Area loses two chefs to restaurants they'll own on the shore

HAPPY EATER

June 08, 1994|By ROB KASPER

Two of Baltimore's most celebrated chefs, Michael Rork of the Harbor Court Hotel and Mark Henry of the Milton Inn, are moving to Maryland's Eastern Shore to run their own restaurants.

Tomorrow will be the last day at the Harbor Court for Rork whose eight-year reign at the Inner Harbor hotel brought its posh Hampton's restaurant national honors, including being repeatedly named as one of the Distinguished Restaurants of North America. Friday Rork will be in St. Michaels running the Town Dock, a 250-seat restaurant that he and his wife, Betsy, purchased.

Henry and his wife, Barbara, are moving from the Milton Inn in Sparks to the Chester River Inn on Kent Island. The couple recently bought the 110-seat restaurant and hopes to have it ready for customers by mid-July. During Henry's 6 1/2 years at the Milton Inn, it was transformed from a quaint eating spot perhaps best known as the site of the former boarding school of John Wilkes Booth, into a nationally known restaurant. Esquire magazine named Henry one of the best young chefs in America. Conde Nast Traveler magazine recently listed the Milton Inn, as well as Hampton's, among the top 50 restaurants in the United States.

Holly Forbes, a longtime member of Rork's staff, has been named acting executive chef at Harbor Court. Stan Levy, Henry's former sous chef, will be in charge of the Milton Inn kitchen.

Rork and Henry, who are friends, said the simultaneous nature of their moves was a coincidence. At first, neither chef knew of the other's plan to relocate. But after the chefs and their wives had independently visited some of the same Eastern shore restaurants, everyone figured out what was going on.

In separate interviews, Rork and Henry said the major factor in their decisions to move was the chance to own a restaurant.

"I am finally doing what I have been getting ready to do for years," said Henry, who is 37 years old and has worked at several Baltimore area restaurants including, Peerce's, Stall 1043, Crystal's, and Samuel Owings. He explained that while he was learning "the back of the house" -- restaurant parlance for the kitchen -- his wife worked "the front of the house," greeting customers and working on the books. Now "Team Henry" as the couple has been dubbed by a friend, is ready to run its own restaurant.

Rork, 45, said his wife Betsy, whom he described as "my chief financial planner" will be heavily involved in the operation of the Town Dock. Joining them from the Harbor Court staff will be maitre d'hotel Philip Bernot and first cook Jim Mullen. Rork described the type of food at the Town Dock as "fresh, regional food, moderately priced," but not as elegantly presented as it was at Harbor Court. It will not, he said, be Hampton's on the Miles River.

The relaxed lifestyle of the Eastern Shore was another factor in their moves, both chefs said. "You get a different feeling . . . more casual . . . when you cross the Bay Bridge," Henry said. Rork, who is the father of three sons ranging in age from 13 years to 7 months, said he liked the idea of raising his kids in a small town like St. Michaels with a population of about 1,300.

News of the chefs' departures left me with mixed feelings. While pleased that these good men were moving up in their profession, I couldn't help worrying about the fate of my favorite entree. Rork for instance, not only got me to eat buffalo, he got me to like it. He even made potatoes exciting, by slipping some caviar in them.

Meanwhile, every spring for about the last 10 years, I have shown up at Henry's kitchen, seeking the best soft crab dish in the world, his sauteed soft crabs in a whole grain mustard sauce.

When I checked with a few other area eaters, they had the same reaction to the news. "Oh, that rack of lamb that Michael made," said L. Duke Goldberg head of the Baltimore chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs, a fine-dining group.

When the conversation turned to Henry's food, Goldberg sounded like a man who had memorized the Milton Inn menu, "Those meat dishes, his homemade sausages, his pate, and that cognac sauce to die for."

Bob Schindler, co-chairman of the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Wine and Food, summed it up:

When you dined on the creations of Rork and Henry, Schindler said "it wasn't the cheapest meal in town, but you always walked away happy."

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