Feeding Foodies

When a convention of culinary professionals comes to town, what's for dinner?

April 24, 2004|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

A lamb bone in his fingers, Donald Stern gestures with particular certainty, as one imagines Stern doing with many things. He has eaten in many places and of the flesh of sundry beasts - lion and bear, among others - and says he would, if his wife allowed, drive up and back from New Jersey to Bennington, Vt., just for breakfast at a particular diner. The breakfast at that diner should not be confused with the breakfast at another one in Jersey, the magnificence of which he considers "mind-boggling."

You can see, perhaps, what chef Barry Rumsey and his crew at the Bicycle restaurant are up against on this night, with the house full and just about every table jammed with people attending the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference, which ends its five-day run today at the Baltimore Convention Center. At stake: a shot at national publicity and the business boost it brings.

Perhaps not all these folks expound with quite the Trumpian assurance of this Donald, who was just saying, wielding a slender lamb bone in the fingertips of both hands: "The wonderful thing about this chef is he knows what to do with food."

A good quality in a chef, surely, or anyone who considers himself a food person, epicure, gourmet, foodie. Baltimore has played host this week to about 1,400 people who professionally know what to do with food. They cook it, write about it, publish material on it, photograph it, consult about it, advertise it, sell it and concoct ways to prepare it.

They eat it. Oh yes, they talk, talk, talk about it.

"Everybody at an IACP conference would talk food forever," says Sandy Dowling, who is in town from Oregon, where she runs a bed and breakfast and a cooking school.

The talk can lapse into deep analysis of seasonings and such, which can make eating with foodies rather trying. Pam Becker, a spokeswoman with General Mills in Minneapolis, recalls eating at a previous food conference with someone who "took a photo of every dish."

As Stern and eight companions settle in at the Bicycle, Dowling and Becker join five IACP fellows at a table at Della Notte in Little Italy, and another group of conferees takes seats at Mezze, a tapas bar adjoining the Kali's Court restaurant in Fells Point. It's all part of the conference agenda: a night out in one of 11 selected restaurants, chosen to represent some of the best of the new and more established places in Baltimore.

Della Notte, of course, doesn't look like Baltimore at all, but more like an Epcot Center notion of something vaguely Roman. Mezze affects a more modern Mediterranean feel, while the Bicycle might be the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

None of it is necessarily Baltimore in the Old Bay/crabs/Natty Boh sense, which delights some visitors, dismays others. "When I come to Baltimore, I expect crab cake," says Jody Shee, who edits a produce magazine in Kansas City and was somewhat taken aback by Mezze's chic small-plate presentations: tuna carpaccio, rainbow trout, chicken kebab, braised lamb.

On the other hand, Drew Spangler, a former chef, considers Mezze's offerings and says "If this is the kind of dining you have in Baltimore, I'd be happy to come back."

And she's from San Francisco. The conference has drawn people from all over the United States and an assortment of foreign countries for a few days of seminars, speeches and tours, peppered with the occasional culinary celebrity sighting. Jacques Pepin has been in town this week as have Anthony Bourdain and Bobby Flay.

At the Bicycle, the owners say one of Wolfgang Puck's sous chefs is in the house, sitting with the guy who owns the Honolulu Fish Co., one of the restaurant's suppliers. There's a table full of organic-food aficionados and a group from Food & Wine magazine. And the Donald, a tough crowd all by himself.

The retired supermarket executive and spouse of a cooking teacher/kitchen designer, he pronounces the red pepper bisque with crab "nothing," but considers the pan fried oyster salad "wonderful" and the petite lamb chop "delicious" in its flavoring, if a tad overcooked.

Jeffrey Wallace and his partner in the gourmet spice business, Robert Lack, beg to differ with Stern on the lamb, which they consider absolutely the best lamb they've ever had.

And they have had and had. Not least because expense accounts are wonderful things, as Wallace learned from that $3,500 meal for six some years back in Windows on the World. Or the $1,400 worth of after-dinner drinks and cigars Lack enjoyed at Sparks in midtown Manhattan.

Lack wonders aloud about the strangest thing his companions have ever eaten, volunteering his story about a fricasseed cock's comb he once ate outside of Vichy, France.

So, uh, how was it?

"A little chewy," says Lack.

Cock's comb might be a bit beyond Maria Stanley's adventure range, but the free-lance recipe developer from Detroit says the professional food person is inclined to try stuff.

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