Michael Rork, a towering, silver-haired chef made even taller by his stiff, snowy-white toque, seems like the adventuring Gulliver in a world of walk-in freezers, stainless steel counter tops and six-burner stoves. In the Harbor Court Hotel's kitchen, where pots and pans seem Lilliputian when he stands over them, he's got a big order to fill.
He's cooking and feeding more than 70 food critics this week -- eaters who'll nit-pick and quibble among themselves about the richness of his sauces, the colors of his fish, the texture of his vegetables.
They are the members of the Newspaper Food Writers and Editors Association, those critical diners who laud delectable dishes and lambaste bad ones for newspapers and magazines across the country. They'll be staying at the posh Harbor Court Hotel during their annual meeting, where they'll discuss food regulations and the marriage of wine and food and other culinary topics.
Executive chef Rork, a 41-year-old former Army brat who studied at the Culinary Institute in New York, isn't intimidated by the number of potentially pointed reviews that could follow every meal he cooks.
"We're not afraid at all," he said. "I have an open invitation for them. They can take an hour's tour, do whatever they want."
In fact, he's excited at the chance to flaunt his culinary expertise. "We're being given an opportunity to show off our stuff," said Rork, who is known for the Southwestern flair he gives to his preparations.
And he's going to turn these food critics into guinea pigs.
"I'm going to do some experimenting with sauces," he said. "Blend some fresh herbs and seasonings and try them out."
He's going to prepare for them healthy fare -- muffins and tea breads for breakfast, clear soups and pasta dishes for lunch -- since many of their planned events involve food sampling. For the big awards dinner on Saturday, he figures he'll be making a smoked chicken dish.
"It'll be one of my most satisfying experiences because I know they're going to appreciate it," he said. "I'm looking forward to the feedback."
If 14 meals served to a restaurant full of critics doesn't faze him, what does? Perhaps it'll be the night he cooks dinner for the Chaine des Rotisseurs, a society for gourmet cooks and professionals. They've scheduled an induction ceremony at the hotel in November; 140 group members are expected to attend.
"Groups like that are hard to cook for," he said. "They're gourmet people and they're likely to critique the food."
He figures his toughest critics aren't food writers, but area residents who rent out rooms at the hotel for bar mitzvahs and weddings.
"They're the locals who are afraid of not pleasing their guests in
town," he said.