When it comes to Delaware’s hidden culinary gems, Po’ Boys Creole Restaurant tops the list.
The intimate Milton eatery is sandwiched between a dollar store and a bodega on a highway lined with cornfields.
Chef Michael Clampitt made the Cajun and Creole restaurant a destination for gumbo-loving diners.
But on Monday, Sept. 25, he turned over the keys to Chase Nelson, formerly of Eden in Rehoboth Beach.
There is a sweet taste to the transaction.
Nelson considers Clampitt a mentor, and both have a fine dining background, working together at Baywood Greens restaurant in Millsboro .
“I couldn’t have picked a better chef/friend to take over the restaurant,” Clampitt says. “I am really excited for him.”
Clampitt had purchased Po’ Boys from Lee Stewart, with whom he’d worked at another beach restaurant.
Diners may appreciate the serendipitous connections.
But the question remains: What will change in the beloved eatery where everybody knows your name?
Carving out niche
Amy and Lee Stewart opened Po’ Boys in 2009 after Lee was let go from Café Sole in Rehoboth. That space became a(MUSE.); now it’s Theo’s Steaks, Sides & Spirits.
The housing bubble had burst, and finding another executive chef position was difficult.
So, the couple called on Lee’s experience cooking creole cuisine in the Florida panhandle and decided to open Po’ Boys.
They chose the tiny Milton location because it was affordable.
For a cuisine that was once so ubiquitous—blackened fish, anyone?—it’s surprisingly hard to replicate the flavors of New Orleans outside the Big Easy.
But Po’ Boys pulled it off, and the place was consistently packed.
Changing of guard
By 2013, the Stewarts were exhausted. Enter Mike Clampitt, who had been the executive chef at the Baywood Greens restaurant in Millsboro for nine years.
The Johnson & Wales University graduate had also worked at the old Seahorse Restaurant, Gilligan’s, Blue Moon and Tijuana Taxi, where he filled enchiladas alongside Lee Stewart.
Clampitt was content at Baywood but decided to take SCORE classes to explore entrepreneurship. The conservative chef wanted to know exactly what he was getting into before he took the plunge.
Then Clampitt learned that Po’ Boys was for sale, and the owners wanted a buyer who appreciated the community feel of the small restaurant, where most patrons were locals.
Clampitt didn’t want to kick himself later for missing the opportunity, so he and his wife, Melissa, made the leap and reopened the restaurant in January 2014.
Po’ Boys keep rolling
It didn’t take long for Clampitt to become the face of Po’ Boys. He took orders, cooked food, greeted customers and drove the food truck.
He ran crawfish boils to benefit charity and served gumbo and other dishes at numerous food-and-beverage events.
Then came COVID-19, and distancing requirements, the overwhelming demand for takeout and staff shortages crushed small restaurants.
The Clampitts have two sons active on traveling baseball teams, and Clampitt has been in the business for four decades.
It was time to sell.
Chase Nelson worked for Clampitt at Baywood from 2010 to 2012, when Nelson left to go to the Culinary Institute of America. (His brother, Clay, now the chef at Harbour in Lewes, is also a CIA graduate.)
After graduating, Nelson worked at Eden, where Clay eventually rose to the position of executive chef.
Chase waited tables, cooked and mixed drinks, and when his brother left, Chase took control of the kitchen.
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Nelson has worked in fine-dining kitchens for 15 years, and the never-ending pressure to develop innovative plates gets grueling.
“I wanted to be able to put out fun, exciting food that kept people coming back—they’re not worried about change,” he said.
He knew Clampitt, and he knew Po’ Boys. The turnkey operation appealed to him.
“I like the small vibe—it’s only seven tables, so you have plenty of time to spend with customers,” Nelson said. “That’s really exciting to me.”
He knows he has big shoes to fill.
Everyone is afraid of change,” he acknowledged. And that includes Po’ Boys’ customers.
The gumbo isn’t going anywhere, and given po’ boys is in the name, neither should the sandwiches.
However, Nelson will introduce lunch and dinner specials with his personal flair, and he may do special fixed-price dinners on Mondays and Tuesdays when Po’ Boys is usually closed.
Another location isn’t out of the question in the future.
But, for now, he’s following Clampitt’s advice: “Take it slow.”
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