Harbor Court chef basks in her new role COOL IN THE KITCHEN

September 14, 1994|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff Writer

It's only 10 a.m.,but the vast second-floor kitchen at the Harbor Court Hotel is a symphony of sound and movement: Chefs are preparing salads and stocks and pastries, dishwashers are washing dishes, stewards are pushing large carts that deliver food to banquet facilities. In the center of it all is the conductor, executive chef Holly Forbes -- appropriately enough a former music major -- directing the action, monitoring the timing and bringing the pieces together.

Since July 1, when she stepped in to fill the large shoes of award-winning local culinary titan Michael Rork, Ms. Forbes -- an animated, humorous, down-to-earth woman whose favorite expression is "Cool!" -- has established herself as a solid presence in the kitchen, which serves hotel banquets and events, room service, Brighton's, and the four-star restaurant Hampton's.

Moving from her role as sous chef into the job as executive chef has not been daunting, Ms. Forbes says. "I feel like I've been in training for it for a couple of years. Now I'm responsible for everything, and I can put a little bit more of my personality into it. It's my food stamp on here, not Michael's anymore. . . . Now it's my Barbie dream kitchen and I can do what I want to do."

Mr. Rork, who left the hotel after eight years to become chef-owner of the Town Dock restaurant in St. Michaels, says Ms. Forbes is a natural: "She's very talented besides being a good cook. She's really good with employees, too. She has a very sincere attitude toward her employees, and toward her cooking too,."

Born and raised in Knoxville, Tenn., Ms. Forbes, 35, originally trained for a career in music, studying voice and piano at the University of Tennessee. But she decided she would never advance beyond a certain level of proficiency in music, and petitioned her father, a piano technician, for permission to change careers. She took a year off and researched cooking schools.

"I had always been interested in cooking. I only ever wanted to cook as good as my mother did," Ms. Forbes says. Her mother was a self-taught gourmet cook who "embarrassed" her children by eschewing anything as mundane as turkey at Thanksgiving in favor of crab-stuffed roast tenderloin.

Ms. Forbes settled on the Baltimore International Culinary College: "The price was right and it wasn't Knoxville." She graduated in 1983, taught and worked in a number of restaurants, including the Omni Hotel and Broadview dining room, in Baltimore and Washington. "I learned a lot in three years, it was just this amazing mushroom of knowledge." A job at Harbor Court "fell out of the sky," she says. She spent two years as pastry chef, then spent the last four years as Mr. Rork's sous chef.

Now that she's in charge, she plans some "fine-tuning" of the menus at the hotel and at Hampton's. "Michael had a Southwestern influence. I'm going more toward a Southern influence. A little more progressive. A little more healthful -- we're trying to reduce the amount of cream sauces and be a little more '90s. I think Hampton's has been in a food coma for a couple of years."

Do not mistake Southern for down-home, or healthful for health-food store: Hampton's four stars should be safe with such dishes as rack of lamb with homemade lamb sausage on wild rice cakes, and stuffed salmon steak with shiitake mushrooms and cilantro sauce. Diners can also expect to see such things as bean relishes, spoon bread or corn bread, in place of traditional sauteed vegetables or rolls.

Ms. Forbes says the food is influenced by Maryland's spot on the map: "It's almost Atlantic, but then it's kind of still Southern. Maybe it's a good thing, because there is such a wealth of resources available to us -- seafood, and we have wonderful farmers down in Virginia that we get our range lamb and range veal from.

"I'm a down-to-earth, approachable kind of person, and that's how I cook. I'm not into the pretensions and all the frou-frou -- touch my food too much and I won't eat it. We can still do a kind of Asian, pan-Pacific, fusion kind of thing, on our specials. But the foundation menu just needs to be little more simple, a little more light."

Duke Goldberg, who as president of the gourmet food and wine group La Chaine des Rotisseurs has overseen a number of events at Harbor Court, says of Ms. Forbes, "If she puts her mind to it, and the hotel gives her the freedom, she's going to do a great job." When she was pastry chef, he says, her creations were "beyond spectacular."

Ms. Forbes, however, seems too modest to seek fame for herself. "I'll never be a Jean-Louis [D.C. chef Jean-Louis Palladin] or a Lydia Shire [chef at Biba in Boston]. There have to be some Marian the Librarians somewhere."

If she can get her staff to be "enthusiastic" about the food and serving the hotel's guests, she says, she'll be happy.

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