Baltimore food goes big time

Coverage: Local chefs Cindy Wolf and Spike Gjerde are chosen for a CBS segment on cooking.

January 17, 2001|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

America is finding out that you can dine in Baltimore without a bib and crab mallet.

Recently, the nation's food media have praised city candy makers, quoted Baltimore wine experts and noted new restaurants featuring Southern and ethnic cuisines. And last week, a CBS television crew was in town taping local chefs Cindy Wolf and Spike Gjerde as they shopped for groceries.

All without a mention of Old Bay.

"Baltimore has really changed from a crab shack to a bigger, more varied restaurant scene in the last two years," says Tanya Steel, a senior editor at Bon Appetit magazine, who names Charleston, Atlantic and Petit Louis as among the city's new restaurants worth national attention.

Getting the country to take notice hasn't been easy, says Gjerde, who has been trying for two years to get press for his Atlantic restaurant.

"We were starting at zero when it came to national press for the city and the dining scene," says Gjerde, co-owner of Spike & Charlie's Restaurant Group, which operates four restaurants in the city.

When Baltimore's cuisine was mentioned at all, it was only the crabs and maybe Lexington Market, he says. "I don't think anyone was scratching below the surface."

But Gjerde and other local chefs knew Baltimore had a more interesting and varied food story to tell.

Two years ago, a couple of them hired a Philadelphia public-relations firm specializing in restaurants to persuade food writers to come and experience Baltimore.

"In the beginning, we weren't get any success," says Peter Breslow, the public-relations consultant the chefs hired.

When he called his contacts in the national food media and told them they should check out Baltimore, they replied that they knew the city already - a town between New York and Washington that had a great baseball team and crab restaurants.

Breslow tried to convince them that they didn't know Baltimore at all.

"Very gradually the food press has started to come in," he says. "Things really started to warm up about six months ago."

Recent mentions in the national food media have included TV spots on the Admiral Fell Inn, Moore's Candies and Aldo's Italian restaurant and praise for Joy America CafM-i, Kali's Court, Louisiana, Petit Louis and Vespa in Nation's Restaurant News. National Geographic Traveler and Food & Wine magazine are planning future stories on the city's restaurants.

Food editors say that while Breslow was trying to sell them on story ideas in Baltimore, they began hearing from their own sources that Baltimore's food scene was worth noticing.

"We have staff that have gone down and really been impressed," said Dana Cowin, editor in chief of Food & Wine magazine.

The magazine wasn't looking to find here a restaurant like New York's famed Daniel, she said, but was looking for "a really talented cook doing something he or she is passionate about."

The magazine has found that in several of Baltimore's restaurants, which will be featured in future issues.

Steel believes Baltimore's restaurant scene is getting attention because chefs here are learning from their colleagues in bigger cities and because overall the restaurant industry is expanding. "Everyone's sophistication level has grown," she says.

While Baltimore is unlikely ever to rival New York or San Francisco for its food scene, "The Saturday Early Show" producer Jee Won Park said the city has a lot of potential. "There's something to be said about being the underdog," she said. "They have nothing to lose by being adventuresome."

Last week, Gjerde and Wolf proved they could be resourceful as well as adventuresome during the taping of the "Chef on a Shoestring" feature that will air on the "The Saturday Early Show" next month. (The episode with Gjerde is tentatively set to air Feb. 3; the show with Wolf is scheduled for Feb. 24.) Their challenge was to buy and prepare a meal for four for $20.

Park admits she was skeptical when Breslow first tried to persuade her to come to Baltimore.

"My initial reaction was, `Baltimore?' " says Park, who had never been to the city before last week's taping. She didn't even know if the Amtrak train would stop in Baltimore before she bought her tickets.

"To me it was this quiet suburban outskirts of Washington, D.C. What's going on there besides crab cakes?"

Usually the "Chef on a Shoestring" segment features New York chefs or West Coast chefs who are in New York promoting their cook- books. But after Breslow sent tapes of Wolf and Gjerde, Park decided they had the qualities she was looking for.

"The chefs I look for are beyond your general cookbook chefs," she said. "I want people who are doing some interesting stuff and are really passionate about what they're doing."

She first suggested that Gjerde and Wolf come to New York to shop for the meals they would prepare, but Breslow pointed out that Baltimore chefs should buy their ingredients in Baltimore.

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