"The biggest food weekend this city has ever seen" is how Nancy Longo describes the four days next month when she and other Baltimore chefs will play host to some of the brightest stars in the culinary firmament -- at a benefit for the Chesapeake Bay Trust.
Ms. Longo, of Pierpoint restaurant in Fells Point, has long been concerned both as a chef and as a citizen of Maryland about the health of the Chesapeake Bay.
"Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the country," she says, "if you can't clean up that one, what hope is there for the rest?"
Her concern about the safety of the nation's fish and seafood, shared with other regional chefs and restaurateurs, led her to form a local committee called C.R.A.B. -- Chefs and Restaurant Advocates for the Bay -- to work for bay causes.
Then Ms. Longo discovered, as she met at various food events with chefs from other parts of the country, that all share a similar concern for the nation's waterways and fish and seafood supply. Some time ago she got the idea of gathering some of the country's more prominent -- and environmentally concerned -- chefs to cook a benefit dinner in Baltimore under C.R.A.B auspices that would aid Chesapeake Bay cleanup. It took a couple of years to find a time when all the chefs could fit the event into their schedules, but for the past 16 months, planning has been in high gear.
Among chefs attending the "Dinner for the Chesapeake" are Paul Prudhomme, of K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen, New Orleans and New York City, the man who made "Cajun" a household word; Larry Forgione, of An American Place in New York City, who taught savvy New Yorkers that power food needn't be French; and Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., who has made "fresh" and "imaginative" synonymous with California cuisine.
"It sounds like we have another Dream Team here in this country," says Thomas Burden, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Trust, referring in Olympic terms to the stellar lineup of visiting chefs. The trust is a nonprofit group that promotes awareness of and participation in restoration of the bay. "We're delighted, of course, by their interest, and by their willingness to call attention to something that's obviously very important to them," Mr. Burden says.
"Most of the chefs are concerned because they've gotten products from Chesapeake Bay -- clams, oysters, crabs, rockfish," Ms. Longo says. "They understand the problems of preserving Chesapeake Bay; it has worldwide importance to the environment.
"Paul wanted to come because he thinks it's important to preserve the bay," Ms. Longo says, ticking off on her fingers some of the reasons it wasn't hard to get chefs to sign up for the benefit. "Alice Waters is very environmentally conscious, and she thought it was important" to push for waterway cleanup. "Jimmy Sneed [of Windows on Urbanna Creek of Urbanna, Va.] is a person like myself who lives for the Chesapeake cuisine. Jasper White [of Jaspers in Boston] has only flown over the Chesapeake Bay, and he really wanted to come here to see it for himself."
It was Mr. White, she says, who stood up at a meeting of another concerned chefs' group, Chefs Helping Enhance Food Safety not long ago to note that seafood safety inspection was all very well, but "you need to spend some time and money to clean up the water."
Other guest chefs are Jan Birnbaum, Campton Place Hotel, San Francisco; Marty Cosgrove, Oakborne Country Club, Lafayette, La.; Roberto Donna, Galileo and Imarti, Washington; Mark Miller, Red Sage, Washington, and Coyote Cafe, Sante Fe, N.M.; and Stephen Pyles, Routh Street Cafe and Baby Routh, Dallas.
Each of the guest chefs has been paired with a host chef from Baltimore. Host chefs will prepare their favorite dishes for a welcome meal on a yacht Sept. 13 and, more importantly, "they also have to allow the other chefs into their kitchens!" Ms. Longo says.
What sort of dishes might diners sample? Mr. Donna is serving sea bass and crab cannelloni with lobster sauce. Mr. Prudhomme is serving chicken Estouffee. Mr. White is serving salt cod cakes with potato crusts and remoulade sauce.
Some dishes require the host committee to round up some unusual ingredients: "Larry Forgione needs 10 wheels of braided picture wire and 10 cedar or oak planks 3 feet by 10 inches by 3/4 inch," Ms. Longo says, laughing. His dish: Planked salmon with Virginia sherry sauce.
Local chefs participating in the event, and some of the dishes they will be serving to their fellow chefs on the Chesapeake Bay cruise, are: Connie Crabtree, black bean salad with blue corn chips; Linwood Dame; Allison Dugdale, smoked salmon crepes; Benny Gordon, assorted seafood soups; Mark Henry; Ms. Longo, smoked crab cakes; Harold Marmelstein; Michael Rork, shrimp and rosemary skewers; Rudy Speckamp, smoked swordfish with lentils; and Randy Stahl, roast suckling pig.
C.R.A.B. has gotten some help with expenses; some food and wine has been donated and Harbor Court Hotel will provide rooms for the guest chefs. Ms. Longo hopes this won't be the last event of its kind.
"People need to see that chefs really want [waterway cleanup] to happen," she says. And people who make the laws governing the environment "need to wake up and smell the coffee. The restaurant industry is the second largest in the country, and we really want this done."
There's one more reason Ms. Longo is looking forward to seeing all those prominent colleagues on her turf: She wants to show off her town. "I feel like it's a mission for me," she says, "to let people see what Baltimore is like."
C.R.A.B.'s benefit dinner will be held from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sept. 14 under a tent at the pier at the National Aquarium in the Inner Harbor (black tie optional). There will be dancing to music from Swing Central from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Tickets are $200 a person (checks made out to Chesapeake Bay Trust are tax deductible), and may be bought in advance by writing C.R.A.B., P.O. Box 13223, Baltimore 21203-3223. For more information, call Nancy Longo, (410) 675-2080, or Thomas L. Burden, (301) 974-2941.