Culinary Visions Palates and plates: At Visionary Art Museum cafe, chef Peter Zimmer satisfies appetites for the unusual.

November 29, 1995|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,SUN STAFF

There's one thing chef Peter Zimmer wants made absolutely clear: His philosophy of supporting sustainable agriculture, biodiversity and environmental protection stems not from some spacey New Age notion of Mother Earth, but from a deep sense of responsibility for every single person who eats at his restaurant.

"It's not about being holistic or on a pedestal," he said, sitting in the light-drenched dining room of the Joy America Cafe at the new American Visionary Art Museum, which opened last week on Key Highway. In the restaurant industry, he said, "We serve billions of people a year, [foods with] pesticides, herbicides, residues -- should we really be doing this? When should we take responsibility? It's not about being New Age, not at all. It's just about awakening a little bit and saying, I'm going to be responsible for everyone who comes through my restaurant."

That said, the young man who is widely expected by most of the people in it to turn Baltimore's culinary community on its collective ear with his Southwest-meets-Far-East food, goes on to note of his decision to move from Sante Fe, where he was a four-star, five-diamond celebrity chef at the Inn of the Anasazi, to the brand-new and mildly controversial museum for "outsider" art in Baltimore, "A lot of it had to do with a leap of faith," he said.

"I really fell in love with the whole idea of this museum, the idea of the human capacity, the human genius, the ability to express someone's self out of any form," he said. He likes the idea that the outsider artists -- who have no formal training and create spontaneously, usually out of materials at hand -- can't quite be stuck with labels. "It's something that's very strong within me, I think, because I am self-taught as well."

Rebecca Hoffberger, founder and driving force behind the museum, first met Mr. Zimmer at the Inn of the Anasazi three years ago when she and her husband took their daughter there to celebrate her birthday. "We had the most incredible food we've ever had," she said. They asked to meet the chef and were amazed to find he had no formal training. They told him about their museum for self-taught artists and he was so taken with the idea he volunteered to help design the kitchen and to train a chef for the restaurant.

Then last summer, she said, he called and said he had decided to be that chef.

"Peter is a great artist" whose canvas is the plate and whose medium is food, she said. "It's just a revelation for Baltimore. He will inspire the good chefs here."

Is Baltimore ready for Mr. Zimmer's Navajo flat bread with wood grilled peppers and tomato olive salsa and his dried papaya and cashew nut-crusted halibut with scraped vanilla bean and citrus coulis?

"I certainly look forward to his contribution to the culinary scene," said Holly Forbes, executive chef at Harbor Court Hotel in the Inner Harbor (four stars and four diamonds from national hotel-rating agencies). She met Mr. Zimmer, who's been in Baltimore about 6 months, at a recent event. "He brings a little bit more cosmopolitan air," Ms. Forbes said. "That's what we need. We need excitement and we need competition -- I mean that in the nicest way. It's nice to have someone to look up to."

"People are looking for a different place to go," said Robert Schindler, owner of Pinehurst Wine Shoppe and an active member of the local chapter of the American Institute of Wine and Food, an educational and charitable group. "I'm really excited about it."

Diane Neas, a local restaurant consultant, said, "I understand he's very talented. I think [the cafe] is going to help the museum." But she wondered where patrons will come from. "I think the location [on Key Highway below Federal Hill] is very interesting. Of course, he's going to have another market, the tourist market. He's going to have all the hotels."

While Mr. Schindler notes that the restaurant is not located in an area dense with restaurants, he said "there's a real niche for it. People will go there, that's not the problem." The problem, he said, will be if the restaurant fails to live up to the buzz being created around it. "They're building it up to be something special."

Travelers who've sampled the cuisine at Anasazi, the New Mexico inn where Mr. Zimmer was executive chef, praise its artistry. Museum visitors can get an idea of what that fare was like from Joy America Cafe's current menu, which Merry Stephen, general manager of the inn, said is "very familiar.

"It's a mixture of Southwest, Native American and American cowboy cuisines," she said.

The inn, a 59-room hotel in the heart of Sante Fe, still seems somewhat sensitive about Mr. Zimmer's departure. Ms. Stephen said that when the inn opened in 1991, the food was a collaboration among Mr. Zimmer, his father, Robert Zimmer, who was the inn's president and managing partner, and John Bobrick, the sous chef who's now the executive chef, among others. "The executive chef is the lucky one" who gets all the publicity, she said.

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