Bob Essl knows his 43rd anniversary is a really big deal.
Not his wedding anniversary, his marriage to Sharon has lasted even longer, 46 years at last count, but the Oct. 1 anniversary of Essl's Dugout Restaurant in West Atlantic City.
Essl has been the chef/owner in the same location for all those years, an unusually long run in any business, but especially in the restaurant business.
Opened in 1929 as an ice cream parlor, Essl took over and turned it into a breakfast and lunch place in 1972. Not much has changed in all that time except for a minor blip when Hurricane Sandy came through, leaving some major damage to the property.
Born in Atlantic City and raised in Absecon, Essl also has had a lifelong love of the game of baseball, playing ball in high school.
"It's got a baseball theme," Essl says about the restaurant decor. Memorabilia collected over the years from local high schools such as Pleasantville, Holy Spirit and Atlantic City line the walls.
His love for cooking began in the area, too, back in the late '50s and early '60s.
"When I was a youngster, years ago, I used to work in a Howard John-son's with my mother," Essl says. "And I kind of got a knack for working around food."
After two years of college, Essl joined the U.S. Navy, where his culinary education began in earnest.
Aboard ship for 18 months, Essl moved through the ranks quickly, enjoying his work in the galley.
Because of experience and "time in," when Essl was transferred to the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Bain-bridge, Md., he became a watch captain, spending 12 hours each day prepping in the galley and cooking for as many as 175 cadets during the week.
On weekends, Essl only had to prep for 15 or 20 cadets and had time to try new recipes. "I experimented with a lot of things and got a lot of recipes there," Essl says.
One of the most popular dishes at the Dugout is Essl's creamed chipped beef, a recipe he developed in the service. Not always able to get the fresh milk traditionally used in the dish, Essl developed a recipe using non-fat dry milk.
Essl learned that fresh milk would often curdle in a recipe if it got too hot. By using the powdered milk he had more latitude in the attention he needed to pay to the simmering dish.
"I got used to using it and it worked for me," says Essl.
Essl applied the same logic to his cream of tomato soup, the basic recipe for which he had learned in the galley. Essl did different things to it.
Cream of tomato is now among his most popular soups from a repertoire of more than 40 soups, all made from scratch in his kitchen. As the weather begins to change, Essl goes back to his heartier soups for the cold season.
Essl says his cream of tomato soup is so much a comfort food, he finds himself making a pot of it for friends when they have a loss in their family.
"It's the kind of thing that families do for families," says Essl.
Breakfast at Essl's is still made with fresh potatoes which are boiled every day and fresh shell eggs are broken to order.
Essl also developed a signature sandwich called the "Messl," composed of a fried egg and your choice of six different meats, cheese and home fries all packed onto a Kaiser roll.
"I know it is a lot of calories but people really like it," says Essl. "We sell them by the dozens."
On a first name basis with his many regulars, Essl still describes the Dugout as a "very friendly place, a Cheers without liquor."
Feel free to yell out, "Hey Bob," to the cook behind the counter when you stop by for breakfast.
Essl's Dugout Restaurant
7001 Black Horse Pike, West Atlantic City
Hours: 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays to Fridays;
7 a.m. to noon Saturdays; 8 a.m. to noon Sundays
Cream of Tomato Soup
1 quart beef stock
1/2 medium onion, chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes in juice
4 ounces butter
1 cup all-purpose flour
12-ounce can tomato paste
1 quart dry non-fat milk
1 quart whole milk
Salt and pepper, to taste
Stock: Heat a 2-quart sauce pot over medium heat. Combine beef stock, chopped onion and celery. Strain whole tomatoes over stock adding the juice to the stock. Crush the whole tomatoes, removing stem end and reserve. Bring stock to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes.
Roux: Melt butter in a 1-gallon sauce pot over medium heat. Gradually whisk in flour. Whisk continuously until roux becomes smooth and begins to thin. It will have the consistency of wet beach sand. As it cooks it will lose its raw smell. After about 15 minutes of cooking it will reach the blond stage and is cooked. Whisk in can of tomato paste until fully incorporated in roux. Set heat on low.
Milk: Reconstitute the dry milk to make 1 quart (following directions on package). Combine the whole milk with the reconstituted dry milk.
Note: adding the whole milk to the non-fat dry milk brings the temperature of the whole milk down to room temp. Do not add cold milk as it will separate while combining into soup.
Soup : Strain celery and onions from stock and discard them. Add reserved crushed tomatoes to stock and boil about 10 minutes. Over low heat, gradually whisk stock into tomato roux. Mixture will be thick. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes until mixture is a medium consistency. Slowly pour in milk mixture, whisking vigorously until fully incorporated. Simmer over low heat 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste. (Lasts about 3 days in refrigerator).
Makes: 16 8-ounce portions