Time is of the essence for Baltimore restaurateur Tony Foreman. It’s something that has been in the back of his mind since birth.
The 53-year-old Roland Park resident, who oversees such lauded institutions as Charleston and Petit Louis, always believed that his time on earth was precious and could end suddenly.
“I spent my entire time knowing that I have a bad heart and that time is limited,” he said. “I was born with a variety of cardiac defects. I was born at GBMC [Greater Baltimore Medical Center] and then went to Hopkins. My parents were told not to expect me to leave there.”
But Foreman survived and thrived. While attending Gilman, the all-boys private school near Roland Park (his grandfather established a trust so he could attend), Foreman excelled in athletics, playing football and running track.
At first glance during a recent interview at his restaurant Cinghiale in his bespoke cobalt blue suit, argyle socks, sleek black dress shoes and perfectly knotted necktie, it might be easy to assume that Foreman comes from extreme wealth, when in fact he’s worked his way up through the restaurant industry.
Foreman got his start in restaurants at the age of 14 at the now closed Governor’s Club on Eutaw Street near Bolton Hill. It was there that he got lessons in restaurant management, customer service and personal style.
Long before Baltimore’s finer dining scene stretched across the city and its neighboring counties, Foreman had a mission to provide finer food to Baltimore.
That started in 1995 at the Admiral Fell Inn in Fells Point with a restaurant called Savannah. After a two year stint there, he and his then wife, chef Cindy Wolf, moved the investor-backed restaurant to the end of Exeter Street and renamed it Charleston. Since then, it’s consistently ranked at the top of the city’s best restaurant lists, and Wolf is a seven-time James Beard Award finalist for the Mid-Atlantic’s best chef.
The tall, athletic Foreman explained he doesn’t have an office and spends most of his time floating between his six restaurants and two wine and spirit shops. Foreman frequently travels to Europe where he is able to find top-notch wines, which have become hallmarks for his restaurants.
On this brisk autumnal day at his Italian restaurant, Foreman, who is known for his tireless work ethic and attention to detail, revealed a softer, sentimental side where family is paramount. He also had an endless supply of rich, lively anecdotes that illustrate how he makes the most of his limited time.
On why his Franck Muller watch carries special significance:
“I wear a wedding ring and [one] of a couple of different watches every day. This one is my favorite.
“It’s not ostentatious or showy. That’s not my bag. I traded wine for it. It cost me two cases of wine: one case of 1982 Chateau haut-brion and one case of 1978 Chateauneuf-du-Pape [worth about $42,000].
“I also chose this watch because it represents time. Time goes fast. You don’t know when it’s going to be over.
“My health is complicated. The defects I was born with — those things impact you over time. I had my first open heart surgery at 38. It’s funny because I was an athlete as a kid. I played football and ran track in college.
[After a hearty chuckle] “The American Heart Association found out I’ve been a big user” of its heart technology advances. “They asked me to be chair of their Heart Ball.” (The event is scheduled for Feb. 23.)
On why he was drawn to kitchen culture:
“Half my attraction to the business is that mix of diverse people it attracts. At the Governor’s Club, we had an older African-American staff — a bunch of them were ex-military. We had a lot of European immigrants, especially in the kitchen. There was a Dane, Frenchman, Hungarian, mixed with Miss Lulabelle from Macon, Ga.
“Our family meal — the meal before [restaurant] guests come in — was the best time for me as a kid. You knew what was out of bounds to cook. And you knew that everyone would give you their opinion about it. All the people from there were rare and distinct in my head. I hear their voices a lot.”
On the early days of his highest-profile restaurant, Charleston:
“This [Cinghale] was our parking lot. When the buses left, people in the Inner Harbor, they would park here.
“When you called a taxi, you were often told that they didn’t come to this neighborhood. North Exeter is notorious for gun violence. One time we had to call an ambulance for a guest, and they immediately went to North Exeter — and not South,” where the restaurant is located.
On working with his ex-wife, chef Cindy Wolf:
“We like working together. Neither one of us backs down from our opinion. Neither one of us is shy about expressing it. Neither one of us is afraid of confrontation. You just collide and figure out the best solution. We only cross over so much. That makes it easier. If we didn’t there would be a lot of collisions.
“She has the luxury and the limitation of being very focused on what is going on in the Charleston kitchen and being connected to the guests. I like nice things but a lot of my heart is in peasant food of all kinds. Hence we have a lot of diversity in menus in our restaurants. Johnny’s [restaurant in Roland Park] exists because I like to cook a hamburger in a particular way with particular meat.”
On what it will take to (finally) win a James Beard Award for the Mid-Atlantic’s best chef:
“Best chef? I have no idea. It’s not a transparent process. I think that there are people who are part of that committee that I hold in great esteem. And a number of people I do not know. Luckily for us, the critics are not the people that pay your bills. The people who you actually cook for and the people that you serve — those are the ones you have to pay attention to.”
On his favorite Saturday ritual:
“On Saturdays, I eat a tuna fish sandwich, bag of Utz chips at Eddie’s in Roland Park. I’ve been doing this every week since 1975. I eat it while I sit on the steps of the library across the street.
“It’s just a childhood tune-out for 20 minutes on a Saturday afternoon.”
On making time for his wife, Katie, and his daughters, 5-year-old Delphinium (“Del”) and 18-month-old Odelette:
“It’s hard. I have a lot of responsibilities. I have a wonderful family. My wife is very patient. I always feel conflict that I am cheating them some. I try and manipulate my schedule so that I have pockets of time.
“I try to take the girls to swimming lessons. And I try to make dinner once a week. If I’m really lucky, Del will get a turkey sandwich to go with my tuna sandwich when we sit out there in front of the library.”