New chef to keep restaurant cooking

Chef: Michael Gettier takes the long and winding road to Peerce's Plantation.

March 20, 2000|By Rob Kasper | Rob Kasper,SUN STAFF

A vintage restaurant, Peerce's Plantation in Phoenix, has a new home-grown chef, Michael Gettier. The matchmaker was Michael Rork, chef and owner of the Town Dock restaurant in St. Michaels, who came across the Bay Bridge to help stop another landmark restaurant from going out of business.

On Gettier's first day at his new restaurant last week, he sat out on the patio with his new bosses and his pal Rork, soaking up the sunshine, taking in the view of the shimmering waters of Loch Raven Reservoir, telling tales of restaurant life. Gettier, 42, who grew up in Baltimore, told of the journey that had taken him to Peerce's.

The timing of Gettier's move to Peerce's was propitious because the chef had recently closed his own restaurant, the old Orchard Inn, a well-regarded but financially troubled 260-seat operation in Baltimore County. Peerce's Plantation, a 63-year-old, family-run enterprise that had grown from a fried chicken stand to one of the area's premier restaurants, has recently gone through rough times as well. Last October the restaurant filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, hours before a scheduled foreclosure auction. The restaurant has continued to operate. In an effort to get the place back on its feet, Rork agreed to help owner Peerce Lake search for a new chef.

Rork undertook the chef search as a favor "restaurateur to restaurateur" to Lake. But, he said, he also did it for himself. "I think of Busch's in Annapolis and Haussner's," Rork said, mentioning the names of some recently departed area restaurants, "and it makes me sad. I hate to see old restaurants close."

When Gettier learned that Rork was conducting the search, he rang up his old friend.

The two chefs had known each other since the late 1980s, when they were cooking up a storm, bringing national culinary honors to their respective hotels, Gettier at the Peabody Court in Mount Vernon, and Rork at Harbor Court in the Inner Harbor.

This week Gettier recalled the night years ago that Rork had bailed him out of a caviar crisis. "A guest had requested caviar," Gettier recalled, "and he wanted it right away. We didn't have any, so I called Michael and asked if he had any he could sell me. Michael said he was down to seven kinds of caviar, but he could spare some."

Rork said he was delighted when Gettier had called him expressing interest in the Peerce's job. "It was a win-win situation," Rork said. "Peerce's needed a good chef, and Michael was available. Michael can get good food on the table. And when that happens, good things will follow."

Gettier said that while he would probably make additions to the Peerce's menu, there are certain dishes he isn't going to change. "The rack of lamb with mustard and bread crumbs, the smoked salmon appetizer, the crab cakes, those are very popular and very well done," he said.

"My role is not to come in and make sweeping changes," said Gettier, who is executive chef. "My role is to come in and help restore the luster."

Duff Lake and Peerce Lake Jr., sons of the owner, are staying on as assistant chefs, said Sandy Kautz, operations manager of the restaurant. Marti Lake Campanella, daughter of the owner, will continue to oversee catering.

Instead of saying that he was going to cook "French food" at Peerce's, Gettier preferred to say he was bringing a "French approach to cooking." He elaborated, saying the French approach "is a way you apply heat to food. You use leeks and onions and garlic, and lighter sauces and incredibly fresh ingredients."

It is a style of cooking he learned as a student at La Varenne in Paris back in the 1980s. "We cooked a lot. We ate what we cooked. Then we sat down with the chef and talked about what we cooked. There was a lot of concern if there was a touch too much salt in the cheese souffle." Nowadays students in American culinary schools seem to be missing this "touch and taste" part of the training, Gettier said.

Before he went to Paris, Gettier went to Roanoke College in Salem, Va. Before that he went to high school at St. Paul's in Baltimore County. During his time in high school he visited Peerce's Plantation, after his high school prom.

"It was either my junior or senior prom, I can't remember which one," Gettier said. "I think I also came here once or twice as a kid, with my grandparents. It was probably on a Sunday. I was dressed up."

He noted that prom season, along with Kentucky Derby Day, Mother's Day, Father's Day and other big business days, would soon be upon the restaurant. So after the gab session broke up, Gettier got to work. He walked around with Tom Flynn, a veteran Peerce's waiter, and made himself familiar with the nooks and crannies of the quirky, sprawling restaurant.

Recalling the place he visited as a boy, the chef remembered a restaurant "that was everybody's favorite." Lately several of these old favorites have died. But this one, it seems, has found a breath of new life.

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