The historic Chalfonte Hotel is the oldest continuously operating hotel in Cape May, having just finished its 137th season since it was established in 1876.
The history of the Dickerson family in the Chalfonte Hotel kitchen is as storied as the hotel itself. Mother Helen Dickerson worked at the Chalfonte for 77 years; daughters Dot Burton and Lucille Thompson are currently celebrating 75 years at the hotel.
That's a lot of delicious meals over the years.
The women will serve their signature crab cakes and fried chicken at an event to be held at the Chalfonte on Friday to benefit the Atlantic Cape Foundation.
The two chefs are no flash in the pan, not even the cast iron ones they use for their specialty dishes. With culinary careers that span decades, that certainly qualifies them as celebrity chefs in their own rite.
Helen Dickerson began her career at the Chalfonte at the age of 4 by picking flowers for the dining room. Her daughters were born in Richmond, Va., and came up north with their mother and grandmother when Dot was 9 years old and Lucille was 7.
Their first job was in the bath house. "We used to rinse the sand out of the bathing suits of the guests, hang it up to dry, put a tag number over their room, and the next day we would deliver to their room," says Burton.
Later when Dickerson moved up to the position of head waitress in the dining room, her daughters now aged 14 and 12, were helping in the dining room when the owner asked Dickerson to take a position in the Chalfonte kitchen.
"Actually father was the cook in the family, mother wasn't really a cook until she came to the Chalfonte," says Burton. Dickerson quickly learned from the old cooks from Philadelphia who came down to work summers in the Chalfonte kitchen.
"As the older cooks passed away, our mother eventually took over the kitchen, along with me and Dot," says Thompson.
"We watched the old cooks," says Burton. Helping the cooks to do pots, and pans and other chores, the girls also learned how to cook.
"What to do, what not to do," says Thompson.
Today, Burton is in charge of the fried chicken and Thompson does the crab cakes.
"My mother got the recipe for the crab cakes from the old cooks, and she still knew just what to do with it," says Thompson.
Eventually, Lucille put her own spin on her mother's recipe. "A little something more than what she had," says Thompson.
"Lucille just added something different," says Burton. Of course, homemade tartar sauce is served with the crab cakes.
In the Chalfonte cookbook they are not even called crab cakes but crab croquettes. "And back in the day when mother made them we used to cook them and serve them in the shell," says Thompson.
The Chalfonte Hotel still offers a modified American plan that includes breakfast and dinner for hotel guests that is added on to their room rate. Many of their longtime guests take the meal plan because of the value and the tradition behind it.
It consists of a three-course dinner with a choice of appetizer or soup, salad, and an entree.
Thompson still does turkey on Mondays; Burton still does prime rib on Saturdays, but everything the ladies cook is based on their Southern tradition and their home-style food.
But they will always be known for their fried chicken, their crab cakes, and their southern hospitality. "Come down and have a dinner," says Burton.
The season at the Magnolia Room at the Chalfonte Hotel runs from the second week of June until Labor Day weekend, so the restaurant is basically closed except for special functions held throughout the month of September for conventions and weekend weddings.
A sampler dinner consisting of a select piece of fried chicken and a miniature crab cake, potato, and vegetable of the day is available in the King Edward Bar at the Chalfonte for $24. Dinners should call ahead in advance to check for availability of the dinner at 609-884-8409.
If you go
Awards dinner hosted by the Atlantic Cape Foundation, 5:30 p.m. Friday at the Chalfonte Hotel, 301 Howard Street, Cape May. Tickets are $50 and can be purchased online at atlantic.edu/golf.