Rising culinary star, Karim Lakhani, takes the reins at Citronelle At your Service

July 27, 1994|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff Writer

Baltimore's newest and perhaps most-noted chef, Karim Lakhani, didn't set out to be a culinary star, colleague with the likes of D.C.'s Jean-Louis Palladin and California's Michel Richard, gossip target of Washingtonian magazine. At one point he didn't intend to be a chef at all, in fact; he wanted to be a photographer, or a pilot.

But life had already taken several unexpected turns for Mr. Lakhani, born in Africa of Indian descent. His family was well-to-do, with servants and nice cars. But, in 1972, Ugandan dictator Idi Amin ordered all Asians to leave the country. Mr. Lakhani, then 12, his mother and his uncle fled to Canada in a transition he calls "riches to rags."

Now, sitting in the Peabody Grill at the Latham Hotel Baltimore, where he's been in charge for just four months of a culinary empire that also includes Citronelle, the rooftop restaurant created by Chef Richard, Mr. Lakhani tells his life story without pathos, and with some amusement. "I remember the day we arrived -- and we'd never seen snow," Mr. Lakhani says. "It was November . . . and it was snow up to our thighs. We didn't have any warm clothing, no boots, nothing."

They settled in Regina, Saskatchewan. Times were hard, at first, he says. "My uncle had to become a janitor. My mother was a very good seamstress, so she started doing that."

But his family had always been in the food business, with bakeries and restaurants in Uganda, so it was natural that he would gravitate toward the kitchen. At the hotel where they were staying, he recalls, he got a job helping wash dishes and pots. "The chef would always look after me, give me a nice meal afterward . . . I was a big fan of eating."

Mr. Lakhani's early experience in the business left him with a profound respect for the dishwashers of the world. "I think in any hotel or restaurant, without them you couldn't survive. They are the ones that really lead you through the day, through the toughest times . . ." If he finds dishwashers who long to be chefs and have some talent in that direction, he will make sure they get promoted. "So at least they have some sort of career ahead of them, if that's what they want," he says. "I look after them."

He credits his mother for nurturing his early interest in cooking, tolerating the "big mess" he made in the kitchen. "She's always been the strongest support," he says.

He jumps up to see what he can do for a customer who is looking for her waiter; earlier he broke off conversation to seat a couple and give them menus. He will do virtually anything to please a customer, from discussing the menu to making recommendations to preparing a fat-free meal to carefully downsizing a dessert. One regular customer of Citronelle's will not order until he talks to "Chef." "That's the service business," Mr. Lakhani says, with a smile.

When the family moved to a small town outside Toronto, Mr. Lakhani again went to work in a hotel kitchen, working his way up from dishwasher to the pantry, and later followed the chef into a catering business. But when he graduated from secondary school, he enrolled in a photography course.

However, he discovered at an orientation session he would need about $3,000 in equipment to pursue the course. "I just didn't think it was fair to put that kind of strain on my family," he says. So he went to talk to his chef friend, who told him about Canada's apprenticeship program for culinary professionals. He found a chef at Toronto's Windsor Arms Hotel who agreed to sponsor him, and decided, "Let me give it a try."

Because of his previous culinary experience, he was credited with one year toward the 3-year program, the first of a series of breaks that would propel him to his first executive chef position at the tender age of 27, at the Palace Hotel in Philadelphia -- and a few years later to executive chef at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, sharing space, recipes, ideas, and perhaps just a little fame, with 2-star Michelin chef Jean-Louis Palladin.

Friends and colleagues

"He's a good guy," says Mr. Palladin, noting that in the 15 years he's been at the Watergate, Mr. Lakhani is the only executive chef he has been friends with. "He listens," Mr. Palladin says. "I cannot stand an executive chef, because he is working with numbers and not with the oven. You need to prove yourself to me in front of the oven" -- and Mr. Lakhani was able to do just that. "From the mentality of an executive chef, he became a chef," Mr. Palladin says.

The erstwhile photographer had developed into a chef with a passion for success. "Whatever I do I put my heart into it," Mr. Lakhani says. He has no patience with people who complain that "the system" keeps them from succeeding in the kitchen or anywhere else. "It's all up to the individual," he says. "You have to go for what you want. I'm a minority, and look where I've gotten to. It's because I was giving it 110 percent and going after my dreams."

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