For tasty soup, add a pinch of Brokke advice

November 05, 2003|By Rob Kasper

THERE ARE three kinds of soup eaters in Baltimore, says Wayne Brokke.

There are folks who prefer their soup steaming hot. The favorite soup of those who like it hot is either a broth or chicken-corn chowder, he says.

Secondly, there are those who think a soup tastes its best after it has been around for two or three days, and the flavors have a chance to blend. Those who believe in the power of blending like Russian cabbage soup, he says. Finally, there are those who prefer soups that have been made fresh that day. Brokke places himself in that category. He likes the vegetables in his crab soup to be crisp, not mushy. Bean soup also tastes best on the day it is made, Brokke says. It gets too thick after sitting for a day or two.

There is some overlap in these groups. Maryland crab soup lovers, for instance, fall into all three categories, he says. Some like it hot. Some like it several days old. Some prefer it freshly made.

When Brokke talks, many soup sippers drop their spoons and pay attention. He started selling soup in 1978 when he opened the Soup Kitchen in the 1000 block of S. Charles St.

Back then, he says, that section of Federal Hill had more hillbillies than yuppies, but soon lines of well-dressed customers formed outside the restaurant to sample its simple fare of soup, salad and dessert.

A few years later, Brokke opened a second Soup Kitchen in the then-brand-new attraction known as Harborplace. He closed the Charles Street location in 1988, and devoted his time to the Harborplace restaurant, which, along the way, changed pavilions and added pulled pork sandwiches to its menu.

Over the years, Brokke's Maryland crab soup has pleased both professional judges (including me) and the soup-sipping public who have awarded the soup top honors seven times at the Old Bay Soupstakes, an annual crab soup competition held at Harborplace.

Last year, after 22 years in Harborplace, he closed his restaurant. His decision was based both on unhappiness over the rent he would have to pay to stay in Harborplace, he says, and also on his feeling that he wanted to do something new.

"I didn't want to end up at the age of 80 saying, `Would you like a table for two?' then dropping dead," Brokke says. "At 54, I wanted to go in a new direction ... to get another chance to do this thing called living." Lately, Brokke has been doing some restaurant consulting work, and he has been promoting his book, I Can Cook, You Can Cook! (Overlook Press, 2003, $25). The book is a collection of recipes of the dishes he made while appearing on the Friday segment of WBAL's noon news show.

He learned to cook by watching his mother, Rose, his aunts and other family members who took him into their East Baltimore kitchens. He grew up as one of four children in a Polish/German household in Sparrows Point, where his father, Olaf, worked as an electrician in the then-thriving Bethlehem Steel operation.

After graduating from Sparrows Point High School, he worked at Hess Shoe stores on Reistertown Road and in Cross Keys, and pursued a degree in philosophy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. In 1976, he won a lottery for a $1 house on Hill Street in the Otterbein neighborhood and moved there.

He bought the spot for the Soup Kitchen, 1026 S. Charles St., for $2,500. Vagrants had lived in the building, he said, and kept themselves warm in the winter by burning wood in a barrel placed in the middle of what, after some $80,000 worth of renovations, would become the restaurant's dining room. Brokke still owns the space. Corks restaurant is there now.

Brokke, who divides his time between an apartment in Charles Village and an apartment in New York, said he likes the stimulation and convenience of city living.

I interviewed him at Coffee Coffee shop on the first floor of the Munsey Building at Calvert and Fayette streets, a former downtown office building that has recently been turned into apartments.

After the interview, Brokke and I got a look at a model apartment. Taking in the sweeping view from the 17th floor, Brokke told Scott Freeman, the Munsey's assistant property manager, "If you get a bakery and a movie within walking distance, I'm here."

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