Executive's Chef

David Hartung, who cooks meals for Gov. Ehrlich, remembers when Maryland's leader was just the kid next door.

March 19, 2003|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

ANNAPOLIS -- Governor Ehrlich -- right. Try that once more: Governor Ehrlich.

Forgive David Hartung if this takes getting used to, as the last time he and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. hung out the kid's name was Bobby and the town was Arbutus and the protocols somewhat less -- well, there were none. Much of a lifetime later, their divergent paths have crossed at Government House in Annapolis, where Ehrlich and his family now live and where Hartung works as a sous-chef.

"It's a funny situation. It's a small world. You never know who you're going to meet," says Hartung.

In the presence of others, if not one-on-one with the governor, certain proprieties have to be observed, he says.

"It's really tough calling him `Governor Ehrlich,' " says Hartung. "It's so weird to see him coming in the front door -- `Hey, it's Bobby.' "

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, Hartung and Ehrlich should wind up in these august surroundings. They hadn't seen each other in more than 30 years before that day in early December when Hartung strolled out of the Government House kitchen with a plate of cookies for the first lady, Kendel Ehrlich. There was old Bobby, er, Governor Ehrlich.

"I was just fighting back tears," says Hartung. "I'm very proud of him."

"I just couldn't believe it," says Ehrlich, who did not find out Hartung was on the kitchen staff until shortly after he had won the election. "He had been my best friend growing up in the apartments on Maiden Choice Lane."

Hartung made it to Government House some months ahead of his childhood buddy, having taken the job last May. He'll spend the immediate future of his working life tending to Ehrlich's culinary demands, which so far appear to be entirely reasonable.

"They're just regular eaters," says Hartung. "They eat healthy."

The Ehrlichs and their toddling son, Drew, only moved in at the end of January, so it's hard for Hartung and his fellow sous-chef, John Leszczynski, to say how the pattern of menus and mealtimes will take shape. At the moment, it's clear the Ehrlichs are not as particular about organic ingredients as Ehrlich's Democratic predecessor, Parris N. Glendening, but neither is it time to lay in a heavy supply of french fries, Krispy Kremes and burgers.

A couple of weeks ago, Maryland's first Republican governor since Spiro T. Agnew invited Hartung and Leszczynski up to his private dining room to talk about food. Seems the governor watches his fat intake the way his supporters anticipate he'll mind the state budget.

Make it mustard, not mayo, for instance. Make it pretzels, not potato chips, and keep a nice stock of salad greens on hand. For breakfast, make it fruit, yogurt and oatmeal. Hold the butter and cream sauces. Stick mostly to chicken and fish, but scratch the salmon. Try some Asian chicken dishes, especially Thai seasonings.

Much the same goes for Kendel Ehrlich, who shares her husband's athletic and fitness-minded tendencies. She'll occasionally have a glass of wine with a meal, but the governor is said to abstain.

With respect to fat and cholesterol, young Drew is another matter, as one might imagine. He's not quite 4 years old, after all, and has been known to go for chicken nuggets and pizza. Hartung figures they'll keep a supply of hot dogs.

"Any kid loves a hot dog," says Hartung. "I love a hot dog."

By his own description, Hartung would be remembered by the old Arbutus gang as the "short, cute fat kid."

In the 1960s his family moved from Baltimore to Arbutus, where the first neighborhood kid he remembers meeting was this boy about his age, Bobby Ehrlich.

"We used to sit on the steps and listen to the Orioles games on the transistor radio," says Hartung, who now lives in Annapolis. They spent a lot of time hanging out at the duckpin bowling alley, Fair Lanes, where Ehrlich's mother used to work.

In sports, Hartung could keep pace with Ehrlich sitting there on the steps with the radio, and Hartung was a more accomplished duckpin bowler. Otherwise, fugghedaboutit. Ehrlich -- who was to go on to earn sports honors at Gilman School, then play football at Princeton University before a knee injury in his senior year ended his playing days -- surpassed Hartung and many others in any sport he had a mind to play.

"He had the best two-hand set shot you'd ever seen in basketball," says Hartung.

They were schoolmates at Maiden Choice elementary and Arbutus Junior High School before their paths diverged.

Before Ehrlich was elected governor in November, he served in the U.S. Congress and before that the Maryland General Assembly. Ehrlich's mother, Nancy, has recalled that her son expressed an interest in politics when he was as young as 12.

Hartung had other ideas. Raised in a family of fine cooks, he always enjoyed the kitchen. After public high school, he studied a while at the Community College of Baltimore County, Catonsville campus, then switched to Baltimore International College to become a chef.

"I decided I'd go with my passion," says Hartung.

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