A Taste For Living

Cindy Wolf battled cancer while building her reputation as a top chef. At last, she can breathe a little more easily.

July 16, 2000|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

It is a good time to be Cindy Wolf.

Her latest restaurant, Petit Louis, a French bistro in Roland Park, is a huge success. Lines for dinner start at 6 p.m. No fewer than 250 meals have been served each night since the restaurant opened last month.

It's like lightning striking twice because Wolf's other restaurant, Charleston, has already established itself as one of Baltimore's most highly regarded fine-dining venues. Rave reviews, scores of regular customers, national notice all have followed since the restaurant opened its doors in December 1997.

Competitors marvel at the 35-year-old's success -- artistically and commercially. She is famously demanding on her staff and on herself. She's happily married to her business partner, Tony Foreman, whose equally hard-charging personality, encyclopedic knowledge of wine and hospitality skills seem a perfect complement to her own.

And best of all -- unquestionably best of all -- the bad dream is over.

Gone are the days of chemotherapy and surgery and radiation. No more getting sick. No more terror -- not so much for her life but that she might fail her investors, her husband, her staff, her family.

Even today, relatively few people appreciate the burden she carried silently for months. That's how she wanted it. But her battle with breast cancer -- the time she calls "the bad dream" -- is past, and she can talk about her life without getting tearful. And crying openly has never been a favorite Wolf pastime.

"I can't believe it happened to me. It feels very far behind," says Wolf. "Am I different today? I'm happy to be alive -- not that I wasn't before -- but I'm thankful. I just hope to God it doesn't happen again. "

Rooted in the business

Born in Virginia and raised in Rocky Mount, N.C., until age 9 and then in northern Indiana, Wolf is more easily defined by temperament than by region. She is some combination of north and south -- a southern charmer with cropped blond hair who can be a Yankee drill sergeant in the kitchen. One moment, she is smiling and warmly introduces herself to a young, new employee. The next she chides a prep worker for chopping vegetables too slowly.

In her kitchen, Wolf insists on being addressed as "Chef." Even her husband does so -- maintaining a level of professional respect that tends to surprise newcomers. Like her staff, she's always dressed in a chef's white coat. No T-shirts. No shorts. No exceptions.

That's a far cry from her first job as a 16-year-old waiting tables at a Mennonite restaurant the summer before her senior year in high school.

To some degree, food was already in her blood. Her father, Robert F. Wolf, was an executive for the Hardee's fast-food chain and, later, the Ponderosa chain of steakhouses. He was the third generation in the meat business, descended from a line of sausage-makers in York, Pa.

But Cindy wasn't expected to go into the business. Her parents thought she would be a teacher. She didn't cook much at home. That was her mother's province. Cindy liked to dine out -- as the family often did when they traveled. She was a people person, a bright, energetic, upbeat extrovert who also inherited her father's work ethic and steely will.

"She determines what she wants to do. She grabs hold of it and goes," says Robert Wolf, 73, semi-retired in Pinehurst, N.C. "I was initially unhappy with her decision. In the food business, it's your life. You don't get to get up at 9 a.m. and decide today you're going to play golf. But she was determined, and that was that."

Started in South Carolina

She was a business major at the University of Evansville when she decided to become a chef. So at age 19, she began on an appropriately low rung -- prepping food at Silk's, a top-flight restaurant in Charleston, S.C.

In 18 months, she worked practically every job in the kitchen and impressed management so much they offered her the restau-rant's top post, a stunning achievement. But Wolf declined. She knew she wasn't ready. Instead, she entered the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., for its prestigious two-year academic program.

In 1987, after four years working for another well-regarded Charleston chef, she moved to Washington, D.C., hoping to work for one of the city's great kitchens. Initially, she was unsuccessful. A three-month job at a top Washington hotel proved a sad reminder that hers was still a male-dominated, egotistical profession. At one D.C. venue, she found herself doing most of the work of a lethargic male head chef -- hardly the learning experience she had wanted.

Frustrated, she decided to change course. She went to work for a company now called Capital Restaurant Concepts Ltd., which owns a chain of restaurants. She started out as chef at a Paolo's in Georgetown. The experience taught her more about the business side of restaurants than she'd ever been exposed to.

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