R.J. Willoughby: Chef, Equestrian, and Renaissance Man
Rehoboth Beach resident R.J. Willoughby has always loved food. In fact, even before he was old enough to work, he … shall we say, “adjusted his age” in order to land a job at an Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips franchise in Collingdale, Pa. The restaurant chain, named after the English actor who played Jeeves, “the perfect butler” in several Shirley Temple films, gave young R.J. valuable insight into the fast-paced world of the professional kitchen.
After graduating high school, Willoughby moved to Chester County to open Gourmet Productions with his partner (in both senses of the word) Pierre. Nineteen-year-old R.J. handled the baking and food preparation end of the successful caterer, but though they remained friends and business partners after the relationship ended, they eventually closed the business.
Washington, D.C. seemed like the perfect spot to find a job and meet people, so R.J. moved there to do both. He secured employment with boutique special events business Well Dunn Catering, and found lots of friends through his membership in The Griffins motorcycle club. He also took the opportunity to be part of every equestrian event he could find. He attributes his long-time interest in horses to his father, who worked at a riding academy in R.J.’s early years. That fascination with everything equine stays with him to this day.
When his dad passed away, R.J. came to Lewes to comfort his mother. He never left. In ’97 he started working for DiFebo’s in Bethany Beach and spent nine years in the kitchen with chef and co-owner Lisa DiFebo. As rewarding as the job was, R.J. says he finally “got tired of pasta,” so he teamed up at JD Shuckers in Lewes with Pete McMahon (now the executive chef for Highway One L.P.’s restaurants in Dewey and Bridgeville).
After a short stint in the kitchen at Casa DiLeo, Willoughby went against the advice of everybody he knew and accepted the coveted head chef position at The Peninsula Golf & Country Club in Millsboro. Why the warnings of doom and gloom? It’s simple: Country club cheffing and restaurant cheffing are two entirely different things. Unlike a restaurant, the country club chef feeds the same people night after night, week after week. Rather than dreaming up menus and specials from one night to the next, the country club chef has to be sensitive to the specific likes and dislikes of members—many of whom he knows personally.
In spite of the rumors that the club is full of television celebrities (it’s not), R.J. loves the friendly and generous community that has formed there. Part of his duties include strolling the front-of-house in his dress-whites asking club members how they like the menu and what they’d like to see in the future. He pays special attention to several of the members’ young children who are “budding foodies”; eschewing chicken fingers, spaghetti and mini-pizzas for more adult (and creative!) entrees that keep Willoughby on his toes. “Every day is different,” he says. “We’re their personal kitchen, so we strive for perfection, and settle for excellence.”
In the early days after Gourmet Productions, R.J. lived on a farm that hosted fox hunts. When he moved to Washington, D.C., he went, in his words, “from a riding cowboy to a dancing cowboy” as one of the founding members of the now disbanded D.C. Cowboys Dance Company. He remained with the charitable organization from1993 until 1998, and even after he moved to Delaware he continued to perform with them.
They say the devil is in the details, and in 2001 it was a devil that helped conjure up a fateful, yet memorable Halloween night at the Renegade. That’s when he met Dan Slagle, decked out from head to toe as Mephistopheles. Slagle was the owner of Hidden Treasure B&B, and also worked as a tuxedo-clad server at the elegant Victoria’s restaurant in the Boardwalk Plaza Hotel. Interestingly enough, Dan’s father owned and raised thoroughbreds, so in spite of the demonic overtones of their meeting, this match was made in heaven. After eight months, the men moved in together at Dan’s B&B while R.J. continued to work at DiFebo’s.
After Hidden Treasure was sold, Slagle went into retail, spending time at Pier One Imports and the long-gone Abizak’s furniture. This delightful and upbeat guy now divides his time between managing All Saints’ Thrift Store and working with spice girls Joy Quinn and Brenda Pfautsch at Spice & Tea Exchange on Rehoboth Avenue.
Chef R.J. loves his job feeding the upscale Peninsula Golf & Country Club, and wants to grow along with management organization Troon Golf. Members seem to share his feelings, and he’s always in demand both in the dining room and as a friend to many of the homeowners there.
At a recent cooking demonstration at the chock-full-of-goodies Spice & Tea Exchange, he described his experience as “a big kid in a candy store.” From his love of food to his love of riding; from dancing to being the smiling face of chic country club dining, it looks like R.J. Willoughby treats life the very same way.