A Chef’s Tale

By Pam George

Some chefs are content to stay sequestered in the kitchen. Robert Lhulier isn’t one of them. On a Friday evening, the co-owner of Snuff Mill Restaurant, Butchery & Wine Bar was busy “touching the tables” — restaurant parlance for chatting with customers.

It would be hard for Lhulier to avoid the conversations; the guests expect it. Not only has the well-known chef cooked in many of his customers’ homes, but many of them have enjoyed pop-up events in his apartment. In short, he and his guests are friends or friends of friends — the classic Delaware scenario.

Before opening Snuff Mill, Lhulier was fine following his muse. The Delaware native had worked in some of the area’s finest restaurants, and from 2005 to 2007, he owned The Chef’s Table in New Castle. As a personal chef and caterer, he was his own boss without significant overhead. 

Then seasoned entrepreneur Bill Irvin shared his plan to open a restaurant specializing in high-end beef. The concept and the Brandywine Hundred location on Concord Pike convinced Lhulier to get back in the game — and he and his customers are glad he did.

Artful Endeavors

Lhulier is the third of four children — two boys and two girls. His mother, Barbara, organized events for the DuPont Co.’s polymer division, while Robert T. Lhulier was director of the Small Business Development’s mid-Atlantic region before starting his own business. The senior Lhulier and four other directors were dismissed during an administrative turnover on April 1, 1986, a date the family has dubbed the “April 1 massacre.”  

The Lhuliers lived in Carriage Run community near Christiana, but holidays were often spent around the table with Barbara’s Italian relatives in South Philly. Summers were spent in Cape May. The family had a love affair with the Jersey resort town, and Lhulier’s parents had a vacation home there. 

When Lhulier was a toddler, he used a plunger to open the refrigerator door to access food. A chef in the making? At the least, the story proved he was determined and resourceful. But he was more interested in art and music than cooking. After graduating from William Penn High, he went to the University of Delaware, where he studied fine arts with a concentration in printmaking. Lhulier would use his artistic talent to compose a dish, and his design skill would shape his restaurants. But in the late 1980s, he didn’t want to be a starving artist. 

So, he entered the hospitality industry.

From Server to Chef

Lhulier worked at the Air Transport Command near the New Castle airport, a kitschy concept built around a World War II theme. The sneering manager griped about the 22-year-old’s peroxide hair. (It was the Flock of Seagulls era, after all.) Lhulier could never get a job at a posh place like the Hotel du Pont with such a hairdo, the manager maintained.

Lhulier took the bait and applied at the hotel, where he worked under the formidable Berndt Mayer, the hotel’s banquet director, and maître d’ Ed Barba, who had a desk plaque that read: “Listen.” Lhulier did just that.

In 1991, he joined Griglia Toscana in Trolley Square. “We had a magical staff back then,” recalls owner Dan Butler, who dubbed Lhulier “Ro-Bear.” “I call it lightning in a bottle. Everyone wanted to learn about food and wine.”

Hungry for knowledge, Lhulier enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and externed in Biarritz, France, under Michelin-starred chef Didier Oudill. He also worked at the Ebbitt Room at the Virginia Hotel in Cape May and pictured himself opening a restaurant in the resort.

However, in 1998, Butler hired Lhulier to open Deep Blue Bar & Grill, a seafood restaurant in Wilmington’s business district. Did the restauranteur take a chance on the new grad? Butler doesn’t think so.

 “It was an informed decision,” he says. And the accolades proved it was a wise one. Once again, Butler says he benefited from “lighting in a bottle,” the charismatic combination of a young, ambitious staff and a talented kitchen. 

Lhulier was checking all the career boxes. In 2000, he interned with trailblazer Charlie Trotter at the famous chef’s Chicago restaurant, and on March 18, 2003, then-36-year-old Lhulier made local headlines when he cooked at the James Beard House in New York, an invitation-only honor. 

The meticulous Lhulier spent six months refining the five-course meal, which included lobster-walnut spring rolls, Maryland wild striped bass with sweet pea-watercress emulsion and Australian lamb loins.

Ups & Downs

Lhulier was on a roll. So, when his plans to open Odeon in Trolley Square met neighbors’ resistance, it was a setback, considering he’d left Deep Blue to pursue his vision. The chef pivoted and offered pop-up meals in his apartment until he and Julie Borsos found leased space in the David Finney Inn and opened The Chef’s Table.

The art student relished selecting the wall art, tableware and finishes for the restaurant, which opened in 2005. “Creatives like to create,” he explains. The menu included lobster gnocchi with peas and grape tomatoes, striped bass over lump crab, white corn and oyster mushrooms and organic chicken breast with wilted spinach and white beans.

Craig LaBan of The Philadelphia Inquirer gave The Chef’s Table two bells (very good), and within a year, Lhulier graced the cover of Delaware Today for his duck dish. 

“I couldn’t have been more thrilled,” he recalls. “It was sweet, and it was bitter.” 

Twenty-one months after opening, The Chef’s Table closed. The overhead wasn’t sustainable, and there wasn’t enough traffic at that time.

Learning on the Job

Lhulier and Borsos were young parents, so Lhulier wasted no time getting a job. At each location, he “listened,” learned and developed more skills. For instance, at Talula’s Table in Kennett Square, he prepared meals for the farm table in the shop and the kitchen table in the back. Bryan Sikora and Aimee Olexy’s fixed-price dinners were in red-hot demand.

 “It got me closer to where I wanted to be,” Lhulier says of the concept, which was similar to pop-up parties.

At Harry’s Savoy Grill, he was exposed to the banquet business, which was helpful when he joined the University & Whist Club, which is known for its banquets. In between the gigs, he worked at Domaine Hudson and Union City Grill.

“The majority of the job changes were driven by trying to find some security as well as a creative outlet,” he says. Indeed, the Whist encouraged him to flex his culinary muscles, and Lhulier’s themed multicourse events — posted on a fledgling social media — made non-members envious. 

But Lhulier found true freedom when he left the club to offer intimate fixed-price dinners for eight guests. Nearly every night, he threw what amounted to a dinner party, complete with a musical soundtrack to accompany the meal. (Lhulier is also a DJ.) He wrote menus inspired by Julia Child, the Beatles’ White album, and Charlie Trotter. 

Inevitably, people asked him about opening another restaurant. “It would have to be a blue-chip location, and I would want to share some responsibilities with a partner,” he replied. 

In January 2021, he had no intention of being a partner in a restaurant. But by the summer of that year, he was in the kitchen at Snuff Mill Restaurant, Butchery & Wine Bar, which opened on July 20.

The Next Chapter

So, what flipped the switch? In part, Bill Irvin, a sommelier and hospitality veteran who’d worked for Remy Cointreau before joining Ruth’s Chris and Phillips Seafood. The energetic Irvin had also developed culinary concepts before moving to Delaware in 2019. 

The duo met through mutual friends, including David and Joanne Govatos of Swigg in the Independence Mall center. A space in the complex had recently opened, and Irvin told Lhulier about his idea for a steakhouse and butchery.

 “Well, that’s interesting,” Lhulier said. When he learned that the Govatos were partners, Lhulier was very interested. “The thing that sold it for me was the team,” he recalls. “We all ran the numbers, and before I knew it, there was a lease in front of us.”

Irvin was equally intrigued by Lhulier. “He’s a leading culinary authority in the area,” he says. “Robert’s inspiration remains grounded in the rhythm of the seasons, and I love the contemporary appeal he brings to soulful dishes rooted in the French tradition.”

Lhulier, in turn, respects Irvin’s high standards for Snuff Mill. “I don’t think I’ve ever cooked with the quality of meat we serve,” he says. “It was very eye-opening for me.” 

He was delighted when appreciative diners paid for the high-end products. Irvin, however, never doubted that there was an audience eager for them.

From the logo to the dishes — some of which are made by Lhulier’s sister, Michele — the partners have left their imprint throughout Snuff Mill. The lushly landscaped sidewalk seating is a boon, considering the intimate eatery has fewer than 30 seats — a challenge in an industry with slim profit margins. 

The Govatos have since left the business — on amiable terms — but even so, expansion was always part of the partners’ plan. Irvin is now involved with Waterman’s Crab House in Rock Hall, Maryland, and has plans for a project at 2000 Pennsylvania Ave., home to Santa Fe Mexican Grill.

Lhulier will assist with the Wilmington restaurant’s menu and kitchen. “We’re still fleshing out the details,” he explains. Irvin has said the Pennsylvania Avenue concept may serve all three dayparts. “There’s a need for that in the area,” Lhulier agrees.

Lhulier isn’t averse to replicating Snuff Mill in another part of New Castle County or starting another concept with an homage to the mills that once dotted the region. Snuff Mill is a wink-wink way to root the restaurant in the area without including “Brandywine Valley” in the title. In short: If you know, you know.

For now, he’s happily absorbed with the Independence Mall eatery. “I’ve never really thought about the long hours I work,” he says. “I like being where I’m needed and where it’s busy. I’m not here to hold the reins and babysit. I enjoy what I do.”