Dinner's half an hour late and over in the "asparagus room," Tim Barger is pacing the floor. "Come on, guys," he says to some unknown forces out in the dining room holding up the meal, "we've got to go. The asparagus is dropping."
He's staring out over the cause for his anxiety: a huge table packed with 180 plates rim to rim. And on each one sits a tiny crown of asparagus, held together, somewhat tenuously, by chilled asparagus mousse in the middle.
It is the first course of a gala dinner, one unprecedented in Baltimore because it brings together the talents of some of the area's top chefs for a single, eye-popping, 10-course meal, being held in an elegant banquet room at the Harbor Court Hotel.
Two or three chefs have gotten together before for such benefit dinners, but tonight nine have been gathered for this one meal, called "By Invitation Only," and it is to be a spread of immense proportions. Even at $250 a plate -- for the benefit of the Sexual Assault Recovery Center of Baltimore and for the Sexual Assault/Domestic Violence Center in Baltimore County -- tickets were sold out weeks in advance.
Everything has been donated or bought by benefactors -- flowers, food, talent -- to make every possible dollar go to the centers.
The logistics are awesome: food prepped in nine different restaurants, then brought here early this afternoon to the hotel kitchens for still more work. There are people everywhere, all having staked out their own little areas but sharing the burners -- yelling, "Hot behind you, hot and heavy," as they run through with their bubbling pans of food.
But so far, even with so many cooks in the kitchen, "there haven't been any fights yet," says Michael Rork, the host chef and coordinator, laughing. "We're all still friends. And they're all using my skillets and it doesn't even bother me."
"Everybody's just jumping around helping everybody else out," adds Connie Crabtree, chef at Pier 500 Restaurant.
Now, after champagne has been served around Emery Boger's towering ice sculptures out in the reception area, the diners have finally been herded into the dining room -- late. And someone out there seems to be making, unscheduled, a long speech.
The asparagus is still holding up, in spite of the fact that the dishes have been out of the cold box for an hour now. One or two collapse. Chef Barger, executive chef at the Omni Hotel -- or one of the other chefs watching the table like hawks -- grabs them and quickly replaces the plates with another.
This dish, asparagus custard crown in three vegetable purees, is to be followed by the soup course, rockfish consomme by Mark Henry of the Milton Inn. Then comes a crab and lobster cake in a pool of Pommery mustard sauce by Will Greenwood of the Jefferson Hotel in Washington, followed by a crayfish lasagna with fresh tomato coulis by Harold Marmulstein of the Polo Grill.
At this point in the menu comes a sorbet to cleanse the palate: a peppery pink ginger sorbet served in flowers crafted of spun sugar created by Adi Rehm of Rehm's Catering in Clarksville.
Then serious eating begins again with lamb and black bean tamale in ancho cream by Michael Rork of the Harbor Court. Then comes roasted pheasant miso with a caramelized onion, wild rice and potato pancake by Nancy Longo of Pierpoint, followed by a roast loin of veal with sweet bread strudel, the offering of Rudy Speckamp of Rudys' 2900 Restaurant.
The salad course is mixed spring greens, chevre and fruitwood smoked quail with a raspberry dressing by Connie Crabtree.
Then the final course, not just a single dessert, but an entire dinner plate arranged with frozen maracuja (passion fruit) mousse, a tian, fresh raspberries, pear honey sauce and a chocolate-covered banana half, again by Adi Rehm.
Finally the asparagus is served and the frantic part of the dinner begins. Almost everyone -- the chefs and their staffs -- crowds around one long stainless steel table to "plate up" 180 servings of the six courses that will be served hot.
The next course -- a consomme poured over a piece of fresh rockfish, a slice of rockfish terrine, and garnishes of julienned carrots and leeks plus cubes of daikon radish, slices of shiitake and tiny enoki mushrooms -- goes together in a blur of white and houndstooth.
"I need some leeks down at this end."
"Who's got the mushrooms? We need shiitake down here."
"OK. We've got waiters lining up. Come on, pump it out," Will Greenwood says as things get a little behind. "Let's get it there. Let's get it out. Daddy wants to have a beer."
The phone rings. "It's for you, Michael," someone says.
"Tell them I'll call them back," chef Rork says calmly.
Considering the amount of talent packed here elbow to elbow, it must be the most expensive restaurant line ever put together in town.
When the soup course goes out the door, another 180 plates are whisked out and stacked on the table -- and it begins all over