Celebrity chef brings ideas, focus on food to Catamaran's

Friday, Nov. 13, 2009

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Robert Hesse, celebrity chef from the TV show "Hell's Kitchen," will be the new chef at Catamaran's Restaurant on Solomons Island.

Known as more of a nightlife spot than restaurant, Catamaran's Restaurant on Solomons Island is about to be transformed into a restaurant that serves homemade dishes created with high caliber products by celebrity chef Robert Hesse from the Fox network TV show "Hell's Kitchen."

"I want to bring back diners to Catamaran's," Hesse said, who told Catamaran's owner Jim Seymour that he wants full control and "to be prepared to change the whole structure." The restaurant lost its way, Hesse said, and he plans on turning Catamaran's into a "restaurant first and lounge atmosphere second."

Hesse plans to bring a level of sophistication to the place, but keeping it close to its island roots while creating a family-friendly atmosphere. However, the menu will see a drastic change.

"You will automatically know this is a different restaurant from the first bite. Everything's going to be homemade … good classics with a nice twist," said Hesse, who graduated from the American Culinary Academy in Lakeland, Fla.

Seymour, who said he's been looking for a new chef for a year and a half, e-mailed the "Hell's Kitchen" show trying to link with a chef.

"He loved the area," Seymour said and after Hesse met with the Seymour family and toured the restaurant and the area, "We made a deal."

It will be the same Catamaran's "with a little more flare and a lot better food," said Seymour, who said they have renovated the upstairs with Brazilian cherry hardwood floors and new titles dividing off a separate dinning area from the pool table and bar and decorated with a "Hell's Kitchen" pictures. The tables will be clothed with cloth napkins and they have also purchased new plates and silverware.

"It's going to be a step above of what we were," Seymour said.

"I commend Jim for shaking it up," Hesse said.

Hesse did his homework before Seymour and he agreed on the terms, visiting restaurants on the island, checking out their offerings and traveling to St. Mary's County to see the big-chain competition.

He said he saw 45- to 50-minute waits at several places and told Seymour, "These customers belong on Solomons Island." With an hour wait over the bridge, it's not the bad economy, it's that either the customers were bored or dissatisfied when they came to dine on the island.

"Whether they see Robert from ‘Hell's Kitchen,' that's the novelty … to keep them there, the food needs to be good and always good," said Hesse, now 31, who holds the distinction of being the youngest executive chef of a four-star restaurant in the Hamptons, an upscale seashore community on Long Island.

No matter if it's a burger or filet mignon, high quality food is key, he said, adding, "It makes my job easier."

Hesse, who said the menu will consist of seafood, steaks, burgers and "bomb sandwiches," said he believes in using local seafood and growers and "helping the little guys — the mom and pops."

"Bomb sandwich" was a term he used on the "Hell's Kitchen" show meaning a superb, meaty sandwich.

Hesse, who had to leave early in season five due to a health condition, said that the show asked him back for season six after 190,000 fans wrote asking to bring him back to the show. Since then he's been in demand cooking at several Hollywood parties including one for the HBO series "Cathouse" and for a Halloween party at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles.

"I've been doing tons of things over and beyond what I expected. I'm truly blessed," Hesse said, adding, "My dance card's full."

So why come to Southern Maryland?

Despite his "dance card" being full, Hesse — who opened a new restaurant with "Hell's Kitchen" season five contestant Seth Levine on Memorial Day weekend called Georgica in the Hamptons in New York — said he likes to try new things. But with his own restaurant and such notoriety, why did Hesse decide to come to Southern Maryland?

Hesse, who has cooked in 22 states, but not yet in Maryland, said "I'm a nautical guy and I loved the smell in the air" when he first came to Solomons Island.

"My first love of cooking was this island style of cooking. It's the Jimmy Buffett, laid-back beachy stuff," said Hesse, whose grandfather was a fisherman.

"I have my fine dining, now I want a fun place," he said.

"He's going to bring some nice flavors here to Southern Maryland," Seymour said.

A grand opening is planned for Dec. 5 with Hesse showing off his fare and meeting the guests.

Along with elected officials from Calvert, celebrity guests have been invited to the celebration which includes live music.

Solomons will probably not be Hesse's final port since he calls himself "a culinary gypsy," but he plans to throw down during his stay at Catamaran's with new recipes, happy hour specials and a "price-fix dinner concept" that gives diners a four-course meal at a set price.