Chef nourishes his Amish roots

Profile: At McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurant, Clair Epting blends his grandmother's recipes and techniques from an Old-World culture with demands of modern-day cuisine.

January 10, 2001|By Melissa Barbagallo | Melissa Barbagallo,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Unlike most master chefs, Clair Epting was not formally trained in culinary arts. He never even attended a cooking class.

Instead, his cooking instructor was his grandmother, and the classroom was their Amish kitchen in Pennsylvania, where Epting baked his first family suppers in a wood-burning oven.

Now an executive chef at McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurant in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, the soft-spoken Epting still incorporates Amish family recipes and techniques into his modern-day cuisine.

"According to my grandmother, every chore we did had a higher meaning. She'd tell me this long, elaborate story about why we were doing something and what made it important," he says as he pushes his wire-frame glasses up on his nose. "When we canned wax beans, we weren't just preparing for winter. We were saving in times of plenty for times of lean. My grandmother probably didn't know it then, but she was giving me a hidden course in financial management."

His grandmother's life lessons were undoubtedly borrowed from the cornerstones of Amish culture. An Old-World religious order concentrated locally in Lancaster County, Pa., the Amish stress humility, community and the importance of hard work. Although they segregate themselves from the outside world, they function as a tight-knit unit, working together to survive. As devout Christians, they interpret the Bible literally, but the Amish also practice their own folklore, especially in the kitchen.

"We had an entire line of herbal medicines growing in our garden - garlic cloves, basil cloves and special herbs," says the 50-year-old Epting. "We'd dry them for winter, and at the first sign of cold weather, we'd cook up a cold-preventing soup of those herbs to ward off the germs."

Epting also stresses the importance of balancing the table, a traditional Amish ritual that he uses even in cooking for his guests today.

"The right combination of sweet and sour keeps a meal from leaning too far to one side, and that's the key to a good dish," he says. "When a meal is equally balanced, there's less chance of anyone getting sick."

Epting reflects fondly on his first successful attempt at mastering these rules. At age 10, he baked an apple pie. Epting presented the dessert to his relatives after their particularly long day of farming.

"It was such a treat that night, especially when we had it with lots of milk and sugar. Even the elders got a kick out of it," he says. "No one seemed to squawk about not having roast beef."

Epting continued to study under his grandmother until he was 12. It was then his father made a decision that would change the family's life forever.

"One day he announced that we were leaving the order and moving to Philadelphia," says Epting. "Of all reasons, it was so he could be a race-car driver. I mean, we're Amish. We always had buggies!"

In 1962, the racing market was tight, so Epting's father instead found work as an auto mechanic. Epting, who is admittedly quite shy, found solace in his new world by studying the technology around him.

"These kitchen gadgets like toasters baffled me. We always had primitive equipment on the farm, and it took a long time for me to get accustomed," he says. "Even today, I'm a terror in the kitchen when it comes to appliances. I can barely put a plug into a socket."

It wasn't until Epting enrolled at the University of Delaware that he became truly comfortable in the kitchen again. To finance his studies in elementary education, he took on a part-time job in a nearby restaurant.

Schaefer's Canal House, a quaint seafood establishment nestled along the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, hired Epting as a prep cook. Within two days, he was bitten again by the cooking bug and had found his niche in local seafood.

"I had these amazing opportunities to work with classically trained European chefs from France, Germany and Italy. It was incredible. My plans of being a kindergarten teacher went out the window after that."

By the time he graduated, Epting had been promoted to line chef at Schaefer's, but he was ready to head somewhere new. On a whim, he moved to Louisiana to try his hand in Cajun cooking.

In New Orleans, Epting immediately began a three-year stint at Commander's Palace under renowned chef Paul Prudhomme. Prudhomme, whom Epting credits with bringing Cajun cooking to its modern state, refreshed Epting's memory regarding everything he had learned as a child with his grandmother.

"Paul quickly became my mentor. I realized immediately that he and my grandmother were on the same page," he says. "They both stressed how important it was to be ecological - something that I am very much today - and never to waste any ingredient. The similarities were uncanny, even though my grandmother taught me on a farm without electricity and Paul had a state-of-the-art modern kitchen."

Epting's enthusiasm for seafood took him next to Maine, where he studied New England cuisine in a tranquil seaside resort for five years.

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