Dinner's half an hour late and over in the "asparagus room," Tim Barger is pacing the floor. "Come on, guys," he says to some unknown forces out in the dining room holding up the meal, "we've got to go. The asparagus is dropping."
He's staring out over the cause for his anxiety: a huge table packed with 180 plates rim to rim. And on each one sits a tiny crown of asparagus, held together, somewhat tenuously, by chilled asparagus mousse in the middle.
It is the first course of a gala dinner, one unprecedented in Baltimore because it brings together the talents of some of the area's top chefs for a single, eye-popping, 10-course meal, being held in an elegant banquet room at the Harbor Court Hotel.
Two or three chefs have gotten together before for such benefit dinners, but tonight nine have been gathered for this one meal, called "By Invitation Only," and it is to be a spread of immense proportions. Even at $250 a plate -- for the benefit of the Sexual Assault Recovery Center of Baltimore and for the Sexual Assault/Domestic Violence Center in Baltimore County -- tickets were sold out weeks in advance.
Everything has been donated or bought by benefactors -- flowers, food, talent -- to make every possible dollar go to the centers.
The logistics are awesome: food prepped in nine different restaurants, then brought here early this afternoon to the hotel kitchens for still more work. There are people everywhere, all having staked out their own little areas but sharing the burners -- yelling, "Hot behind you, hot and heavy," as they run through with their bubbling pans of food.
But so far, even with so many cooks in the kitchen, "there haven't been any fights yet," says Michael Rork, the host chef and coordinator, laughing. "We're all still friends. And they're all using my skillets and it doesn't even bother me."
"Everybody's just jumping around helping everybody else out," adds Connie Crabtree, chef at Pier 500 Restaurant.
Now, after champagne has been served around Emery Boger's towering ice sculptures out in the reception area, the diners have finally been herded into the dining room -- late. And someone out there seems to be making, unscheduled, a long speech.
The asparagus is still holding up, in spite of the fact that the dishes have been out of the cold box for an hour now. One or two collapse. Chef Barger, executive chef at the Omni Hotel -- or one of the other chefs watching the table like hawks -- grabs them and quickly replaces the plates with another.
This dish, asparagus custard crown in three vegetable purees, is to be followed by the soup course, rockfish consomme by Mark Henry of the Milton Inn. Then comes a crab and lobster cake in a pool of Pommery mustard sauce by Will Greenwood of the Jefferson Hotel in Washington, followed by a crayfish lasagna with fresh tomato coulis by Harold Marmulstein of the Polo Grill.
At this point in the menu comes a sorbet to cleanse the palate: a peppery pink ginger sorbet served in flowers crafted of spun sugar created by Adi Rehm of Rehm's Catering in Clarksville.
Then serious eating begins again with lamb and black bean tamale in ancho cream by Michael Rork of the Harbor Court. Then comes roasted pheasant miso with a caramelized onion, wild rice and potato pancake by Nancy Longo of Pierpoint, followed by a roast loin of veal with sweet bread strudel, the offering of Rudy Speckamp of Rudys' 2900 Restaurant.
The salad course is mixed spring greens, chevre and fruitwood smoked quail with a raspberry dressing by Connie Crabtree.
Then the final course, not just a single dessert, but an entire dinner plate arranged with frozen maracuja (passion fruit) mousse, a tian, fresh raspberries, pear honey sauce and a chocolate-covered banana half, again by Adi Rehm.
Finally the asparagus is served and the frantic part of the dinner begins. Almost everyone -- the chefs and their staffs -- crowds around one long stainless steel table to "plate up" 180 servings of the six courses that will be served hot.
The next course -- a consomme poured over a piece of fresh rockfish, a slice of rockfish terrine, and garnishes of julienned carrots and leeks plus cubes of daikon radish, slices of shiitake and tiny enoki mushrooms -- goes together in a blur of white and houndstooth.
"I need some leeks down at this end."
"Who's got the mushrooms? We need shiitake down here."
"OK. We've got waiters lining up. Come on, pump it out," Will Greenwood says as things get a little behind. "Let's get it there. Let's get it out. Daddy wants to have a beer."
The phone rings. "It's for you, Michael," someone says.
"Tell them I'll call them back," chef Rork says calmly.
Considering the amount of talent packed here elbow to elbow, it must be the most expensive restaurant line ever put together in town.
When the soup course goes out the door, another 180 plates are whisked out and stacked on the table -- and it begins all over
* More than three hours later -- three hours of "controlled lunacy," one chef called it, in the kitchen, -- the dessert course is finally served. A third of the diners have already surrendered to the onslaught of food, having waddled quietly out of the room between the veal and the salad.
"It's not the greatest dinner you've had in one restaurant," co-chair Rudy Miller said. "It's like the greatest dinner you've had in nine restaurants."
Here is a recipe for crab and lobster cakes by Will Greenwood of the Jefferson Hotel in Washington:
Crab and lobster cakes
Makes 6 appetizer-size servings.
1/2 pound scallops, well dried
1 egg white
1/2 to 1 cup whipping cream
1/4 pound crab meat
1/4 pound lobster meat (meat from 1-pound lobster)
2 tablespoons clarified butter
beurre blanc (see recipe below)
2 ounces salmon caviar (for garnish)
chives (for garnish)
Chill the blade of a food processor. Put scallops and egg white in the processor. Puree until smooth. Slowly add a stream of cream, enough to make a thick mixture. Place mixture into a medium-sized mixing bowl. Fold in crab and lobster meat and form into 6 cakes (about 3 ounces each). Dredge in cracker crumbs.
Place butter in a saute pan. Saute cakes slowly in butter until golden brown on each side.
Divide beurre blanc among the plates. Place cakes on top. Garnish with salmon caviar and chives.
1/4 cup white wine
1 tablespoon cream
1/2 pound butter
2 tablespoons stone-ground mustard
Place wine and shallots in a medium-sized saute pan. Cook until reduced to a syrupy consistency. Add the cream. Whisk in the butter bit by bit over a medium flame.
Remove from heat and strain the sauce. Blend in the mustard.
Chicken breast with miso
This is a recipe from Nancy Longo, executive chief and part-owner of Pierpoint in Fells Point. She adapted it from her banquet entree, roasted pheasant miso. Miso is an Oriental seasoning available at Oriental grocery stores, health food stores or some supermarkets.
6 tablespoons miso
3 tablespoons soy sauce
juice of one lemon
6 chicken breasts
pancakes (see recipe below)
Oriental sauce (see recipe below)
fresh chives (or other herbs, for garnish)
Combine miso, soy sauce and lemon juice and set aside. Place chicken breasts in a low baking dish. Pour marinade over top. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 3 or 4 hours or overnight.
Bake in a 350-degree oven until chicken breasts are done, about 25 minutes.
Serve the chicken breast on a plate over two pancakes. Pour some of the sauce over the chicken and pancakes. Garnish with chives and serve.
Caramelized onion, wild rice, potato pancakes
Makes 12 pancakes.
3 medium potatoes
1 tablespoons butter
1 yellow onion, slice into 1/2 -inch slices
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup wild rice, cooked according to package directions
1 clove garlic, chopped
salt and pepper, to taste
Shred the potatoes in a food processor or with a hand grater. Set aside.
Place butter in a saute pan. Add onion slices and sugar and saute until brown. (Note: Ms. Longo doesn't use butter to caramelize the onions. She heats the saucepan then adds the onions and sugar and cooks them, stirring quickly, until onions are just brown.)
In a large mixing bowl, mix potatoes, caramelized onions, rice, garlic, salt and pepper, egg and enough flour to bind. (To check, place a small amount of mix in your hand. If it is sticky and firm, it has enough flour).
Form into pancakes. Fry until brown in vegetable oil (enough oil just to cover bottom of pan 1/4 inch). Keep warm.
1 quart chicken stock
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
4 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon ginger root, chopped fine
1/4 pound butter
Place the chicken stock in a large saucepan. Add the rice wine vinegar, soy sauce and ginger root. Cook until reduced by one half. Add the butter and remove from the heat. Stir until butter is incorporated.