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Top Chef

Ten Years After Launching Her First Local Total Dining Experience, Cindy Wolf Is Still Experimenting

Sam Holden

By Anisha Jagtap | Posted 12/12/2007

"I like to cook everything but my favorite is foie gras," says local chef and entrepreneur Cindy Wolf. "I love all birds. In fact, I am going to serve partridge tonight. I am also putting local baby Brussels sprouts, peaches, apples, and Bartlett pears on the menu."

Dressed in a crisp white chef coat and classic houndstooth pants, chef Wolf, 43, with her blonde hair slicked back and wearing studious glasses, greets her interviewer with poise and confidence. She takes a seat amid the white tablecloth dining room of her Charleston restaurant in Harbor East. The room is set and ready for dinner service, the tables dressed in fine china, wine glasses and, silverware on the ready, and Wolf's seal--her signature--in sight. Through the windows you can see boats in the Inner Harbor.

This setting is the sort of unique experience that Wolf's passion and extensive knowledge of fine cuisine strives to create, and that skill has forged arguably the most highly regarded restaurants in Baltimore. This month, Wolf and her Charleston Group celebrate 10 years of bringing their restaurant expertise to local diners.

Wolf's journey began at her childhood dinner table. "I grew up eating really good food at home and really good food at family gatherings," she says of her coming up in a Pennsylvania Dutch household where she was exposed to the fresh farm foods on limited resources. "Frankly, our lives revolved around food."

Influenced particularly by her mother's seasonal cooking and father's restaurant background--as a vice president of both the Hardee's and Ponderosa chains--Wolf started to dream about owning her own restaurant. "It's in my blood," she says. "My mom, my grandmother, and all of my mom's sisters were all very good cooks. I grew up in a household where my mom cooked seasonal food . . . My parents are almost 80 years old. They are from a time period where all you had was what was in season."

At the beginning of the 1980s, Wolf started pursuing a degree in business management at a local college but left after her first year to follow her passion in food. At the time, her parents had just moved from northern Indiana to Charleston, South Carolina. "Charleston is a great restaurant town," Wolf says. "I did an apprenticeship in a kitchen in Charleston and happened to work with some extremely talented people."

She quickly realized that she wanted to work in the "back of the house," as she says--in the kitchen. Following her apprenticeship at Silks in the Planters Inn, Wolf visited Europe for a couple of months, after which she decided to attend the Culinary Institute of America in New York, entering in 1985.

"At that time, the foundations of the school were classic French principles and Escoffier's principles," Wolf says. "The education was everything I wanted it to be. It was a very sort of classic education, but for me that was perfect because I love French food."

She excelled in French cooking and her interest grew into a strong love for its culture and cuisine. Wolf was one of only a handful of women in her 1987 graduating class. Within five years of graduation, she became a professional chef. "I had my first chef's position at 25 years old and that's very unusual," Wolf says assuredly. "And I'm a woman."

The young chef Wolf excelled at running a kitchen, but she soon realized she lacked experience running a restaurant. "I had worked in very good fine-dining restaurants, had background in fine dining food, but all the restaurants were small," she says. She moved to Washington, D.C. in 1990 to join Capital Management Corp., a successful regional restaurant group known to implement unique dining concepts. "I learned a lot about business from my father and I sort of furthered that by working for a corporation," she says.

Toward the end of her three and a half year stay with the company, Wolf helped open a new restaurant concept in 1993, Georgia Brown's, a restaurant known for the "low-country cuisine" of South Carolina. She created the menu items with the influences of her Southern background.

And if it wasn't for Georgia Brown's, Wolf would have never met her future husband, Tony Foreman, the restaurant's manager. Prior to working at Georgia Brown's, Foreman attended the Colmar School in France to complete sommelier training. Wolf and Foreman were both integral parts in the restaurant's development and success. Responsible for both the dining room and kitchen operations, their budding relationship was only the beginning of what Wolf and Foreman were about to create.

They moved to Baltimore in 1994. After getting married, the newlyweds opened Savannah in 1995. For Savannah, located at the Admiral Fell Inn, Wolf created upscale Southern cuisine using traditional flavors influenced by her South Carolina upbringing. She changed the menu periodically to incorporate seasonal, local products.

Duff Goldman, the mind behind Charm City Cakes, started his first baking position at Savannah. "He came to me without any cooking experience," Wolf says. "And he really had the enthusiasm to cook, so I let him make the cornbread and biscuits."

The restaurant became the city's premiere destination with the reputation of giving its patrons a truly unique experience. The restaurant's motives were well thought out and conveyed upon entering the establishment. Meticulous table service and the noteworthy cuisine set the tone for diners waiting to sample what Wolf had to offer. It soon became a dining destination.

Savannah's success encouraged Wolf and Foreman to follow their dream. In 1997 the duo opened the Charleston restaurant with the help of investors and formed the Charleston Group. Located in Harbor East, the Charleston is sophisticated and charming: the frosted door with executive chef Cindy Wolf's signature greets you as you enter and embark on a journey into her creative mind. She designs a changing, improvisational menu using seasonal, local ingredients that emphasizes the importance of using natural, fresh product.

Scanning the dining the menu for this evening, it was hard not to be impressed with the inviting descriptions and flavors of each dish. Wolf puts her culinary ambition into every menu item. "Improvisational dining is the concept at the heart of the menu format, which balances heavy and light preparations and allows each guest to dine according to their own preferences," Wolf says.

With this vision, Wolf set herself apart from her peers. And the James Beard Foundation, a nonprofit organization promoting the culinary arts, recognized Wolf as a nominee for Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic region in 2006 for the Charleston. In the restaurant industry, some consider a James Beard Award one of the highest honors granted to chefs across the country.

Spurred by Wolf's love for French cuisine, the Charleston Group opened Petit Louis in 2000, a quaint, French-style bistro in Roland Park. Wolf appointed James Lewandowski as executive chef to develop a menu true to French classics--such as croque monsieur, onion soupe gratinée, and duck confit. Wolf describes the menu simply as "feel good food." "Basically, we cook foods that have been cooked in French homes and bistros for over 200 years," Lewandowski says.

Foreman had something more grandiose in mind than a modest French bistro for the Charleston Group's next project. He wanted to design a place where people could express themselves. The result was Pazo, a Mediterranean tapas restaurant launched in 2005. "This was a dream of Tony's," Wolf says.

The lavish décor and majestic open kitchen create an inexplicable sensation that can only be surpassed by the cuisine. Executive chef Michael Costa constructed an inventive menu, explaining his choices as "rustic, hedonistic food inspired by the regional traditions of old Catalonia, Southern Italy, Sardinia, and the Spanish Islands."

Using fresh, local ingredients, Costas takes pride in making everything in house including the bread, headed by baker Dale Dugan. Unlike Wolf's other restaurants, Pazo has a youthful aura that emphasizes nightlife.

Most recently, Wolf and the Charleston Group opened Cinghiale this fall, a restaurant focusing on simplistic, Northern Italian cuisine. The Cinghiale menu includes cured meats, fresh salads, and, of course, cinghiale (boar). The new restaurant consists of an enoteca, a wine library, and an osteria, a tavern with wine as the main attraction.

"Cinghiale is a place to have a glass of wine, hang out with friends, and enjoy the Italian lifestyle," Wolf says. The new establishment embodies her sophistication and professional style with the clean lines and artistry and well-trained staff. And since the restaurant has opened, the menu has evolved greatly upon the arrival of a new chef, Julian Marucci, who had previously worked with Wolf at the Charleston.

Cinghiale is but the latest in Wolf's restaurants that epitomize refined dining. All operations are intricately thought out and well-planned. Employees undergo intense training on wine pairings, serving etiquettes, and the menu including exams.

"We are constantly training staff," Wolf says. "Anyone that works for me must have a great attitude and the desire to learn. I am responsible for all my chefs' success." She expressed the importance of staffing and training as a key to her accomplishments, and assures that this full-dining experience concern will continue throughout her new and existing restaurants.

In her down time--when not, you know, overseeing a small local restaurant empire--Wolf started a blog (chefcindywolf.blogspot.com) to start a conversation with fellow food enthusiasts. It's all part of continuing Wolf's lasting imprint on Baltimore dining and her constant search for making it better. "I am always looking for fresh food right out of the field," she says. "I am pushed hard to become better all the time." H

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