Chef's Surprise

Caterer Jerry Edwards brings his innovative style - and a new chicken-salad recipe - to the Woman's Industrial Exchange.

November 02, 2005|By STEPHEN G. HENDERSON | STEPHEN G. HENDERSON,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Is that fresh pear or city chartreuse?" asks Jerry Edwards, as he paces about the Woman's Industrial Exchange.

It's a few days before the Baltimore landmark's restaurant reopens under Edwards' management and the chef appears rather dazed by a vibrant green color his in-house designer, Travis Lee Moore, selected for what were the restaurant's formerly gray walls.

"We were dying when Travis first put it up," Edwards says with a smile. "But we needed a color attack here."

Attack is a favorite word of his; infuse is another. Both words suggest that change - whether by assault or osmosis - is coming. And make no mistake: Change has come to the Exchange and its restaurant that reopened this week under the name Chef's Express.

"This space used to be a little off-putting, like a grandmother's quilting bee," Moore says. "We've grooved it up, made it more eclectic so that it's a good background for Jerry's food."

Think of it as the beginning of the "Edwardsian" era.

Edwards, 46, lives in Timonium, and has two daughters: Amanda, 21, who works for an insurance firm in Towson; and Stephanie, 18, a freshman at Radford University in Virginia. Edwards is a man of modest height, but impressive girth. On this day, he is wearing an orange silk shirt that strains against his large waist so that he resembles a peripatetic pumpkin. His size, hints Edwards, is proof of his professionalism.

"I always say you can never trust a thin chef. Why? Because to stay skinny, they all smoke cigarettes. And if you smoke, how can you really taste food?"

His wife, Julie Brown-Edwards, who jokingly refers to her husband as "Mr. Picky," will sometimes pat his large stomach and say, "There's a really, really big investment in here."

Edwards intends to manage that investment more carefully, and brags he's just hired a personal trainer for three sessions of "joy" every week. "She told me it was all about diet," he says, and then laughs loudly. "I said to her, `Do you know what I do for a living? I eat!' "

It's all he's ever wanted to do. Edwards grew up in Philadelphia, where his grandmother, Lucy, lived nearby. His earliest memories are of spending days in her kitchen, learning to cook Italian specialties like ravioli.

"At age 6, he was sitting at her counter, kneading dough and making pies," says Edwards' mother, Bobbie. "She taught him how to make a really good meatball."

"There was always a big pot of tomato sauce on Grandma's stove," Edwards says. "She called it `gravy.' "

When he was 12 years old, Edwards developed rheumatoid arthritis. Bedridden for nine months, he spent this time watching chefs like Graham Kerr and Julia Child on television, and compiled a thick notebook of ideas and recipes. After he recovered, he began inviting his friends from the Little League baseball team (Edwards was catcher) for dinner.

He moved to Baltimore in 1977, graduated from Dulaney High School and attended Towson State College. While an undergraduate, he worked at Lee's Ice Cream Factory as it expanded into other businesses like a delicatessen and bakery.

Early venture

Degree in hand (he'd completed a double major in business and psychology), Edwards took over a failing lunch restaurant in a Towson office building where his father worked. Only after signing the lease did the neophyte realize he didn't know what the rent was.

"The cupboards were bare, there was nothing but a moldy meatball on the floor, but it was fantastic! I had my own business!" he says. Edwards attempted to transform the sandwich stand into a gourmet takeout business.

"I thought it was the next new thing," he says. "But Baltimore wasn't ready yet." While takeout orders for rockfish with beurre blanc sputtered along, a catering sideline took off.

Today, Edwards has a full-time staff of 15 (and more than 100 more working part time) and a business that grosses nearly $3 million annually. He is the exclusive caterer at the Ladew Gardens Cafe, is in the final stages of opening a restaurant with the Baltimore Opera Company and is the "preferred" caterer at Top of the World.

Less successful was Red Tapas at the Redwood Trust, a foray that Edwards says came to a hasty end because he felt unsafe in the space.

While he expends considerable time and energy on these sideline ventures - he also teaches cooking classes, writes stories for Catersource magazine and arranges wine-tasting dinners at spots like Carroll Mansion and Chase Court - Edwards never forgets that 65 percent of his annual revenues comes from weddings. He estimates that he's catered more than 3,000 in the past two decades.

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