Science is not on his menu any longer

Profile: Jerry Pellegrino used to study DNA. Now, he enjoys the "bigger challenge" of being a restaurateur.

August 18, 1999|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun Food Editor

Only a few years ago, Jerry Pellegrino, chef-owner of Corks in Federal Hill, was wearing a lab coat instead of a chef's jacket.

The New York native was pursuing a doctorate at Johns Hopkins University in the field of molecular genetics -- cloning genes and deciphering complicated protein structures. DNA was his mission, academia his life.

But Pellegrino hit the wall professionally. Maybe he was worn out, maybe bored. One thing he knew: He didn't want to be a scientist anymore.

"I left a thesis away from graduation," he says, still amazed at his decision. "My heart wasn't in it in the end."

He doesn't regret it, though. He has managed to combine a love of wine and food into a career he finds every bit as demanding as the cutting-edge world of genetics.

"This is a bigger challenge," Pellegrino says, sitting in the chic 100-seat restaurant he opened with co-owner Joel Shalowitz two years ago. "I really understand how to fix things in the kitchen. The best chefs understand molecules."

On a recent morning, Pellegrino, 35, is already at the restaurant by 9 a.m., waiting for a delivery of baguettes and cleaning up after a retirement party that ended at 1 a.m. By the looks of the disheveled back room, the guests had a great time.

Pellegrino, a burly, affable, dark-haired guy, is looking a little rumpled, too, in jeans, sandals and a wrinkled blue Polo shirt with a frayed collar. But, after all, it is early in the restaurant day.

While Pellegrino doesn't have formal culinary training, he's as comfortable coaxing a temperamental souffle as he is whipping up a silky beurre blanc in Corks' open kitchen.

He learned his skills on the job between his bachelor's and master's degrees in biology when a friend, a Culinary Institute of America grad, asked for his help at a swanky bistro in a New York suburb that drew the likes of David Letterman, Paul Newman and the late diplomat W. Averell Harriman.

Pellegrino quickly graduated from his specialties of french fries and wings for the guys in the frat house. On his first night at the restaurant, he was chopping vegetables, making elaborate sauces and learning the classical techniques of French cuisine.

"I did everything," he says, enjoying the memory of those 12- and 14-hour days. "I got a good education in a short amount of time."

But soon he was off to Boston College to work on his master's degree. It was there that he became fascinated with wines, reading books on the subject, keeping a journal and "basically drinking my way around the world."

"I still have my notes, like a good scientist," the 6-foot, 200-pound chef says with a laugh.

After he arrived at Hopkins, he involved friends and fellow students in wine tastings and discovered the Maryland Wine Festival. He hasn't missed one in 10 years. So, it only made sense for him to answer a classified ad for a wine-sales representative when he decided to leave school.

While selling wines in the Baltimore-Washington area, Pellegrino was spending weekends in Dewey Beach, Del., creating gourmet meals for appreciative guests at a communal summer house. One night Shalowitz joined the group for dinner. Both men expressed an interest in pursuing a food venture.

Shalowitz, with his master of business administration, was the perfect business cohort, Pellegrino says. "We call each other super geeks," he jokes. "We have five degrees between us."

The brainy partnership evolved into Corks, an elegant restaurant with a neutral color scheme and food that Pellegrino calls New American, or cuisine based on regional ingredients.

The menu, which changes often, recently featured such entrees as Roasted Free-Range Chicken With Green Polenta and Seasonal Succotash, and Grilled Yellowfin Tuna With Tomato-Pine Nut Compote.

But, as the name Corks implies, wine plays a major role, with various bottles being recommended for each dish.

"I want the restaurant to be a vehicle for wines," says Pellegrino, who shares kitchen duties with Tim Pritchett, formerly of Birds of a Feather in Fells Point, and other staff. "I do a lot of Maryland wine dinners. I really like to make people feel comfortable."

Corks is located at 1026 S. Charles St., 410-752-3810.

Pan Roasted Rockfish With Tomato Beurre Blanc, Wilted Greens and Corn Salsa

Serves 4

TOMATO BEURRE BLANC:

4 tomatoes, halved and roasted (see note)

2 bay leaves

10 black peppercorns

4 shallots, chopped

1/2 cup verjus (see note) or champagne vinegar

1 cup dry white wine

1 pound butter, cut into cubes and kept cold until use

CORN SALSA:

4 ears of corn, roasted (see note), husked and kernels cut off cob

1 red pepper, diced

1 red onion, diced

1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped

2 tablespoons cooking oil

ground cumin to taste

salt and pepper to taste

OTHER INGREDIENTS:

4 (8-ounce) rockfish fillets, skin on

salt and pepper to taste

2 tablespoons cooking oil

2 cups collards, cleaned and coarsely chopped

2 cups kale, cleaned and coarsely chopped

sprigs of cilantro for garnish

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