NJ Chef Traded Bustling Atlantic City Hotspots for Focused Fine Dining in Cape May

He worked at Caesars and Bally’s for more than 15 years, managing a slew of restaurants and celebrity chefs. But as his 60th birthday approached, he pivoted.

Chef Keith Mitchell of Peter Shields Inn & Restaurant in Cape May

Chef Keith Mitchell of Peter Shields Inn & Restaurant in Cape May. Photo: Courtesy of Karen Swan

Blackwood-raised chef Keith Mitchell’s entire career is a sizzle reel.

He’s worked in French restaurants in Philadelphia and on the high-rolling casino dining scene in Atlantic City.

But these days, he’s embracing a slightly more serene environment, helming Peter Shields Inn & Restaurant, a fine-dining eatery in Cape May.

Chef Mitchell recently chatted with NJM about his food-centric Jersey upbringing, his friendship with Guy Fieri, his recent career switch, and more.

NJM: Judging from your successful career, I’m guessing you knew early on you’d be a chef.
Chef Keith Mitchell: Yes. I grew up in a big extended Irish family in Blackwood, Gloucester County. We’d spend summers in North Wildwood and we’d all go to my grandmother’s for completely joyous Saturday and Sunday meals. I was the grandkid she’d take to shop at the local markets. The way she’d inspect fruit, vegetables and fish made an impression on me.

Did you have an “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to be a chef?
For sure! I was 12 and went, as usual, with Gram to a shellfish market in Cape May. This time she bought fresh crabs, and we shelled them together at home. It’s hard work. Then we went to the beach, and Gram made crab cakes. This perfect day—buying food, preparing it, eating these amazing crab cakes while still feeling the sun and sea—that was a peak dining moment in my life.

Where did you go from there?
I was really into food but didn’t know a thing about cooking as a job; no one in my family was in the food or hospitality business. In high school, a friend told me about a TV cooking show, one of the early ones, called Great Chefs. I became a superfan. I saw that this could be a career and got my first restaurant job at 15, washing dishes. There was this excitement in the kitchen, and I thought, Is this for real? I moved up through the kitchen stations.

And your next move?
I did Army service for six years, as a paratrooper mainly, at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. My mom ordered me a subscription to Bon Appétit; I’d devour and memorize all the recipes in the barracks. Post-Army, I wanted a cooking job. I’d read about how Philly was an East Coast cradle of New American farm-to-table cuisine. I wanted to work for this one Philly chef, Philippe Chin. I sat on his restaurant doorstep for five days. On the sixth, he took me into the kitchen.

I take it that chef Chin changed things for you.
He was my mentor. He was a dining god and got me quick apprenticeships, like in The Bear. Then he helped me get a job at the Ritz-Carlton in Philadelphia. I was there three years, absorbing everything about ingredients, technique, sauces, dessert, presentation.

And then the Shore called you home?
Exactly. In 1999 I opened my own place, Mitchell’s American Bistro, in Linwood near Atlantic City. There was nothing like it around—very locavore, all ultra-fresh, from farm and ocean to table. The critics loved it. After seven years, I was ready for a new challenge. I got an offer from Caesars Atlantic City and climbed the ladder. I was executive chef of Caesars and Bally’s from 2007 through 2023. Those resort bosses were visionaries. Their goal was to make Caesars a total lifestyle destination with great dining, entertainment and hotel options. They succeeded.

Caesars also ramped up the celebrity-chef presence in Atlantic City.
Yes, those famous chefs were a big part of the plan. We brought in Guy Fieri, Nobu Matsuhisa and Gordon Ramsay, who has four restaurants with us. People presume that celebrity chefs are never around. But they were all very involved with Caesars in the planning and the menus, and they keep on making regular visits. Guy was especially committed. He loved the Atlantic City scene and was incredibly supportive of his people during Covid. I really admired him, and we became friends.

Is Guy as warm as his persona?
Very much so. He did something so great for my family: He made a video prom proposal for my son. His date is now his wife.

Sixteen years is a long time in a job where “the buck stops here.”
True. As executive chef, I was managing the whole operation. I thrived on the energy and passion of the job, but running a dozen-plus food and beverage outlets takes a lot out of you. I started to miss being a hands-on chef. I left last year, before turning 60, and spent the summer mostly on the beach near my home in Northfield. Then I got a call from the owner of Peter Shields Inn & Restaurant in Cape May.

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And you were coaxed off the sand.
Ha! I’d always known Cape May as not just a weekend destination, and Peter Shields is one of a kind. Everything is about the guest, and dining and/or staying here is magical. Which is our goal. Peter Shields Restaurant is not about cost-cutting and micro-management. It’s about our team’s passion for food, our love for hospitality and perfecting our food and service.

What’s your menu like?
It spotlights magnificent ingredients in dishes that are flavorful, balanced and beautiful. Our provisions are extremely local. We feature a lot of seafood, almost all of it from Cape May’s waters, even the tuna. My signature dish is sea bass in parchment paper, French style. I’m also the pastry chef, and quite a few diners end their meal with my updated Death by Chocolate.

Diners seem to love everything about Peter Shields.
They do. They come from all over Jersey—plus New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware. I come out of the kitchen to chat with every table. One diner called us “the rebirth of fine dining.” I feel so appreciated and valued, and I can’t wait to get to my kitchen in the morning.

Do you cook at home, too?
I sure do. Cooking is my life, and it’s been a great life. My three kids cook, too. They come over on Sundays, just like I used to go to Gram’s. We’ll make a meal together, usually in the wood-fired pizza oven in my yard. Then we watch a food-centric movie.

One last question: Do you feature crab cakes?
Gram’s recipe. All summer.

Peter Shields Inn & Restaurant, 1301 Beach Avenue, Cape May; 609-884-0909.

Quotes have been edited for brevity and clarity.

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