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Folks from New London and beyond recall restaurateur Jack Chaplin

Jack Chaplin was constantly involved with, or planning, an array of projects. But to watch him mingle with diners at his Daddy Jack's restaurant in New London, or sit in with beloved bands he hired to play there, Chaplin seemed to savor each moment like the slow-boil journey of a perfect gumbo roux. Life itself, Chaplin believed, was a soundtrack with the seductive 12-bar backbeat of a blues shuffle — and ongoing in proud defiance of Last Call.

Sadly, Chaplin died Tuesday at the age of 62 from complications following a heart attack.

The immediate barrage of admiring and sorrowful Facebook posts and anecdotes — from friends, family members, loyal patrons, musicians and an international base of fans of his popular "Cooking With the Blues" and "Chaplin's Classics" YouTube channels — could serve as the foundation of what would be an amazing biography. In fact, Chaplin recently told a journalist he wanted to write a memoir. He had no shortage of material.

"Jack Chaplin will go down as one of the great restaurateurs in New London's history," Brian Brother, a longtime friend and fellow chef who owns the Bayou in New London, said in an email. "Jack had a way of creating a fun scene and touching each customer in a profound way. He cared about people, his town — and so very much for his family. This loss, too early, will always be a wistful void that only gets filled when we bring back the sweet memories of Jack with his washboard or a cooking video or photos of him with his prides and joy, (daughters) Luci and Rachel."

"The guy was a giant in the restaurant business — in Connecticut, Texas, and online all over the world," said Paul Formica, founder of Flanders Fish Market in East Lyme and a state senator. "He just had this ability to cook really good food, and I loved visiting and eating in his restaurant. He was always really nice about letting me stick my head in the kitchen — which is where I'm most comfortable."

Formica, who was in session in Hartford, made one more point: "From both an industry perspective and a community perspective — because Jack was always doing something to help the community — this is just a huge loss."

Rod Cornish, owner of Hot Rod Cafe in New London who said he was proud to call himself a friend of Chaplin's, said, "When I heard (Chaplin had died) yesterday, I was devastated. He was a great, great guy and a tremendous chef. I used to ask him for recipes and he'd just hand them over."

Cornish said he once mentioned he was going to visit Norway, and Chaplin introduced him to a pal over there "who showed us an incredible time. It's not an exaggeration to say that this isn't just a huge loss to New London but also to the world. Because he really did have friends everywhere. And you can't remember Jack without immediately thinking of his daughters, Luci and Rachel. He loved his family so much."

From the Garde Arts Center in New London, Executive Director Steve Sigel said, "There are very few cities that bring to mind one person that captures the spirit of the place. To look upon Jack, let alone enjoy his culinary artistry, was to know you were in a welcoming, warm, and exciting town that was so pleased to have you visit or live there. Jack fed the heart and soul of New London so well because he WAS the heart and soul of New London. He was in the happiness business, and his menu, his hospitality and the frequent musical trimmings were all his gift to those he loved — family, friends and strangers. He was always dreaming of ways to make this city better, and New London is his legacy."

Looking ahead

In an interview with The Day last year, Chaplin spoke of wanting to retire from the restaurant business, saying he was "low on energy" and hoped to devote more time to his family, his YouTube channels and his new blues label, Jack Daddy Records. Recently, the label released its first CD, "My Pal Sam" by the late vocalist Sam Myers & the South Dallas Shoan-Nufferz, and two more albums were in the works.

But Chaplin was also reluctant to let go of Daddy Jack's unless he knew the restaurant would continue in capable hands. The pandemic shut down the facility, of course, but Chaplin had strong confidence he'd found folks to take over the reins. He wanted to have a dining legacy in place in New London.

In addition to Daddy Jack's, which opened in 2014 and features wood-fire pizzas and a revolving menu of seafood and dishes with Cajun and Italian overtones, Chaplin previously owned the fine dining restaurant Chaplin's a few storefronts down. That venture lasted from 2009 and briefly overlapped Daddy Jack's before Chaplin decided to focus on the newer establishment.

Though different, each restaurant attracted a crowd of people drawn as much by Chaplin's charisma as the food — and he frequently made the rounds in each place to chat with patrons or to sit in with the bands he loved to hire.

"Daddy Jack's enthusiasm for music was infectious," said Sue Menhart, whose band was frequently hired by Chaplin. "He made us want to play better in that little corner of his restaurant, all the while knowing that part of our pay was one of his hand-made gourmet pizzas. His appreciation for musicians was chock full of heart and soul, and patrons knew they'd better throw some dollars into the tip bucket that he would personally pass around, keeping time with a cheese grater as he worked the crowd. (He was) just a one-of-a-kind, sweet, gentle, cool cat."

"Music is like cooking," Chaplin told The Day last year. "They're labors of love."

Starting early

Chaplin was raised in Vernon and by 14 was working 60 hours a week in restaurants — in addition to school. He graduated from Johnson & Wales in 1978, did an apprenticeship with renowned Hartford chef Carlos Galazzo, then hit the culinary highway with a series of increasingly high-profile cooking jobs in Florida, Atlanta and San Francisco, but it was a move to Dallas that began to shape his own concepts and infuse his own skills and personality.

He opened the first iteration of Daddy Jack's and quickly established a strong presence on the popular nightlife/dining Lower Greenville scene — strongly similar to what would happen when he returned to Connecticut and settled in New London.

Jim Suhler, the Dallas-based lead guitarist for George Thorogood & the Destroyers, was a regular in Dallas's Daddy Jack's, and religiously came by Chaplin's New London eateries any time a tour brought him to the Garde Arts Center or one of the casinos.

"Jack was a selfless man whose heart was full of music and love for his friends and family," Suhler said. "He'd feed you and always make you smile and laugh. He was always that person."

A fan base

"Man, Jack had a big fan base," said Andre Danford, vocalist with Andre & Eddie and a longtime friend of Chaplin's. He said he met Chaplin after dropping by the original restaurant after gigs. "Once we figured out we were both into music, that sealed it. We started hanging out. I'll tell you, that man could spin a story — and he had a thousand of them. You know what I'll miss, besides the food and friendship? His laughter. He had just the greatest laugh."

Another person close to Chaplin was Jack Madry, who was Chaplin's pastor at Madry Temple in New London, and is a superb pianist. "(Chaplin) had an infectious personality ... in the 10-plus years that I've known him, there was never the slightest misrepresentation of the man I first met; he had great character. Jack had a huge heart with a great capacity for love and his life was motivated by simply giving of himself to every condition society presented him."

"You'll probably talk to 30 people today for this story, and every one of them will want to talk for half an hour about Jack — and they'll feel better doing it and they'll all tell you the same thing," Danford said. "He was devoted to cooking and music and, even more, his family and friends. And they'll tell you, he didn't know how to be mad at anyone."

Survivors include his daughters Luci Chaplin Firmin, Rachel Gabriela and his partner, LaKisha Lee.

Funeral services will be private. A memorial celebration for friends and family is being planned for July. 

r.koster@theday.com

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