Barry Sullivan, 38, the chef at Clancy's by the Bay in Somers Point, remembers his family conversations as a child.
Growing up in Northeast Philadelphia, his parents wouldn't let him leave the conversation until he could tell them at least one thing he learned at school that day. It's no surprise that he has fashioned his kitchen management style around the same sort of question.
"What did you learn today?" Sullivan says. Today, he realizes that question was a starting point for him to teach what he had learned to his own parents.
While butchering a chicken by chopping right through the wing joint, Sullivan's dishwasher showed him a better way to French the wing in one motion by hitting the cartilage just right and pulling the meat back in one motion.
"I went through six chickens until I understood what he was doing and got it just right," Sullivan says.
The kitchen staff at Clancy's by the Bay is taught the same way, by watching and doing.
After Sullivan teaches someone on his staff a trick he was taught by another chef, he lets them teach another member of the kitchen how it is done. All the while, he is smart enough to learn new tricks from the members of his staff along the way.
Clancy's menu is unpretentious, like its chef who wears a baseball cap and a short-sleeved, cotton dishwasher shirt, rather than toque and chef's jacket. Humility doesn't mean the menu is boring. Sullivan has brought many of the ideas he learned along his way while working at restaurants such as Buddakan, where he developed a sensibility for Asian ingredients that he has included in the menu at Clancy's.
The menu at Clancy's by the Bay is large enough to offer even the pickiest eater a choice they will love. A popular appetizer is the sashimi ($9.95), thinly sliced raw yellow fin tuna with a citrus soy sauce, shaved ginger and scallions, a holdover from Sullivan's Buddha days. He wasn't sure how it would play with the locals, but the dish has taken off. Seared scallops ($9.95), made from local scallops straight out of Barnegat Light, are served over sake and vanilla-marinated pineapple.
From the "snack" section, steamed edamame beans ($4.95) are served only with a sprinkle of sea salt. Sullivan says when he did the tasting for his menu, everyone laughed at such a simple dish. Sullivan suggested trying it with beer, the way the Japanese eat it, and changed some minds.
"We sell a ton of it," Sullivan says.
Cheesesteak egg rolls ($7.95), made in-house, feature sliced beef and cheese with caramelized onions inside a crispy egg roll wrapper, served with their own spicy ketchup and made from seven different ingredients.
"We even make our own hummus and chipotle ranch," Sullivan says.
Clancy's offers a selection of "old world, thin-crust pizza" with dough and sauces made fresh.
All soups, such as the cream-based Clancy's Original Chowder, are made from scratch.
The salmon salad ($12.95) is a popular dish from the menu at Clancy's by the Sea, in nearby Ocean City. Pepper-seared salmon filet is served medium rare over mixed greens with diced tomato, buffalo mozzarella, red onions, capers, cucumbers and roasted pine nuts with a honey Dijonaise dressing.
The teriyaki salmon ($15.95) is a salmon filet glazed with a homemade teriyaki sauce that his cooks constantly ask him to taste to make sure it's up to the standards the chef has set. Getting the flavor just right is a matter of pride for the kitchen.
Braised beef short ribs ($20.95) are fork tender, served with string beans. Sullivan says that because he serves lobster mashed potatoes he has taken some heat from his peers, who attribute that dish to another generation of chefs.
Sullivan only knows that every dish he serves with them sells like hotcakes. His menu reflects the best things he has learned during his culinary career.
If his time in the kitchen at Buddakan lit a fire under his career, it was his mom's pantry that originally sparked his interest in cooking. Stocked with ingredients from all over the world, Sullivan would go in and pick a few ingredients to create a stir-fry or saute when he was young.
Sullivan's dad was in the military and would bring home ingredients from the countries where he was stationed, including Japan, Israel or England.
"The men in my family cook," Sullivan says.
Two television shows of the time, the "Frugal Gourmet" and "Yan Can Cook," helped him refine his skills as he got older and continued to cook through high school.
Sullivan's goals as a young man out of high school were to become a history teacher and coach soccer. That mostly changed with his new found love of the kitchen.
The kitchen staff at Clancy's loves soccer. Sullivan has been known to keep a soccer ball in the kitchen and a game might spontaneously break out in the parking lot during a lull in the restaurant. The flat-screen television in the bar area on the deck is always tuned to a soccer game somewhere so the kitchen staff can keep abreast of the international scores.
Just as a former boss once counseled the young Sullivan, "You're going to come here and try out for my team," Sullivan has a way of keeping that team spirit going in his kitchen, too. All the better for his hungry customers.
At the end of the day, Sullivan believes when someone stops asking themselves, "What did you learn today?" it might be time for a less than passionate chef to hang up his apron.
"I'm a foodie and when I go out, I want to enjoy the best that you have," Sullivan says.
Chicken pot pie done right
Chef Barry Sullivan says his chicken pot pie ($14.95) is such a large portion that many people have to take some home with them. Made with boneless chunks of chicken breast in a cream sauce with vegetables and a flaky pie crust, Clancy's version is topped with mashed potatoes then lightly browned.
All over town
Clancy's by the Bay has a liquor license and live music while Clancy's by the Sea in Ocean City offers breakfast and a view of the Boardwalk and ocean. Dinner menus share several favorites including chicken pot pie, braised beef short ribs, mahi-mahi and Fisherman's Treat. Both are open seven days a week.
Keeping it lively
On Fridays and Saturdays, DJ Steve & Co. spins your favorite dance tunes. Other acts include Lori Kelley Karaoke, Eagles Pep Band, The Barrel House Boys, Thirsty Wilson and MIA with Steve More. Call for times.