[Editor’s note: After this story went to press in our November issue, Mission Inn’s owners announced they were selling the inn. Guests will be accepted—and chef Leslie Hurley will remain cooking and baking—through December 31, after which the new owners will make the inn a private residence.]
Leslie Hurley, or Chef Leslie, as she’s known at the Mission Inn in Cape May, used to make guests a dairy-rich sweet egg soufflé for breakfast. It was a popular dish for several years until a sea change in people’s eating habits swept it off the menu.
Food trends and dietary restrictions have transformed what people eat since Hurley whisked her first egg at the bed-and-breakfast in 1994. “Less is more” wasn’t trending then.
Guests’ favorite foods today are Hurley’s egg roulade with spinach, zucchini-egg pizza, and her breakfast salad with tomatoes, blueberries and house-made dressing. “People want lighter, healthier food now,” explains the 64-year-old chef. “They want local produce, more egg dishes, less sugar and fewer sweets. Many have special dietary needs.”
Inspired by her mother, who taught her to cook at age four, Hurley has developed a seasonally supple repertoire that has earned many accolades, one of which is Tripadvisor’s rating of the Mission Inn as the top B&B in Cape May for the past 11 years. Partly, this owes to Hurley being attuned to the times. Guests today are more physically active than they used to be. After breakfast, most head out on long walks, bike tours or kayak trips. “They don’t want to start their day with a 1,000-calorie meal,” she says.
Vicki and Ralph Unruh, frequent guests over the last 16 years, appreciate that Hurley remembers their food preferences without prompting. “I try not to eat flour or sugar,” says Vicki, “so Leslie always makes me an omelet. I never have to remind her. She also knows that Ralph loves her lemon pancakes, so she serves them when we’re there.”
Hurley’s twice-weekly shopping trips for local produce and other products typically cover 50 miles and involve half a dozen stops. Her go-to places, which she has cultivated over many years, include Sunny Slope Farm in Bridgeton for peaches, nectarines and apples; Lillian’s in Maurice for yellow watermelon; and Ingraldi’s in Millville for sweet corn. Another is her beloved Amish Market in Hopewell, known for its bacon and sausage.
“I’ve known a few vegetarians,” she says, “who just couldn’t resist the smell of their maple bacon coming from our kitchen.”
On her quests, Hurley’s father, Jim, often keeps her company. “We’re always looking for out-of-the-ordinary finds like pink blueberries to surprise our guests,” she says.
The chef also has her pick of nearly 30 herbs and vegetables grown at the inn. Conveniently, her favorite spice, lemon thyme, which she uses in her vegetable-egg pizza, thrives just outside the kitchen’s back door, reducing farm-to-table to a few steps.
At her home in Millville, Hurley rises at 5 am, drives an hour to work while listening to cooking podcasts, and has breakfast planned by the time she pulls into the driveway. By 6:30 am, she’s prepping meats, peeling fruit and making baked goods.
Breakfast is served on the B&B’s Spanish mission–themed outdoor terrace, offering views of the ocean and the inn’s landscaped grounds. “The beauty of the inn and the gentle breeze and salt air blowing across the veranda make my food taste better,” Hurley says.
As guests linger over coffee and plan their day, Hurley prepares snacks for their return. She makes cranberry-raisin oatmeal cookies from scratch daily, and creates bento boxes with crudités, cheese and custom dips for happy hour.
“It takes a special chef to make food deliciously brand new year after year,” write guests Mer and John Groch.
Hurley, an elementary school teacher for many years in Millville, is playful with her table settings. The inn has a dozen sets of plates, mugs and linens in bright primary colors that she mixes and matches daily to complement her menus. She also coordinates her aprons and shoes with the color schemes.
“Chef Leslie is the heart and soul of the inn,” wrote repeat guests Bud and Maureen Kohler after a recent stay. “She greets us every morning with a smile on her face as she serves breakfasts that are delicious, healthy and works of art.”Click here to leave a comment