Last week, the James Beard Foundation named Baltimore chef Cindy Wolf among its semifinalists for the Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic award. It's not the first time she's been recognized by the foundation. Wolf was a finalist in the same category in both 1996 and 1998 for her Low Country cuisine backed by classical French training at her flagship restaurant Charleston. Now, nearly two decades later, both the restaurant and Wolf continue to get the accolades they did upon opening; as Baltimore Sun critic Richard Gorelick put it in his five-star re-review back in November, "There are no diminishing returns at Charleston."
In the following interview, Wolf tells Eater what it was like coming to Baltimore with her then-husband and current business partner Tony Foreman to open restaurants in a town where the 30-year-old Prime Rib was still the best dining option in town. She also talks about how Baltimore is about so much more than crabs and The Wire — and all the restaurant expansion that is happening there right now — including the very recent opening of a second location for her French bistro Le Petit Louis. Here now, the interview:
How is all the snow this Winter affecting your restaurants?
It's a shame because oftentimes it won't even snow and [diners] will start canceling their reservations. But having grown up in Indiana, we would have about 180 inches of snow fall a Winter, so we were used to snow on the ground from October to probably the beginning of May. You just learn how to deal with it. When I moved here, people were like, "Yeah, so we're going to cancel school because it might snow tomorrow." I'm like, "Cool." So, I wish I had grown up here.
What is it like running a restaurant when a snow storm can cancel everything like this? I feel like it's been such a bad year for everybody. Does it have an impact at all on restaurants when there's a storm like this?
This kind of storm today, it probably won't affect us at all. One, it's not sticking. I think also, because we've had so much snow fall this Winter, people are getting tired of being stuck inside so they're like, "I'm not going to cancel my plans because it might or might not snow." I think they're starting to get a little bit used to it and it's not as panicky.
Of course, when we had 12 inches of snow the other day which, of course, was the day before Valentine's, we had a state of emergency in Baltimore. We had to close all six of our restaurants the day before Valentine's Day. Of course, we all had tons of prep we had to get ready. Nevertheless, snow or no snow, thankfully on a big holiday like that, people tend to come out no matter what unless they literally can't get out of their house.
That's good that you were able to reopen in time.
Absolutely. I don't think [snow] has that much of an impact, but it can. That's why I tweeted, "Don't cancel your reservations, please." (Laughter)
So I wanted to talk to you about how you've seen Baltimore change over the years. What was the Baltimore dining scene like when you got started there?
This was the best restaurant in town. It was a steak house.
When Tony and I opened the first restaurant here — which we did not own, Savannah — he and I came from DC. I think what was happening in the restaurant community at that time, which would have been '94 or '95 probably, was that Tio Pepe and The Prime Rib were considered the best restaurants in town. The Prime Rib had opened in 1965, so if you're talking about in 1995, that's 30 years later. This was the best restaurant in town. It was a steak house. That was what was happening in the market.
I remember when Baltimore magazine or whoever was rating restaurants locally would come out. It was always Prime Rib and Tio Pepe were the best restaurants and then eventually Savannah got noticed. Well, rather quickly Savannah got noticed. We opened Savannah right around the time that, what was his name? Peter Zimmer. [He opened] Joy America Cafe. I think that the excitement over what he was doing, which was pretty innovative for Baltimore, what we were doing… I was doing Southern food which was something that was the beginning of that whole idea. The whole country was starting, there was some trend about this Southern fine dining, so that was exciting, what we were doing.
Charleston, Baltimore. [Photo: Facebook]
I loved what I was doing. It was great food to do and I liked the idea of, as Edna Lewis said, "preserving the pathways of Southern cooking." It was a pretty big deal to me, being involved in that. And at that time Michael Gettier had a restaurant in Fells Point. Nancy Longo had a restaurant in Fells Point. There was a female chef at the Harbor Court. Oh, and some lady opened a restaurant called The Wild Mushroom or something. I'm like "Wow. I'm coming from DC and there are more female chefs here than there were in DC." So that was kind of cool, to get to be a part of a culinary environment that was very female.
Why did you come to Baltimore?
My husband, Tony Foreman — we're no longer married, but we're business partners — he grew up in Baltimore. It meant a lot to Tony for us to come here and do something. He was very proud of Baltimore and very much wanted to be a part of doing anything to make his town a great place to be. That was really cool to me. I knew I wasn't going to be living where I grew up so, it was great for us to come here. Baltimore is a wonderful city. There is so much to offer.
I think coming in, all of my purveyors were local and then we started our relationships with the local farmers and that's just been incredible. I couldn't get crowder peas, which is one of the traditional beans used in Hoppin' Johns. The farmers had stopped growing them because there was no demand, and then as that Southern food thing erupted, Tony could say, "Hey, could you possibly grow some crowder peas for us?" And they're like, "Sure. Whatever you want." Our farmers grow fava beans. They weren't growing fava beans around here before we asked them to. It's just so exciting to have that relationship that has been established over many years with all the farmers, the purveyors, the people, to be a part of the community here.
I could put anything I wanted to on the menu here. People would eat whatever I made.
I mean, I haven't lived in DC since '93, but when I lived in DC, it didn't feel like a family-oriented community. Hopefully that's changed. Baltimore is a big family town. It's just been fun to come in. At Savannah, I started doing foie gras and I looked at Tony and I said, "Well, I want to work with it, I'm putting it on the menu," and he was like, "Of course, do it." I could put anything I wanted to on the menu here. People would eat whatever I made. People might have thought [Baltimore diners] wouldn't eat rabbit or venison but, anything I made, people ate. It's been very rewarding for me as a chef to be here.
Did that surprise you?
No, well, maybe a tiny bit. I just didn't know if people would want to eat food like that here. Maybe it is the fact that there are tons of farms around here and people around here go hunting. I think Baltimore gets such a rap as being a crab town, especially back then. There's so much to offer. Of course, we have great crabs here, which is fantastic, but there are a lot of people doing a lot of other kinds of food, including us.
I think that's interesting about what you say about Baltimore's reputation as a crab town. How do you think that dining there has evolved? Is the national perspective on Baltimore's food scene lagging behind what's actually happening there?
That's really hard for me to answer. I know that when I speak to a writer, no one asks me about crabs. (Laughter) We're talking about truffles or we're talking about local this, or whatever. No one is trying to push that on me when I talk to a national writer. What I'll say is I think Baltimore is an amazing city to be in. When you have a town where you have shows like The Wire [filmed here], maybe people make judgments about what the town is like. If that's a national TV show, maybe that's more in the spotlight than some of us local chefs doing whatever we're doing.
Sometimes I sense people are surprised a restaurant of Charleston's quality is in Baltimore, but they're happily surprised.
Sometimes I will get a sense that people are surprised that a restaurant that is the quality that Charleston is in Baltimore, but they're just happily surprised. I think we have a ways to go if writers would show what we're really doing. The more that people can be on national television or on a national stage, that's good for the town. It's good for the food. It's good for everything that has to do with the town.
Charleston, Baltimore. [Photos: Facebook]
Last Fall, Spike Gjerde told me it seemed like there was a lot of energy returning into Baltimore's dining scene right now. Do you see it that way, too?
Yeah, we've had a lot of restaurants open and people doing their own thing. Again, when I came here the whole ball game was Little Italy and Tio Pepe and Prime Rib and a few other restaurants. It's light years away from that. I'm not saying anything negative about the way it was so please don't misconstrue what I'm saying. I'm just saying that things have changed. That was 20 years ago, of course things have changed and people's interest and demand for food has changed.
I think also one of the things that have just happened in the restaurant scene is that smaller restaurants are opening, kind of like the little brew pub, or places like that that. That makes sense for Baltimore because we have all these wonderful, small communities. It's a very interesting, super cultural town and I think that that lends itself to having these little restaurants and places pop up, or some cool little coffee shop that didn't exist 20 years ago. You know those things are pretty special and need to be supported, and the community does that.
I think there is a food scene in Baltimore. When someone tried to get me to say that 15 years ago, I would have hesitated or I wouldn't have said it. But I do think that now there is a lot going on. There are a lot of people that are good chefs and trying to do cool stuff. We have a Four Seasons Hotel in Baltimore now. Michael Mina has two restaurants here. All these things contribute to the community.
And you guys are continuing to open new places. You just opened, earlier this month right, the new ...
Yeah, yeah. We have Petit Louis in Columbia now. It's the first time we've duplicated one of our concepts. We feel like it's something that hopefully a lot of people will enjoy. It's a little closer to DC and we have to draw from all the markets around there. To be on the lake is really cool and, oh, my gosh, it's so beautiful right now. It's frozen, has snow on it, and just imagine what it's going to be like this Summer with all the people and all the activities that they have there in the summertime. We're very excited to be there.
Also, you just got the semi-finalist nod from the James Beard Awards in the mid-Atlantic category. How was it finding out this time?
I'm always excited. I never know how it's going to go. (Laughter) It's absolutely an honor to be thought of. I work very hard and I have a very good kitchen staff. We've all worked very hard. The waiters work hard. I've had people working for me since the day I opened the restaurant 16 years ago. It's a great honor to be recognized for your work. That's how I feel.