An American invasion Chef: If Brits are truly inclined to cook more unusual dishes these days, Joy America Cafe's Peter Zimmer is just the guy to show them how.

November 27, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- It's when Peter Zimmer recites a complicated recipe for a Thanksgiving starter of smoked squab topped by a cranberry relish laden with spices and served on a special gourmet chip, that you, as an American in London, just want to shriek:

Ever hear of pumpkin soup, pal?

But you don't. This is Zimmer's demonstration lunch. This is what most among the audience of 10 women paid $32 to hear from the chef who put Baltimore's Joy America Cafe on the culinary map.

They want something different. Something spectacular. Something that looks like the delectable prom-corsage-on-a-plate that they just ate.

Zimmer delivers. One of the diners is even taking notes.

Zimmer came to London for a 10-day run at the Establishment restaurant in the posh London neighborhood of South Kensington. He cooked in a kitchen the size of a phone booth. He lectured. He schmoozed with diners and journalists, spreading the gospel of his world cuisine to a city in the midst of a restaurant renaissance.

And he laid plans to open his own place in London, maybe as early as next year.

"I'm kind of testing the waters here," he says. "Back home, they think I'm eccentric, unorthodox and my food is anything but usual. They think I'm out there in left field."

In London, they don't even know what left field is. And they may have a hard time figuring out where the achiote ends and the sage begins when Zimmer chars a tuna. But it won't matter. His food is delicious, different and bound to entice London's foodies.

Besides, if his "have-a-nice-day" American manner doesn't win diners over, his salsas to savor will.

"People have changed. Their tastebuds have changed," says Florence Lim, one of the new Zimmer converts. "Modern British food is adventurous."

Bold move

Zimmer's bid to break into the British market is typically bold for the self-taught, 32-year-old chef whose resume reads like a table of contents in Gourmet magazine. Zimmer has worked in trendy spots from Los Angeles to Santa Fe, and opened restaurants in Dallas, New York and Houston, among other places.

Britain long ago gave up its image as a nation of diners chomping on roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. This is now the land of the superstar chef and the prime-time cooking show, as the British public demands new foods and cuisines.

The editorial director of Egon Ronay Hotels and Restaurants Guide recently proclaimed that London is the "gastronomic center of the world," supplanting staid Paris and overpriced Hong Kong.

If Zimmer is daunted by the prospect of competing in a tough market, he's not showing it.

Asked what he thought of the meal he ate at the city's No. 1 spot, Restaurant Marco Pierre White at the Hyde Park Hotel, Zimmer said: "Extremely educated. Well-disciplined. Bland."

That's like going to Chicago and talking trash about Michael Jordan.

But Zimmer is nothing but confident about his cooking. And so are a lot of other influential people.

Rebecca and LeRoy Hoffberger, who lured Zimmer to Baltimore to run the Joy America Cafe at the American Visionary Art Museum, got him connected to the owners of the Establishment in London.

Neil Armishaw, general manager of the Establishment, flew to Baltimore three times to sample Zimmer's food and talk business.

"I said, 'I've got to bring this man to London,' " Armishaw recalls. "My duty is to pursue this."

The road trip to London was difficult. Zimmer had to train an existing staff of five in the ways of a singular cooking style. He had to come up with menus. He didn't even have time to visit such sites as Big Ben or Buckingham Palace.

"It was like starting a restaurant from scratch," Zimmer says.

And let's face it: For Zimmer, shopping in London is a nightmare. His Southwestern-influenced cuisine, with liberal doses of spices and tastes from the Pacific Rim, is tough to duplicate here.

Ingredients from here

So they had to haul from America most of the indigenous chilis, dandelion roots and wild juniper berries that give Zimmer's food its snap. They also had to bring in buffalo meat. For the rest of it, the mushrooms, corn meals and fresh fruits and vegetables, they had to trawl through Britain's vast markets.

Then they had to cook it all in a cramped blowtorch of a kitchen. And to top it all off, on the first day, the oven wouldn't start and the frier shut down.

"To reproduce this cuisine every day, we'd have to have a new kitchen built," says David Calder, the Establishment's own well-regarded chef.

Calder admits he was uncertain if the diners would warm to Zimmer's penchant for matching hot food with cold sauces.

"English people are used to having hot meat with other hot things," Calder says. "But they liked it.

"He's very good," Calder adds. "I wasn't sure what to expect. I thought he'd say, 'Here's a menu, go do it.' "

Zimmer says he actually liked the 16-hour workdays. In America, he's now more of a creative consultant than a day-to-day chef.

"There is a sense of the old traditions of the European kitchen that will go back with me to Baltimore," he says. "Kitchens in the United States are not as disciplined. There isn't much urgency. It's an incredibly honorable profession to work in a European kitchen."

And in this kitchen, he could look out at the diners, hearing their comments and compliments over the course of the smash 10-day run, which ended Saturday.

Just about everyone who ate Zimmer's food adored it, except for one woman.

Hildegard Zimmer showed up for Friday's demonstration lunch figuring she might discover a long-lost relative and a warming meal.

She found neither.

"I thought I might be related to David Zimmer, so that's why I came here," she said. "But we're not related. My family is from Austria and he says his family is from Germany."

What did she think of the food?

"It was tasty," she said. "I liked the non-fat feel about the food. Very fine flavors. But I look for something that is home cooking."

Pub Date: 11/27/96

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