Steve Novak, owner/chef of the Grilled Cheese and Crab Cake Co. in Somers Point knew from an early age, what he wanted to be when he grew up.
Maybe it was the influence of his mom and grandmother who were both really great cooks. Maybe it was his memories of being in the kitchen with them and the love that he had for cooking.
When his mom was cooking something, without her knowing, Novak would go in and season it for her. Sitting around the dining room table his mom would say how the dish "was the best she had ever made it."
Novak would respond, "Yeah, because I added this, this, and this."
"I never wanted to be an astronaut, or a fireman or a policeman," says Novak. "I always wanted to have a restaurant and be a chef."
Since all of Novak's college roommates spent their summers as lifeguards in Ocean City, Novak naturally began spending his summers down at the Jersey shore, far from his hometown of Bethlehem, Pa.
When one of his roommates bought a restaurant in Ocean City, Novak immediately began working there as a cook, with plenty of restaurant experience behind him.
He was always working with the idea of a restaurant of his own.
"I had always wanted to own a restaurant and my parents told me early on that they were not going to just hand me a business but would invest if I could first prove that I could run another business," says Novak. They put a time limit on him, asking him to manage a business for two years before they would help him out.
Just out of college, Novak got a job at Harrah's managing two businesses in their food court; Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream and a Philly Pretzel Factory, food service but not exactly what Novak wanted to be doing long term.
"In a two week period we had something like three feet of snow, and I was kept at the casino 18 hours on and five hours off," says Novak. Novak and another manager worked the two shops by themselves, sleeping in one of the guest rooms at the casino.
When he finally left for two days, another snow storm brought him back to do the same thing again. "Enough is enough," said Novak.
Novak was putting in such absurd hours working for someone else that his parents saw he had the work ethic needed to succeed on his own.
They immediately began looking for something local in Atlantic or Cape May counties and came across an unnamed restaurant for sale online, listing only the financial information.
Contacting the realtor, they found out it was the restaurant, just up the street.
That day, Novak went into the Grilled Cheese and Crab Cake Co. to order some food and to check the place out without mentioning anything to the owners.
Novak loved the concept, the food, and the manageable size of the place. Novak bought the business and the name.
"I loved the name; I didn't want to change it," says Novak.
His long term goal has got to be the perfect scenario since Novak wants to keep his personal touch on the business. But someday down the road a few more towns around Atlantic City and points south, may see another Grilled Cheese and Crab Cake operation coming their way.
Photos of Novak on the restaurant walls include pictures of him landing an amberjack and a wahoo, down in Florida, a place where he says, things are easier to catch.
When asked if he is a fisherman, Novak answers honestly, "I pretend to be. I'm not a great fisherman, but I sure try."
His menu is 50/50 seafood and specialty grilled cheese sandwich as the name implies.
There are seventeen grilled cheese sandwiches on the menu. In full season, Novak does a special menu every week with an additional ten options for a total of almost thirty different grilled cheese sandwiches, along with crab cakes, and seafood baskets, and other things.
The "off" season is obviously different.
In the cooler months, Novak has seven different homemade soups daily.
On the menu, the Maryland-style crab cake is a grilled version of what locals think of as a standard crab cake, made with jumbo lump crab meat and just enough filler to keep it from falling apart.
"I have a lot of the stuff by the same name as the original owners but the Maryland-style for instance, is still what the original owners called it but I have changed the recipe completely," he said. Other recipes have been "tweaked" to suit his taste.
The Ultimate crab cake is made old-style with a roux that has peppers, onions, and spices in it and is breaded and deep fried.
"I added a couple of things to the ultimate to give it more flavor," says Novak.
Some weeks they sell more of the ultimate crab cake and some weeks more of the Maryland-style. Novak says he can't really find a pattern.
In the summertime, Novak might go through 70 pounds of jumbo lump crab meat just for his crab cakes alone.
Although the crab cakes are among his biggest sellers, Novak describes the crab melt as his signature dish, a combination of the restaurant's name. The crab melt is a Maryland-style crab cake in a grilled cheese sandwich with Monterey Jack cheese, and sliced tomato on Texas toast.
His top seller, Novak says that is what they are known for.
Novak also suggests that since the holidays are upon us, instead of using his recipe for a regular size crab cake, to use the same recipe to make smaller crab balls, perfect as an hors d'oeuvre or as finger-food for a holiday gathering.
The Grilled Cheese & Crab Cake Co.
55 West Laurel Drive, Somers Point
Winter Hours: Open Tuesdays to Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; closed Sundays and Mondays.
Ultimate Crab Cake
1/2 pound butter
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
1/2 green bell pepper, chopped
1/2 Spanish onion, chopped
2 tablespoons of Old Bay seasoning
1/2 teaspoon celery seeds
2 cups flour
16 ounces whole milk
Few squirts of your favorite hot sauce
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 pounds of jumbo lump crab meat
In a saute pan: Melt the butter and cook peppers and onions until soft. Add seasonings. Add flour and stir to incorporate. Cook for 1 minute to remove raw flour taste. Add milk, hot sauce and lemon juice, mixing constantly until roux comes away from side of the pan. Remove from heat and add crab meat. Allow to cool.
Shape into patties and bread (seasoned flour, egg wash, and panko bread crumbs). Deep Fry at 325 degrees until golden brown.
Makes: 8 ultimate crab cakes.