Recipe for a Restaurant Chef Michael Gettier can do it his way in his new venue

June 06, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

With four people chopping, sauteing, stirring, rolling out and restocking, the tiny kitchen at M. Gettier, the weeks-old restaurant in Fells Point owned by chef Michael Gettier, gets pretty crowded.

"Behind you!" the sous-chef sings out, carrying a huge metal bin of vegetables destined for the stockpot.

Mr. Gettier checks the time and surveys his bustling domain with satisfaction. "Three o'clock -- the bread's rising, we'rein wonderful shape."

M. Gettier has been open just since April 14, occupying the former site (some would say the unprepossessing former site) of L'Auberge, which closed early this year. Mr. Gettier, his family and some of his soon-to-be staff spent several months freshening up and refurbishing the interior of the space at 505 S. Broadway. It is located between a liquor store and a drugstore, but an elegant blue and gold awning gives some distinction to the storefront. The top floor has been converted into a pied-a-terre where Mr. Gettier, his wife, Claudia, and their 11-month-old son, Michael Jr., can stay when it's too late to drive back to their home in Chase. ("We expect to be here," Mr. Gettier says with a shrug.)

The renovations slowed the restaurant's opening, but for Mr. Gettier, getting things right is more important than meeting deadlines or corporate profit goals.

"Oh, you have to pay the bills," he concedes, sipping a cup of coffee on a rare midafternoon break. He knows about corporate goals. He was, for three years, executive chef at the Conservatory, a Victorian gem of a restaurant atop what was then the Peabody Court hotel in Mount Vernon (now the Latham Hotel, Baltimore).

Under his leadership, the restaurant became one of just two in Baltimore to garner a rating of four diamonds from the American Automobile Association (two years in a row), and Mr. Gettier was honored by the James Beard Foundation in Manhattan last year as one of the "Best Hotel Chefs in America."

But the hotel suffered ownership problems and passed into the hands of an out-of-state bank. Last July, when Mr. Gettier found a management company's control hostile to his cuisine, he quit.

Shortly afterward, the hotel was bought by the CapStar group, which brought a California flavor to the top-floor restaurant.

Mr. Gettier has no regrets.

"If the Conservatory was still there, I would probably miss it a lot. I was very attached to that room. . . . But when I think about it, it's almost like a past life. It was an executive chef's position. It was a lot of administrative stuff. After a while, my shirt stayed marvelously white, my apron was sparkling. But the real job [daily food preparation] was slipping away," he says.

"I think when you have your own place, along with the responsibility comes the luxury -- we serve here what we want to serve. What tastes good. What's really wonderful. We're real fortunate here that we don't have a bunch of investors, that sort of stuff. So we don't have a bunch of people with their hands in the till. If we want to mark up our wine the way we're marking it up" -- which is less than traditional restaurant wisdom dictates -- "this is our choice." (One recent night, a leisurely three-course dinner for two with two glasses of house wine before dinner and a bottle of pinot noir with the meal came to less than $90 before tip.)

Diners into regulars

Mr. Gettier wants to turn his diners into regulars. "Now the numbers got to match. . . . But this is the luxury we have. I don't have the weekly Wednesday morning staff meetings, everybody's sitting there and we're answering for our numbers . . . " His somber recital is abruptly broken by a trademark ebullient chuckle. "There's a contra side to this. . . . But gosh, this is what we're trying to do here. Keep the quality up, get a little bit inventive with the food. . . . But still there's not a lot of tap-dancing, a lot of froufrou."

He is interrupted by a waiter, Stephane Leyreloup, who has brought him a French book on wines, "Oenologie & Crus des Vins" (roughly, "Winemaking and Winegrowing"). Mr. Gettier pounces on it.

He is proud of the wine cellar he has established. Though he says his knowledge of wine is "recent," he has nearly 60 selections on his lists (a regular list and a pricier, "captain's list"). Each wine seems to be his favorite. He speaks knowledgeably about grappa, an Italian spirit distilled from the sediments of pressed grapes, and explains how he sees the difference between a "big" zinfandel ("Like this: ooomph." He makes a balloon shape with his arms and gestures from ears to chest, like someone describing Arnold Schwarzenegger) and a "big" cabernet sauvignon ("Like this: uuumph" -- same balloon gesture, from chest to hips, a description of Santa Claus). It's not the Wine Spectator, but it is quite evocative.

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