Cindy Wolf earns nod from Beard foundation

Charleston co-owner nominated as best chef in the Mid-Atlantic


The James Beard Awards are the Academy Awards for the world of food, but they don't announce the nominees on the Today Show.

They send e-mails.

And if you are a busy chef, like Cindy Wolf of Baltimore's posh Charleston restaurant, you don't have time to check your e-mail, and it might be ages before you get around to seeing the printout left for you by a staff member.

"It was a Saturday morning and I was at my desk, on the phone, setting up an interview and I was in a hurry to get back to the stove," Wolf said. "I pulled my mail out of my mailbox and there was an e-mail addressed just to `Charleston Restaurant,' and it said something about James Beard."

FOR THE RECORD - Baltimore's Maison Marconi won the James Beard Foundation America's Classics award in 2002 for locally owned restaurants open at least 10 years. Because of incomplete information provided by the foundation, a story about the Beard awards in last Wednesday's Taste section did not include the award for Marconi's, which closed last year.
The Sun regrets the error.

She quickly concluded her phone call and read the e-mail over carefully, but was too excited to comprehend its message.

"I said to one of my staff, `I can't seem to concentrate. Does this say what I think it says?' "

It did.

Wolf has been nominated by the prestigious James Beard Foundation as "Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic," along with four others from Philadelphia and the Washington area. It is the first Beard nomination for Wolf, and the first for a Baltimore chef or restaurant.

"The nomination in itself is a very prestigious acknowledgment of the fact that Cindy has really helped put Baltimore on the map," said Barbara Fairchild, editor of Bon Appetit magazine and a member of the board of trustees of the Beard Foundation. (She does not vote in the awards.)

"When people travel, they will seek out these places," she said.

Once Wolf had digested the news of her nomination, the first thing she did was call her husband and partner, Tony Foreman, whose vision, along with Wolf's skills in the kitchen, has transformed Baltimore dining. In addition to Charleston, the two have opened Pazo, a high-end tapas restaurant, and Petit Louis, a French bistro in Roland Park. A fourth restaurant is planned for the fall.

Next this daughter and granddaughter of Mennonite butchers, who has wanted to own a restaurant since she was a little girl, called her parents.

She lists the opening night of Charleston - the coming-true of that dream - as her most wonderful professional moment. But telling her parents about the Beard nomination is right up there.

"I am so glad my parents are around for this," said Wolf, who has invited Robert and Jean Wolf to join her in New York on Monday night for the announcement of the winners. "I would like my father to see me win."

The only Marylander who has ever won a Beard award, according to Melanie Young of the foundation, is Monkton wine expert Robert Parker, who won for Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional in 1998.

Foreman, who is his wife's biggest booster, said the nomination is a validation of Wolf's devotion to her customers. "She doesn't have a cooking show and, no, she doesn't have a cookbook. But she cooks for her guests and somebody noticed."

The James Beard Awards, now in their 16th year, are named for the legendary cook, teacher and author, and the ceremony is held in New York.

There are 65 categories, including a new award for best food Web-cast; there is an Outstanding Chef award, a Rising Star Chef of the Year and awards for restaurants.

The eight regional Best Chef awards might best be compared to Best Supporting Actor, recognizing significant talent by location and voted on by the chefs' culinary neighbors.

Wolf has made her mark by preparing low-country Southern foods with French technique in tasting-sized portions.

Pairing the food with the wine selections of Foreman, a Baltimore native, Charleston is a dining experience as comfortable as Baltimore but as sumptuous as any culinary destination in the country.

Once diners step inside the frosted-glass doors of this Harbor East restaurant, they are in the pampering care of Charleston's highly trained staff.

The rooms are decorated in soft autumnal tones, each a little different but as comfortable as someone's living room. Wolf stands at the wide entrance to her open kitchen, checking each dish before it is served.

Her tasting menu is one a diner can wander through at will - there is no requirement that you choose one item from each course - and the perfectly composed miniature portions are so rich and full of flavor that Wolf's guests leave with the "sense of being satisfied" that is important to her.

A small helping of Carolina squab sits atop a mound of creamy polenta, a fresh, just-roasted plum garnishing the succulent sauce. A fried green-tomato sandwich with lobster-and-lump-crab hash - the dish Wolf says she most enjoys preparing - has just a hint of curry.

The experience comes at a price: the bill for two, with four courses and tasting wines to match, can easily top $250.

Wolf's success, Bon Appetit's Fairchild said, is a testament to her hard work "and the fact that she respects the area's ingredients and enhances them and gives them interesting twists. Her food has a familiarity, but it is also very modern."

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