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Local chef brings unique flavor to Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival

Chef Brett Arnold knows the name of his Glenwood restaurant can lead diners who are unfamiliar with his casual American fare to assume he runs a barbecue joint.

While it's true that Smokin' Hot Bar and Grille makes a dozen barbecue sauces and sells a lot of smoked chicken wings — more than 5,000 the day the Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII — there's more to the eatery than the name suggests.

The restaurant offers entrees that include seafood, beef, pasta and, as an occasional special, lamb.

With the 41st annual Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival scheduled next weekend, May 3 and 4, Arnold is thinking more about lamb dishes than he usually does.

The chef will give the first-ever cooking demonstration at the event, which is sponsored by the Maryland Sheep Breeders Association and attracts 50,000 visitors to the Howard County Fairgrounds.

While there will be sheep to pet and wool and other products to buy from more than 250 vendors, it's easy for the average fairgoer to forget that lambs are also raised for their meat, Arnold said.

"People are so removed from the food they eat that they don't realize it was on the hoof last week," said Arnold, who will butcher a lamb in advance in preparation for his demonstration at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, May 3.

Flipping through a notebook in a corner booth at the restaurant, Arnold runs down a list of entrees he'll be cooking in one hour before an audience.

Dishes will include "lambsagna" and Thai lamb and basil, which is normally prepared with ground chicken but whose bold spices complement the pungency of lamb, he said.

There will also be marinated loin of lamb with couscous, a lamb burger with tomato-mint relish, a green lamb chili, and a lamb taco with red-pepper aioli sauce. Many of the dishes will contain sheep's cheese, which Arnold buys fresh from Shepherd's Manor Creamery in Carroll County.

For Arnold, the demo takes him back to 2010, when he opened his restaurant on April Fool's Day and helped out in the chaotic kitchen as a line cook.

"It was supposed to be a soft opening," he recalled. "I guess I told a couple people who told a couple people. It was a real nightmare."

With computer and equipment problems — and 100 people waiting for food — the chef called that day "the worst I've ever had in a restaurant."

Before becoming the fourth owner to operate an eatery from the location in a strip shopping center off Route 97, Arnold owned a deli and catering business in College Park.

He also spent time following the Grateful Dead around the country, selling spaghetti to concertgoers from a food truck parked at the rock band's venues. He even dabbled in real estate for a while.

"I've always done my own thing," said Arnold, who now lives with his wife down the street from his business, serves as a youth leader at nearby St. Andrew's Episcopal Church and is a member of the Glenwood Lions Club.

He was influenced from an early age by the "wonderful cooking" of his mother and two grandmothers while growing up in Bowie and Annapolis. His first summer job at age 14 was as a prep cook in Ocean City.

At age 21, he was abruptly offered the position of chef at a crab house where he was working, after the head cook walked out. After that restaurant failed, he worked in Little Italy at the now-closed Boccaccio, under the direction of Giovanni Rigato.

"He was so passionate about food, and he opened my eyes to many different things," Arnold said of the late chef. "I learned to watch over the plates coming into the kitchen as well as those going out."

Today, at 43, he says he can lay legitimate claim to the title of chef, whereas he realizes in hindsight that he'd "only fancied himself to be one" in his early years. Now he considers cookbooks a form of light reading.

"Not to sound boastful, but I can cook anything," he said. "That's the way it's supposed to be."

That confidence has led to his being chosen to judge the festival's Grand Lamb Cook-Off, which will take place at 9 a.m. Saturday, May 3.

"Brett is a great guy who loves working with local food," said Gwen Handler, festival chairperson. "He is part of the fabric of the community."

During the cook-off, four adults and four youths will prove their prowess at cooking a lamb dish in one hour, armed only with electric skillets. Entrees, prepared from pre-approved recipes submitted by the contestants, will be judged on taste, ease of preparation and appearance.

Cash prizes will be awarded for first through fourth place in both the adult and children's categories, according to Kris Thorne, festival office manager. First prize is $150 for adults and $100 for children.

The festival draws people who come to enjoy events such as the parade of 40 sheep breeds, working sheepdog demonstrations, and the sheep-to-shawl shearing, spinning and weaving contest, Thorne said. They also spend money.

"The biggest economic benefit to the county would have to be to hotels and restaurants," she said. "We have room blocks reserved in four Howard County hotels. Turf Valley routinely sells out on festival weekend.

"We also have a quite a number of visitors who camp atPatapsco[Valley] State Park. They already have plans to meet at the campfire circle on Saturday evening to show off what they bought at the festival that day and make s'mores," she said.

Arnold said he will add more lamb dishes to his restaurant's menu during the festival weekend to entice visitors and add to the festival atmosphere.

"I like supporting the community," he said of his contributions to the event. "To me, it's important to make a difference where you stand."

This year, the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival requests an admission donation of $5 per person per day. For a full schedule of events or to volunteer, go to sheepandwool.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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