Rodgers Forge chef finds his niche and makes a name with Babgy

At 42, Rodgers Forge resident Mark Davis thought his professional window was closing.

He'd kicked around all corners of the cooking world, but had not yet found the opportunity to get his name out there on a project that truly matched his own passions.

"Most chefs never get that lucky," Davis said.

"Only five to 10 percent of chefs ever get to open one restaurant," he said. "That's once in a lifetime, especially for someone on the back side of his career. I'll be 43 this June. For somebody in my part of their career, less than one percent would ever get to do what I'm doing."

Davis is currently the executive chef at Ten Ten, a southern American bistro in the Bagby Building between Little Italy and Harbor East, which opened in early November.

But for Davis, the process of opening the restaurant was nearly as drawn out as his career itself.

He interviewed with Bagby Restaurant Group owner David Smith in January, but never heard one way or another whether he'd gotten the job.

In the interim, he left the kitchen where he was working at the Baltimore County Club and took a position at a restaurant on O'Donnell Square in Canton that was still in development. But in June, Smith called.

"They called me on a Tuesday and said, 'We need you here Monday,' " he said. Davis told his employers about the situation. Neither has looked back since.

Smith said he had no apprehension hiring someone in Davis' situation.

"He wanted to do it, and clearly had the capacity," Smith said. "Everybody who has the desire and the skill deserves the opportunity to get a shot. He has a shot to go build a reputation."

Shortly after he was hired, Smith sent Davis and his fiancé to Charleston, S.C., where he hoped his new chef could draw inspiration from four "first-class" restaurants.

"It was really inspiring," Davis said. "I took in a lot of the culture, the atmosphere and the feeling and really realized what he was looking for."

After a few months of tinkering, tastes of the south were sprinkled all over the traditional bistro items on the Ten Ten menu.

"Everybody does shrimp and grits," Davis said. "You can't throw a dead cat down in the south without hitting shrimp and grits, but nobody is grilling it with big, huge U-10 shrimp, maple-brazed greens and three-cheddar poblano grits. Nobody is doing that, especially in Baltimore, so we were excited to have the opportunity to bring the south up here a bit."

So far, customers have noticed. Davis recalled one customer who struggled to put her finger on what the restaurant reminded her of before correctly settling on Charleston, while Smith took pride in an online restaurant review that referred to the restaurant as a "poor man's Charleston."

"I took that as a compliment," Smith said. "We wanted to offer food as good as Charleston's, but at a dramatically reduced price."

For Davis, such compliments have been a currency of sorts that began as a teenager in his grandmother's kitchen in Berwyn Heights.

"I really learned to love the pat on the back that you'd get when you served — the smiles, the 'ooh's,' the 'ahh's — and I got addicted to that," Davis said.

He said he started in the kitchen when was chosen among his cousins for the duty — he was the tallest and could reach everything his grandmother asked him to.

But he ultimately found his calling in those evenings spent with his grandmother.

"It sounds cheesy, but all the other kids were out running around and she snatched me up and took me in the kitchen," Davis said. "At first I resented it, but then I realized that it was probably what I was going to end up doing."

Next stop, Towson City Center

The Bagby Restaurant Group is also signed on as a tenant for the Towson City Center development, though all involved in the process said the City Center restaurant, to be called Cunningham Kitchen, is still in the planning stages.

But regardless of the concept or menu, Smith said patrons should expect "white tablecloths" and "high-end, upscale" dining.

"We're going to bring Harbor East to Towson, in terms of quality of food and service," he said.

The group's other executive chef, Chris Becker, will be in charge of the group's third restaurant in the Bagby complex, Fleet Street Kitchen, as well as Cunningham Kitchen.

But Davis, who is new to the Towson area but has lived there long enough to know that it's a "culinary no-man's land," has big plans for the area.

"There's no good pizza out there, so we're thinking about eventually trying to talk David into building a free standing Bagby's Pizza out there," Davis said.

Cunningham Kitchen, which could have as many as 300 seats, including nearly 150 outside in the summer months, is scheduled to open in summer 2012.

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