubs.
A.D. Amorosi: Certainly you had not been within the walls of Hotel du Pont for eons – what do you remember about its vibe and its bones during your time away and what changed or what was different than what memory served when you first walked into Hotel du Pont and the Green Room again?
Tyler Akin: I, like others, had an idealized memory of what the Green Room was. By the time I returned to explore this opportunity, I had come a long way in my own experience and it was obvious that the Green Room was stuck in the past.
A.D. Amorosi: I love the idea of a grand, linen-laced dining spot, but, how do you believe your Green Room re-do, Le Cavalier, goes against the grain – the currency – of more casual, multi-ethnic dining popularity? Or is that the goal?
Tyler Akin: We’re trying to walk that tightrope of old school grandeur and new school sensibility. Finding counterpoints with music, service style, artwork on the wall, rustic plating — all against the backdrop of baroque architecture. I think we’ve achieved that goal.
A.D. Amorosi: What are your goals and plans toward diversifying the Le Cavalier kitchen, as well as the front and back of the house?
Tyler Akin: We’re really proud of the diversity of our team, and look forward to the community meeting them. We’re also working on a mentorship program that would create a hiring pipeline for a more diverse pool of culinary talent in the city of Wilmington.
A.D. Amorosi: I remember seeing something early on that the first thing you wanted to do was lighten the menu, make it modern and away from its past, and yet, you did manage to keep the Green Room almond macaroons and the tradition of high tea service. Discuss.
Tyler Akin: The almond macaroons find their place on our menu as part of a shared – or two or four – Sundae on our dessert menu. In that instance, we found a playful way to incorporate history. My vision of afternoon tea is much more boisterous and whimsical than tea service at the hotel traditionally was. We’re leaning into those North African spices and tropical flavors on the pastry side, and leaning into the alcohol service on the beverage side. Look for afternoon tea to roll out late-fall or early winter.
A.D. Amorosi: Why was a French brasserie-style with influences from North Africa and Provençe right for this new venture? What about this room screamed for that menu? Personally, I can’t wait to try the rougette de veau.
Tyler Akin: We did tons of research in the hotel archives which are housed at Hagley Museum. We discovered a restaurant that had continuously evolved, but looking at those old menus French influence was a constant. The bones of the restaurant felt like a grande Parisian brasserie, so I looked to my own culinary education to influence it in this Mediterranean direction.
A.D. Amorosi: How does the Le Cav – I’ve given you your restaurant’s first nickname – speak to Delaware and how much is locally sourced?
Tyler Akin: Le Cav occupies a space that has been a pillar of the community for over a century and anchors the downtown commercial corridor. People have, and will continue to, enter this room to celebrate life milestones, so we look forward to remaining an important community institution. We’re working hard to use as many local ingredients as possible.
A.D. Amorosi: What can you tell me about your direct interaction and personal design aesthetic when related to Stokes Architecture & Design and Lance Saunders?
Tyler Akin: Lance is the creative genius behind this design. It’s obvious to all of us that he’s absorbed all of Rich Stokes’ genius and, in turn, I was lucky to have the opportunity to work hand in hand with Lance on the major design elements — the finishes and the artwork selection.
A.D. Amorosi: The Le Cavalier space is sprawling and you’re serving breakfast, lunch, dinner, high teas and brunch – plus you have several other restaurants to take care of – were you ever concerned that this is all too much, or is it just right?
Tyler Akin: One of the effects of the pandemic is that we are phasing our open, so it is a lighter lift than it would have been. I remain committed to maintaining quality at all of my restaurants and will work as hard as I need to make sure they continue to exceed expectations.
A.D. Amorosi: If you had to sit down tonight and dine at Le Cavalier, what would your entire meal and drink list be and why?
Tyler Akin: I’d start with the Le Cav Kir, our spin on the Kir Royale. For wine, I would pair our Meinklang Orange wine with several seafood dishes — including our butter-poached Lobster Tail, Oysters and Scallop Crudo. I love seafood. I would have the Gnocchi Parisian with jumbo crab and caviar and move on to a dark rosé to pair with one of our steak frites options or braised veal shoulder. To finish, a La Colombe espresso with our Coconut Cake.