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Ky West finding niche by wooing local customers

(Jan 16, 2015) Michael Rendell, the executive chef at Ky West on 54th Street bayside, has trouble sleeping sometimes and watches videos on his phone late at night.

“I saw this video about, of all things, a biker gang that was surrounded by other, rival gangs. They said the other bikers were more than welcome to come party in their area — a “you don’t bother us and we won’t bother you” situation, but warned them not to get too rowdy,” he said.

He feels the same way about the restaurant business in Ocean City. Rendell said he doesn’t want to steal customers or step on the toes of other restaurants, some of whom sell food similar to, but not copies of, Rendell’s cuisine, feeling there is more than enough space and more than enough market share for resort restaurants.

“Just because we put a particular dish on the menu doesn’t mean we’re going to war,” Rendell said.

Ky West has been open for a couple of years now but has suffered some management, and more recently, service troubles. Rendell said that is all behind them now, as he was able to secure experienced wait staff drawn from other Ocean City venues and another manager, Mark Wagner, has shorn up operations.

“Where is your business coming from? The locals. When people come to town, who do they ask for restaurant recommendations, the locals. That’s why we’re still open in the off-season. We’re trying to build something here. We’ve talked the talk now it’s time to walk the walk,” Rendell said.

To achieve this, Rendell is mixing all the skills he’s acquired since graduating culinary school in the early 1990s and applying all the experience he’s gained from working in restaurants ever since.

“I make food we would all eat. I wouldn’t really categorize it apart from favoring bold flavors, getting the freshest ingredients and doing everything in-house,” he said.

From smoking meats to preparing salad dressings to breading and frying his own onion rings, Rendell said he prefers to do as much as he can himself.

“I want to know everything is fresh, I like knowing I smoked my own ribs or pulled my own pork,” he said.

That knowledge is gained the hard way sometimes. When ordering supplies, Rendell said he favors buying things in season and as fresh as can be obtained, which means he doesn’t always have a clear plan when he decides on a menu.

The menus change weekly, which is a bit of a slowdown from some other places Rendell said he worked. He remembered his time at a country club near Baltimore where he had carte blanche to order whatever he wanted and changed the menus daily.

“I remember the manager coming to me and saying — the club was non-profit — that I needed to spend more money because they were close to turning a profit, and they weren’t allowed to. So I started having mushrooms delivered overnight — it could be crazy,” he said.

As exciting as it was, after about three years he found himself itching for a new challenge and wanting a different environment than the one he grew up in near Baltimore for his daughter.

“I’ve had guns pulled on me, knives. I’ve been hit with things and it’s nothing I wanted for her,” he said.

He put in for a job in Ocean City at Fresco’s, where he ended up staying for a number of years before leaving early last year. A number of other faces at Ky West will be familiar as well. Rendell said he didn’t start a recruitment drive, but if people came to him and asked, he did everything he could to help out.

“We really want to make a run at it. We don’t want to replace or take away from anyone else, we just want to be in the thought. We want to be considered when you’re talking about upscale casual dining in Ocean City,” he said.

Those are the thoughts that keep him up at night.

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