Oct. 28, 2022 – On his first night as a student at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York, Tom Hannum, from Wilmington, Delaware, reported to the Great Hall for dinner. There he would unknowingly have his first culinary lesson at the prestigious institution. After the entrée was served, Tom commented to a fellow student that the beans were not cooked. He quickly learned the beans had been prepared al dente. “I never had an al dente vegetable in my life. That’s not the way our moms cooked in the 50s. It was canned green beans or overcooked beans if you had fresh ones,” Chef Tom Hannum, member of Chaîne’s First State Bailliage, said to Chaîne during an Oct. 21 telephone interview.
Tom’s culinary curiosity as a young boy laid the foundation for Chef Tom Hannum’s career that includes 33 years working at the historic Hotel du Pont in Wilmington, beginning in 1978 as a cook’s helper and then in 1993 being named Executive Chef. Now a business partner in Buckley’s Tavern and Goober’s Diner nearby in Wilmington, Tom vividly recalls not only observing his mom and aunt cook and bake for frequent family gatherings in their home but also asking them to explain how they did it.
While his father, uncles, and brothers were playing cards or watching television, Tom was drawn to the action in the kitchen. “My mom was a homemaker. She made things at home. You did not go out and buy cakes. You made cakes at home,” Tom said.
His father and both of his brothers were World War II veterans. “That era fascinates me – the 30s, the 40s and how they grew up in northern Wilmington. It was a different lifestyle. It seemed to be a lot easier back then, no computers, no phones to mess with you,” he said.
During that era, Wilmington was a company town and had been for more than a century before when Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours opened a gunpowder business along the Brandywine River in the early 1800s. By the mid 20th century, the DuPont Company, now a chemical business important to the automotive industry, employed thousands of Wilmington residents.
For Tom’s generation, his friends in elementary and high school didn’t have to think too long about a career. Most planned a future as a legacy working for DuPont. Not so for Tom. “I knew in seventh grade I wanted to be a chef.”
Unlike today when 3,000 high school students in Delaware are in a Culinary Pathway program with the comprehensive ProStart curriculum, Tom’s only culinary option was enrolling in one class – Bachelor Cooking. “I learned how to make pizza out of an English muffin,” he explained. “There wasn’t a lot of cooking.”
But his high school experience included terrific support from his guidance counselor who had followed his class since eighth grade. He helped Tom figure out how to pursue post-secondary education at the CIA.
Following his first eye-opening dinner at the CIA, Tom completed eight months of courses, a four-month externship and then another eight months of class before graduating with an associates degree. Tom already had his future planned back in Wilmington. “The only place I had wanted to work was the Hotel du Pont.” The beautiful building, built in the early 1900s, was simply known as “The Hotel” as it was the front door for DuPont’s corporate headquarters. “The center of the world for us in this area was Hotel du Pont.” The world class hotel is still going strong today under new ownership independent of DuPont.
After graduation and securing a job there, it did not take long for Chef Tom to travel the world as an esteemed Hotel du Pont chef. Just three years into his 33-year tenure, he was sent to the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo for a two-week Hotel du Pont America event. For the next five years, they had a chef exchange with Japan.
In 1998 on the 360th anniversary of Swedes landing in Delaware, the King and Queen of Sweden came to the United States. A team of Swedish chefs from the Grand Hotel in Stockholm came to Delaware to highlight Swedish food for a week. The international team capped the unique culinary week with a grand gala.
Through these special events, Tom learned from chefs based around the world so he never felt he needed to leave for additional training and experience. On weekends, Tom said they could have up to seven weddings between the hotel’s two ballrooms and The Grill. “Some Saturdays were crazy busy.”
Buckley’s Tavern and Goober’s Diner
In 2011, it was time to move on but with deep roots in Wilmington, Tom stayed in the area. Vance Kershner and P. Coleman du Pont asked Tom if he would join them as business partners to restore Buckley’s Tavern to its glory days. Built as a private residence in 1817, Dennis Buckley opened a tavern in 1951 and operated it until 1970. Launched in 2012 with 140 seats inside and 140 seats outside, the new Buckley’s Tavern offers a mix of traditional comfort food and fine dining options such as seared scallops, sweet corn risotto in summer months, and a quinoa burger for a vegetarian choice. A local food critic described the menu as “elegant comfort food.”
“We try to meet a lot of different needs here,” Tom said. It’s not unusual to have guests eat at Buckley’s three to four nights per week. “I have people come in every week just for the mac ‘n’ cheese.”
Buckley’s also serves tour groups, the icing on the cake for tourists visiting old du Pont family mansions that have been turned into museums. Winterthur and the Nemours Mansion and Gardens are two museums near the tavern.
A sketch of Buckley’s Tavern with a Rolls Royce in one parking spot and a pickup truck with a dog in another space says it all. “Once you walk in the door, you’re not a customer; you’re not a CEO, which we have plenty; you’re not a landscaper; you’re just a Buckley’s guest,” he said. The menu does not change too often.
A few years ago he pulled his New England Clam Chowder for a Crab Chowder. It was a short-lived change. “I don’t change the menu often because I get so much grief,” Tom affectionately said of his loyal guests. He and his staff get to know them personally. “We have one guest that as soon as he comes in we bring him a pitcher of iced tea. He will drink two pitchers with his meal.”
One of his business partners has a collection of about 140 classic cars and had an idea to open a two-story diner at the museum where the public can view 40 of his cars. Built in Atlanta, Goober’s Diner was transported to Wilmington on 14 Lowboy trailers and reassembled. Opened in December 2020, their signature dish is hash browns that are prepared daily with 50 pounds of potatoes in clarified butter. How cool is it that guests waiting for a table can tour the museum!
With vast experience as a successful chef and his deep knowledge of all aspects of the industry from fine dining to diners, Tom is now mentoring the next generation of students to help them forge a path to a fulfilling and successful culinary career.
To support youth interested in culinary careers, Tom volunteered to be a judge for the Delaware ProStart Student Invitational. According to ProStart’s website, ProStart is a two-year, industry-backed culinary arts and restaurant management program for high school students that reaches approximately 145,000 students in nearly 1,800 schools in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and the Territory of Guam. Along with sponsors, the National Restaurant Association’s Educational Foundation is the driving force behind the ProStart program and competitions.
The Culinary Team from Caesar Rodney High School, located in Camden near Dover and about one hour south of Wilmington, won the 2019 Delaware ProStart title. At the competition, each team of up to five students was given a 10’ x 10’ space; two eight-foot tables; two butane burners; and a battery-powered thermometer and a timer. They had neither refrigeration nor electric. Teams had 20 minutes to set up and one hour to prepare a three-course meal of their choosing.
Tom offered to help prepare the 2019 state winners for the National ProStart Invitational and they finished in fifteenth place. In 2020, Tom became their coach and the team again won the state competition but nationals were canceled because of the pandemic.
After the hiatus, Tom had his students more than ready to roll in 2022. Adhering to the adage that “practice makes perfect,” Tom took their practices to another level by timing each task the students performed and organizing those tasks on a spreadsheet. One month before the state competition, the team practiced three to four days per week for four hours after school. One student on the team is the captain/manager. Tom mentored their manager so that she could tell each student who was cooking if they were ahead or behind on each task as the 60 minutes ticked away to zero. After winning the state competition, the team traveled to Washington D.C. for the national competition, which was held from May 6-8 over Mothers’ Day weekend. Out of 42 teams, the Caesar Rodney team took first place, earning renewable culinary scholarships for those who opt to pursue a post-secondary culinary arts career. Two members of the team are now in their first year at the CIA.
What is even more impressive about the competition is that each team had to submit a recipe book to all eight judges that included their recipes, costing sheets and credit to entities that inspired their menu. Tom said it is amazing what high school students can do and how far culinary arts has progressed since his days making English muffin pizzas.
His team is already practicing for the 2023 state competition.
Tom has a long involvement with the Chaîne, first as the chef for many of Philadelphia’s Induction dinners that were held at the Hotel du Pont and then as a member of the Wilmington Bailliage for the past ten years.
With a deep commitment to the industry, Tom is thinking outside of the box for ideas on how to sustain the many organizations with which he is affiliated with a mission to support culinary professionals. Possibly a common membership between two of the organizations would help recruitment, he posits.
Tom considers one of his students from his winning 2022 ProStart team, who is now at the CIA, his protégé and is recruiting her to compete in Chaîne’s Jeunes Chefs Rôtisseurs competition. She wants to observe this year but Tom said she may compete during her second year at the CIA.
He has a realistic view of the challenge to bring young culinarians into organizations. “I’m going to work as hard as I can to have younger people compete and get them interested in the Chaîne but they also have to see value in what it brings to them,” Tom said.
Guidance for the next generation
Tom attributes much of his success to his work ethic – putting his head down and doing what he was told to do by his boss or his instructors when he was at the CIA. He believes it’s why after just three years at Hotel du Pont, he was sent to Japan over chefs who had been there much longer.
“Do the best you can, keep your head down, do it the right way every time, and don’t veer from that and you’ll do well,” he advises young students seeking a successful career as a chef.
During his years at Hotel du Pont, each quarter he would participate in a career fair at the CIA. One constant he told every student is that they must really want to do the job because they will be working on weekends, holidays and when their friends are off.
“You have to have dedication. Do what you’re told,” he said.
Editor’s Note: Chef Tom Hannum is a member of Chaine’s First State Bailliage and not the Wilmington Bailliage as stated previously.