At the chef's table

Their home kitchens may not be as busy as their restaurants, but these cooks make the space their own

  • A country French table with ladder-back chairs overlooks chef Cindy Wolf’s kitchen, part of the sun-filled 1930s Ruxton home she bought four years ago. With its six-burner Viking range and Sub-Zero fridge, the kitchen has professional equipment but a homey feel.
A country French table with ladder-back chairs overlooks chef… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
November 23, 2010|By Laura Vozzella, The Baltimore Sun

They can be home to the newest gee-whiz cooking gadgets or treasured hand-me-down copper pots. Impeccable order or funky clutter. Luxury and style in the form of reclaimed Roman floor tiles, or no-frills functionality like a roll of plastic wrap mounted above a doorway.

Several Maryland chefs gave Sun Magazine peeks inside their home kitchens: Cindy Wolf of the Baltimore restaurant empire made up of Charleston, Cinghiale, Pazo and Petit Louis; "Top Chef" runner-up Bryan Voltaggio of Volt in Frederick; Gayle Brier-Billebault of Bonjour French Bakery & Cafe in Mount Washington; and Thomas Rudis of Golden West Cafe in Hampden.

As different as their owners' respective restaurants, two of these private kitchens have something in common: not a lot of cooking goes on there, at least not by the resident chefs, who dine at home as little as once a week. Only Brier-Billebault, whose cafe serves dinner just one night a week, and Rudis, who does the early-morning baking at Golden West, regularly dine in.

What cooking the chefs do at home tends to be simpler than their restaurant fare.

"We're not making foam air in the kitchen," said Jennifer Voltaggio, referring to the molecular-gastronomy magic her husband performs at Volt.

But simple is in the eye of the beholder.

Voltaggio, for instance, plates even the most basic family fare with an artistic swirl of sauce. Wolf may be content to sup on potato gratin, but one made with farm-fresh potatoes, artisanal cheese and a celebrated Vermont butter.

"If I have some eggs, cheese, potatoes, butter and olive oil, I can pretty much make anything," said Wolf, ticking off nearly the entire contents of her immaculate Sub-Zero fridge. "And if I drink some champagne with it, it's all good."

When Wolf bought her 1933 Ruxton home, it came with a marble-topped island, six-burner Viking range and country French cabinets. All she did was paint walls, install elegant faucets and remove curtains.

"I can't take responsibility for anything," she said. "I just use it well."

Wolf did renovate an adjoining butler's pantry, adding a large sink, a teak countertop, a mud-set floor made of reclaimed Roman tiles, a double-decker stainless-steel Delfield refrigeration unit and open cabinetry for glassware. ("Then the glasses don't smell like paint," which she said is the case with closed cabinets.)

She likes this mix of sturdy professional equipment and warmer materials that wouldn't stand up to daily restaurant use. Which is why she also stows pots, pans and utensils out of sight, while in her restaurants they hang overhead for the sake of speed.

At home, she said, "I'd rather have open space."

Voltaggio has no trouble keeping the commercial-kitchen elements at bay in his private kitchen, which feels more homey than restaurant-y. On the second floor of a 10-year-old Frederick townhouse, it has cream appliances, Formica counters and a chocolate tile backsplash that Voltaggio installed himself. The tile work is almost perfect — damnable praise to the perfectionist chef, who is quick to point out minor flaws.

On the far side of the kitchen are a chrome-edged 1950s table and chairs that once belonged to his wife's great-grandmother. Above the table hangs a George Nelson saucer pendant lamp. On the wall are two green Marimekko pear prints.

"I like some things that are retro and fun," Jennifer Voltaggio said.

It is a bright, cheery space that opens to a family room with a basketball hoop for 3-year-old Thacher and a couch where Bryan crashes after work. Nothing about it screams, "celebrity chef" — until Voltaggio pulls out the gadgets.

There's a $700 thermal immersion circulator for sous vide, a cooking method that calls for plunging plastic-sealed foods in a water bath. And a gun that burns wood chips for smoking foods.

That is not to say the Voltaggios usually eat cutting-edge family dinners. The chef is at Volt all but one night a week. His wife usually makes a basic meal for herself and Thacher, with leftovers for Voltaggio to have after work.

When he does cook at home, Voltaggio also keeps it simple but plates whatever he's making with style.

"Even the simple things, there's always a sauce or polenta and [protein] laid on top," Jennifer Voltaggio said. "We don't separate things into piles — unless I'm cooking."

Brier-Billebault's kitchen, in a 1920s Guilford home, has a mix of sleek professional equipment and personality. There's a stainless DCS range with a hood that "sounds like a 747." And a stone wall that was the back of the house before the previous owner put on a kitchen addition.

Brier-Billebault cut part of the maple cabinetry away to create an open slot for big sheet pans. She also built a pantry for pans, including a copper set her late father-in-law used in his Parisian boulangerie.

A marble-topped breakfast table comes in handy for big dough projects, like ravioli-making.

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