From fantasy to reality: Chef fixes meal in woman's home

November 12, 2003|By Rob Kasper

IT WAS EVERY home cook's fantasy. You arrive home from work, and there, waiting in your kitchen, is one of the nation's top chefs who has prepared a spectacular meal.

One night last week, it was reality for Louise Keelty. In this case, reality didn't bite; it was a gustatory delight.

Rick Tramonto, executive chef at Chicago's Tru restaurant, hailed by Conde Nast Traveler as one of the Top 50 restaurants in the world, took over Keelty's North Baltimore kitchen. Along with his chef de cuisine, Jason Robinson, Tramonto produced a remarkable meal.

From the truffled stuffed rigatoni flavored with "orange dust" - the dried and pulverized zest of orange peels - and the rich-cured foie gras, onto the lobster bisque that was so full of flavor that you half expected the pieces of lobster meat to still be swimming, and the braised beef short ribs that were so tender you could cut them with a fork, and finishing with the chocolate gooey tart, this had a very good chance of being the best dinner ever served in a Baltimore home on a Tuesday night.

The dinner had been years in the planning. It started when Keelty, a local attorney, was the successful bidder two years ago for Tramonto's services in a silent auction benefiting the Family Tree, a Baltimore charitable organization that fights child abuse. When the bid and donations by diners invited to the feast were combined, almost $12,000 went to the charity.

Tramonto, named the best chef in the Midwest last year by the James Beard Association and the author of three cookbooks, said he flies around the country to cook meals at special events. Recently, for instance, he cooked for 600 people at a food-and-wine-festival weekend held in Disney World in Orlando, Fla.

The other night, in Baltimore, he fed 12. Sometimes, Tramonto said, when he feeds a small group, the host flies him to the venue in a private jet.

Keelty does not own a private jet, but she does have three cats - Tony, Tina and Spot - plus a large dog, Maddie. Tramonto and Robinson quickly became acquainted with Keelty's animal menagerie when the chefs arrived at her home. They had to clear some of the dog food out of the kitchen to get enough counter space to work.

Tramonto said that when he takes a job like this one, in a private home, among the first questions he asks are, "How many burners? How many ovens? Gas or electric?" At Tru, his 140-seat restaurant on Chicago's Near North Side, Tramonto has 24 burners and six ovens, all fired by gas. At Keelty's home he would be working with four burners, one oven and one toaster oven, all run by electricity.

Domestic ovens rarely put out the heat that commercial ovens are capable of producing, he said. So he carefully chooses his traveling menu, starts some of the dishes in his Chicago kitchen and ships his supplies so he won't have to shop.

"The truffled rigatoni and the smoked salmon travel well," said Tramonto, referring to two of the evening's three appetizers. Tramonto calls these morsels "amuse-bouche, little bites of delight," which is also the title of his latest book, Amuse-Bouche (Random House, 2002, $35).

Tramonto and Robinson "plated up" the amuse-bouche on a table they had set in Keelty's garage. The sight of two white-coated chefs standing in the garage a few feet from Keelty's bright red snowblower putting delicate dollops of creme fraiche on a plate next to carefully arranged dabs of osetra caviar struck me as unusual. But the chefs seemed to take it in stride.

"It is good to have the extra room," Tramonto said. Moreover, Tramonto also made use of the basement, where he said there was more room to do prep work as well as an extra refrigerator for storage.

The chefs commandeered Keelty's house on Monday and started working on the braised short ribs, which are cooked in wine and port for 12 hours, then boned. Nonetheless, the visitors found time to take a quick eating tour of Baltimore, polishing off crab cakes Keelty had fetched for them from Eddie's supermarket, then venturing down to the harbor for steamed crabs at Bo Brooks and raw oysters at Phillips.

"I like this town, its architecture, its feeling of history," Tramonto said.

He makes trips around the country, Tramonto said, both to promote his cookbooks and to support charitable causes. "This one," he said referring to the Family Tree's work in preventing child abuse, "is amazing."

Tramonto's culinary career started when he was a teen-ager flipping burgers at Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers in Rochester, N.Y., earning $200 for a six-day workweek. The son of two Italian immigrants, Tramonto went to work to help support his family after his father was sent to prison.

Eventually, he landed at Rochester's Strathallen Hotel, where he learned classic French cuisine and where he met Gale Gand, a pastry chef. The couple married, and after working at restaurants in New York, Chicago and London, returned to Chicago to open a trio of restaurants: Trio, then Brasserie T and, finally in 1999, Tru.

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