If you’re an Eastern Shore resident or a frequent visitor, by now you’ve heard or read about the renovation and transformation of Tilghman Island’s old Harrison Chesapeake House into the Wylder Hotel.
Much has been written about how this incarnation builds on the history of this 100-year-old legend by offering the contemporary convenience of a bed and breakfast with the upscale accommodations of a luxury hotel and resort. Offering unparalleled views and manicured grounds, it’s a 4-season retreat for locals and vacationers alike. Also worthy of note are the two recently opened restaurants on the property, Tickler’s Crab Shack and Bar Mumbo led by Chef Sean Wheaton, the mastermind behind the menus that excite both foodies and hungry guests.
Chef Sean is personable, passionate, and as he should be, knowledgeable about the restaurants under his leadership. The man is no stranger to the business, having spent almost nine years on the award-winning, creative team of super chef José Andrés’ ThinkFoodGroup. This past November, a friend introduced him to Wylder Hotel CEO, John Flannigan. After exchanging emails, Chef Sean toured the nine-acre property, listened to Flannigan’s long-term vision for the resort, and saw an opportunity he didn’t want to pass up, even though it currently means he commutes from the DC area weekly.
He wouldn’t have it any other way, he says. “Each restaurant is an outlet for whatever I’m feeling today. Which is part of the reason I wanted to do this.” Tickler’s is the classic eastern shore restaurant featuring what is expected around here—peel and eat shrimp, steamed crabs, rockfish, chicken, hamburgers, etc., served with the classic side dishes and elevated under his guidance. But it is at Bar Mumbo where he can let his creativity take over. “If I want to make sandwiches and cook burgers and hot dogs today, there is a place for that,” he says, “if I want to think something avant-garde, I can tweak that and bring it down to earth and put it in Mumbos and still do it fun and modern.”
Having the two restaurants allows Chef Sean to encompass all that he has learned from 20 years of restaurant and personal experience. Growing up in Southern California made him comfortable preparing seafood, and having a grandmother from Georgia allowed him to incorporate her southern influence. “I’ve worked all over the country,” he said, “San Diego, Seattle, Tulsa, Dallas, Chicago. Each of which has given me a whole lot of inspiration and ability to do ‘New American food’ and everything that falls under that umbrella. As long as I’m cooking it fresh and as long as I’m doing it well, I can find a place for it in the restaurants.”
His creativity and ideas are boundless to such an extent that he keeps a notebook with around 150 items he’s like to see on the menu over the summer. “It’s constant brainstorming,” he says, “this would be fun, or that would be cool or what’s that thing I wanted to do with watermelon? I keep track of all those ideas, so when the product shows up, I have a reference place to go to. That’s how the restaurants, particularly Mumbos will stay fresh all the time. It’s ingredient-driven, and I’m constantly on the lookout for all those products.”
This task is made more accessible when surrounded by the hotel’s private waterfront, a marina with 25 boat slips, and a 50’x50’ garden, even though the garden, at this point, isn’t big enough to sustain the kitchen. “I’m buying oysters that have never left Tilghman Island as trader captains dock right here on property. The fish I served last week at lunch was out of the water at 7AM that morning. I’m also trying to get a huge patch of peppers going, so when I serve the oysters on a half-shell, I can say ‘this is a hot sauce we made in-house from peppers we grew in our garden.’ As a chef, that’s a remarkable thing to be able to say. It can’t get any fresher than that.”
Then there are the local farms. “Whatever I can find in season, whatever is overflowing that weekend, then that’s what gets on the menu. Ticklers is always going to have to have cole slaw, I would get run out of town if I didn’t have it on the menu. But at Mumbos, I can do something completely different.” The something different on this weekend’s menu was his version of Chicharones, using smoked roasted eggplants, pureed with crème fraîche and made into a mousse served with flash fried pork skins as crackers. He referred to it as a ‘fun and playful chips and dip, with a decadent side.’
But Chef Sean does know his limitations. “I’m not opposed to sourcing from all over the place, as long as they‘re excellent quality. We’re using the wild gulf shrimp from Texas, because it’s a great product and I can get it consistently, for example. For fish, I’m trying to keep it Chesapeake fish. If someone wants salmon for a wedding, I can get it for them, but there probably won’t ever be salmon on the menu.”
Asked if he had a current favorite dish, Chef Sean mentions the little neck clams with shaved Tasso ham and fennel, made with butter and white wine and steamed over homemade fettuccini. Surprisingly, he also brought up another item featured on the menu that he might make himself after a busy day—a Caesar salad. This one, though, is made with lacinato kale, as well as romaine, and tossed in an eggless Caesar dressing. “After spending all day cooking, this is great for a late night meal.”
Although Wylder Hotel has plenty to keep this Chef busy all day, he’s already thinking about his next undertaking. With 54 hotel rooms, various activities for guest both in and out of the water, he’s setting his sights on the new salt-water pool, which is a perfect place for serving snacks and drinks. Chef Sean ticked off some of the items he’s considering: “raw bar, dips and chips, roasted pepper, hummus, tzatziki, finger snacks and lovely salads, and of course, pitchers of sangria, mimosas and bloody Mary’s…” Something tells us he’s got this one covered.
Val Cavalheri is a recent transplant to the Eastern Shore, having lived in Northern Virginia for the past 20 years. She’s been a writer, editor and professional photographer for various publications, including the Washington Post.