Michael Crean and Stephan Johnson were born on the same day, but not in the same year. And what a difference a few years can make.
Crean, the general manager, and John-son, the chef, have been the yin and yang that have kept things running smoothly at Dock's Oyster House in Atlantic City for the past 13 years. Both were hired by the Dougherty family within about a week of each other. Crean, who studied to be a chef himself before discovering his passion - and talent - for customer service and running the front-of-house operations, says he doesn't mind playing "bad cop" to Johnson's "good cop" as long as their guests leave happy.
"I don't resent (my tough-guy reputation) at all, I think it's comical," he says. "I have a working knowledge of the kitchen, but I like talking to people and seeing their faces, that wow factor when I serve their food. There are a lot of choices in Atlantic City and if we're doing what we should do, we'll stay as busy as we have been."
Whatever their strategy, the folks running Dock's certainly are doing something right. The landmark restaurant has been popular with resort visitors and insiders for more than 100 years. And a big reason for that success is high-quality food offered at reasonable prices, and the personal touch of having a member of the family greet guests at the door, says co-owner Maureen Shay.
Shay, who worked as a lawyer in Manhattan before moving to her husband's ancestral home of Atlantic City to run the family business, says she never dreamed while in law school she'd end up as a hostess.
"I never even saw an oyster before I met Frank," Shay says. "Now I'll eat a platter of the briny oysters on the half shell before he will."
But it's more than just showing people to a table for her, it's being the face of the family-run restaurant.
"I think people like coming in here and recognizing one of the family," she says. "It's really not a place where, 'Oh, I can only go if I'm super rich.' It's fine dining, but not an intimidating atmosphere."
Shay points out some of her staff know the guests as well as she does, and Crean lowers his voice a little when boasting about his "phenomenal" staff, some of whom have been serving there for 25 or 30 years. They know the menu inside and out, so they can answer questions about substitutions on the menu without having to check with the kitchen, Crean says. And veterans don't make as many mistakes, he says.
At least for Crean and Johnson, the same things that keep customers coming back to Dock's year after year are what keep them happy in their jobs.
"I worked in the casinos before I landed here, and I've found my home," Johnson says, adding although he had worked in fine dining, including fancy French restaurants, most of his knowledge of seafood came from the Dougherty family, which has run the restaurant for three generations. "I love seafood, you don't have to do a lot to it because it already comes in fresh. The simplicity is what really attracted me to it; you don't want to take away from that."
Sometimes, Johnson and Crean work together to come up with seasonal specials, such as scallops with tomato and leek risotto. And Johnson has adapted some of his fancy French cuisine - such as pomme souffles, which resemble hollow potato wedges - to serve in the restaurant, seasoning them simply with sea salt, and serving them in a wire basket.
But the basics, such as how to prepare the ever-popular oyster stew, nobody messes with. The stew is still served exactly as it was 100 years ago by the first Joe Dougherty - just boil milk, shuck the oysters directly into the simmering base, add a pinch of cayenne and serve over a pat of butter.
"You really should get the oysters in the shell and shuck them right into the soup, if you can," Johnson says, explaining the proper way to shuck an oyster: hold the mollusk in place with a clean towel - so nothing slips and you don't end up popping open your hand, instead of the oyster shell - and insert an oyster knife (which looks like a letter opener with the pointy tip bent upward) into the crevice of the shell and work it all the way around. Then separate the muscle from the remaining half shell and slide it in with all the juices. "Once you open it, it gets tough if you keep reheating it. You want it to be nice and fresh."
Johnson's also trained the staff at Knife and Fork Inn, another Dougherty-run landmark, to make the pomme souffles, and his corn and crab chowder. And he's happy to share what else he's learned with his boss, such as how to make her favorite oysters Rockefeller - shuck an oyster and return it to the half shell. Saute bacon and onions with a splash of Pernod liqueur and let it burn of, then add spinach and bechamel sauce, top with the onions and bacon and broil a few minutes.
Because at Dock's Oyster House, it's just one big happy family enjoying seafood together.
Even Shay's kids love oysters, requesting them with buffalo sauce or with linguine and broccolini from Harry's Oyster Bar inside Caesars Atlantic City any time their parents offer to bring food home from there, and helping to shuck oysters at the family's stand for last year's Seafood Festival at Bader Field.
Contact Felicia Compian:
•1/2 gallon whole milk
•24 freshly shucked, meaty oysters, such as Chesapeake or blue point
•4 tablespoons butter
•Salt and pepper
•Pinch of cayenne
•pepper, to taste
Heat milk over medium heat to a low boil. Shuck oysters, with juice, into milk and cook 3 to 4 minutes. Add cayenne pepper, salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
Put a tablespoon of butter in each of four bowls. Pour heated oyster/milk mixture over butter and stir gently.