New London's iconic chef Jack Chaplin pushes on
On a recent New London Sunday, under brazenly blue skies, a small but festive crowd — most wearing masks and trying their damnedest to maintain social distancing — talked, laughed and gathered loosely around a large barbecue trailer planted in the middle of a small block party on a closed-off section of Pearl Street. The blended scents of slow-smoked meats and the breeze from the Thames River seemed as powerful as opium, and the Subliminals provided a fine live soundtrack to the afternoon.
At the center of it all, stationed behind the grill like a "Perfect Storm" sword boat captain who routinely and successfully steers THROUGH hurricanes, was local chef/restauranteur Jack Chaplin. Facing one exterior wall of his popular Daddy Jack's restaurant as he doled out expertly prepared southwestern-style barbecue, Chaplin was clearly in his element — cooking food, rockin' the blues and intermingling with folks in the city he loves. A perfect storm, indeed.
The gathering, one of a few quasi-impromptu public cookouts Chaplin has staged since the coronavirus forced him to close down Daddy Jack's, was a positive and inspiring exercise — much needed for Chaplin's psyche and mission in the time of COVID-19.
Truth told, as he nears his 62nd birthday next month, Chaplin had been thinking of slowing down. Maybe even closing his restaurant. He'd been tired and, as he described it, "low on energy." Plus, there were other projects he's interested in: His very popular "Chaplin's Classics" and "Cookin' with the Blues" YouTube channels; producing and releasing albums of blues artists for his burgeoning Jack Daddy record label; and maybe, down the road, even opening a smaller, low-key restaurant featuring burgers, fried chicken or soul food.
"Even before COVID hit, I was looking for a path to retirement," Chaplin says. It's a few days before the outdoor barbecue, and he's seated on the long, narrow front deck of Daddy Jack's on an overcast weekday morning. "I would hate to shut Daddy Jack's down, but it's a really difficult time right now ... (When the disease hit), the numbers just dropped and whatever cushion we had was wiped out."
A big man with a trimmed gray beard and inquisitive eyes, Chaplin has a booming, gregarious voice and speaks in the sort of verbal shorthand associated with folks who spend a lot of time calling out instructions in a crowded kitchen. With him is his business- and life partner, LaKisha Lee, who has presented a visiting reporter and photographer with respective cartons of smoked chicken gumbo direct from their home kitchen.
The thing about Daddy Jack's, though, Chaplin says, is they didn't really want to close the place. He was, he says, just running out of gas and perplexed by a decision over an impending lease extension. "We had ideas, but not much time to figure it all out," he says.
Unexpectedly, though, the downtime demanded by the virus, along with financial help from the government and extensions that allowed them to keep the bills paid and the liquor license current, gave Chaplin and Lee time to brainstorm. What if, they theorized, they found some younger partners, chefs themselves, who could handle most of the kitchen duties and help with an overall reconceptualization of the restaurant?
Salvation arrived in the form of two new partners, chefs David Pottie (M BAR) and Chad Hobert (Spicer Mansion). The exact details of the partnership are still being finalized, but plans are for Daddy Jack's to reopen on July 22. They'll still feature their award-winning pizzas but also will use the wood grill for a farm-to-table concept with roasted meats and poultry and a biweekly revolving menu based around the availability of locally sourced fresh goods. A Cajun/Creole focus also has been discussed.
"I can't tell you how happy I am to have a solid plan moving forward with Daddy Jack's," Chaplin says. "I'm real excited about the new partnership and the new conceptual directions. It's great to see two talented young chefs so eager and enthused to have an awesome opportunity. We are jiving pretty well and bouncing ideas, which is fun for me. Through all this pandemic are great possibilities and silver linings in the crowd. It reminds you why you get in this business to begin with."
Born to cook
Raised in Vernon, Chaplin started washing dishes at the age of 14 in a local steak house. "My dad was a bad gambler so I went to work," he laughs. "I skipped my last period, gym, to get there on time and, pretty soon, I was working 60 hours a week. There wasn't much time for school. But the chef — he was from Scotland — was really nice and knew how to mentor young kids."
Not interested in traditional college and already infected with the restaurant bug, Chaplin graduated from Johnson & Wales in 1978, then did an apprenticeship with renowned chef Carlos Galazzo, who operated a group of restaurants in Hartford. Chaplin was immersed in a year-long, all-aspects, hands-on program.
By the time he left, there was no grease trap he hadn't cleaned; no linen station minutiae he couldn't nuance; no line-chefery he couldn't handle; no produce or fresh fish order he couldn't calculate; and on and on.
From there, Chaplin hit the culinary highway. He worked his way up in skill and stature in restaurants ranging from basic level comfort food to five-star hotels — and via a roadmap leading from Florida to San Francisco, Atlanta to Dallas and ultimately back to Connecticut. In Dallas, after a stint at the internationally famous Fairmont Hotel, he became a local star with his own restaurants. His Daddy Jack's, in the nightspot-happy Lower Greenville neighborhood, featured a (novel-to-Texas) menu boasting New England seafood, and his reputation as a fun-loving fan of the city's famous live music scene resonated with musicians, many of whom became lifelong friends.
"Jack is as passionate about his love for music as he is a superb chef and restaurateur," says Jim Suhler, a Dallas native who fronts his popular Money Beat blues rock trio when he's not fulfilling his 20-plus-years duties as lead guitarist for George Thorogood & the Destroyers. A regular at Chaplin's in the Texas days, Suhler makes it a point to hit the New London Daddy Jack's whenever the Destroyers play Mohegan Sun, Foxwoods or the Garde Arts Center.
"Jack always treats the musicians he loves — many of whom he hires to play his own restaurants — like royalty," he says. "He feeds my stomach and my soul."
Ultimately, the Dallas lifestyle got to be too much for Chaplin.
"I was pretty much burned out when I moved back to Connecticut in 2000," Chaplin says, shaking his head with a smile. "I had a long, World-Series run down in Big D ... a lot of nightlife and a lot of fun ... but I burned the candle pretty good down there."
After a short stint with a new place in Bozrah, the chef opened a small, fine dining spot on Bank Street called Chaplin's, then added Daddy Jack's in the present location just up the street. He eventually closed the former to focus on the latter.
He's had a great run and one that, now, seems likely to continue with the new blood and, of course, the guidance and partnership of Lee. He's also hoping that most of his "wonderful staff" — which has over time included daughters Rachel and Luci — will be back.
Straight to video
Since returning to Connecticut, Chaplin found time to do an internship at Charter Cable in Willimantic. That enabled him to start the first of two different YouTube cooking channels.
"Chaplin's Recipes" is autobiographical, focuses on his culinary journey, and features how-to segments of favorite meals along with lessons learned from mentors along the way. The channel has about 107,000 subscribers, Chaplin says. A cookbook is planned based on the recipes from the show.
"The videos have been a great thing because I want to share what I know about cooking," Chaplin says. "When I was growing up, a lot of great chefs kept their recipes close to the vest. My thought is that none of us was born knowing how to cook. Somebody showed us somewhere and we all learned from somebody."
That spirit also pervades the second video channel, which came along a few years later and is called "Cookin' with the Blues." The original concept of each episode called for an artist booked to perform in the restaurant to join him in the kitchen to share recipes, stories and drinks while they jointly cooked, then play a bit of music.
"Musicians are pretty good cooks," Chaplin says, laughing, "because they sort of have to be."
But the variations in touring logistics proved problematic so Chaplin mostly works solo with Lee behind the camera and handling production, keeping the music theme. He features bands when it works out. Otherwise, he gets behind his five-burner stover and gets to work on a new show each week, throwing one-liners and commentary along with pinches of salt and dashes from hot sauce bottles.
By now, "Cookin' with the Blues" has 70,000 subscribers.
Play the music
In keeping with the food/music theme, and given that Lee oversees high-tech recordings of most of the bands who play gigs in the restaurant, they're hoping to post in the near future a best-of "Live at Daddy Jack's" video and album featuring local acts like the Troublemakers, the Red Liners, the Subliminals, the Lonnie Gasperini Trio and more.
And, yes, with a new business model and partners, Chaplin also can concentrate a bit on his Jack Daddy blues label.
He's got three albums with very reputable artists in the works. One features the fine New Orleans harmonica player J.D. Hill. Another pairs two Dallas-based blues giants, the late vocalist Sam Myers and guitarist/keyboardist Lucky Peterson — the latter a frequent Daddy Jack's performer and close friend of Chaplin's who passed away two months ago. The third features Peterson and vocalist Greg A. Smith doing a tribute to Albert King called "Get Lucky with Greg." All three albums are in the final mixing and production stages.
"These albums are like my cooking; they're labors of love," Chaplin says.
Re-energized, Chaplin says he can take a deep breath and dive into these projects with a renewed sense of purpose.
"Things have a way of working out, I guess," he says. "I think if you can always work at what you love, you'll be in a good place. New London is a good place. We love it here. It's a great city with great people."
He gestures up Bank Street. "Think of all that happens here. Even now, with what's going on, there are so many people that believe in the city and what's possible. We're all together."
"Jack and his family are awesome," says his friend Rod Cornish, who owns the similarly popular Hot Rod Cafe less than a block away. "He's been a great neighbor, and his stuffed flounder is one of my favorite things to eat. I don't go to that many places to eat, but Daddy Jack's is one that I enjoy. He's fun, generous and a hell of a chef!"
Preparing to head off into the late morning, Chaplin and Lee thank their visitors for coming by. The plan for the day is to head back home, relax — and maybe do a little cooking.