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In the chef's kitchen When the workday's over, what's home on the range?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When it comes to cooking at home, chefs are a lot like you and me.

They may earn their living sampling foie gras and tart Tatin, but after a rough day (and night) at work, many of them do what we do: Crave Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia ice cream.

How then do they answer the age-old question, "What's for dinner?"

You'd be surprised.

Although cooking is their passion as well as their profession, they're not afraid to take shortcuts at times, whether it's ordering carryout or eating cereal.

But even on their days off, the lure of the kitchen is great. They look forward to preparing sauces, peeling onions and scrubbing pots. Or so they say. Their wives offer a slightly different story.

With that in mind, we visited some of Baltimore's most respected chefs at home. It was dinner time, and we were curious: What was cooking?

Michael Rork

Executive Chef

Harbor Court Hotel

Michael Rork's secret is out: He likes Lean Cuisine Cheese Cannelloni for dinner.

Not all the time, mind you. But on some nights when he, like the rest of Americans, is too tired to care about cooking.

"People have misconceptions about how chefs eat. When I go to my mother's, I have tuna casserole and meatloaf," says Mr. Rork, 43.

On this night, though, it's a different story. For his wife Betsy and 16-month-old son Andrew, who just have returned from a Florida vacation, Mr. Rork has planned a celebratory homecoming: braised chicken with garden herbs, roasted garlic mashed potatoes, and a mesclun salad with blue cheese and a balsamic vinaigrette.

"Are we going to tell the truth?" asks Ms. Rork, 34, looking over to her husband. "This is not an everyday occurrence. . . . He never cooks."

Actually "never," she says, is an exaggeration. Once a month or so, he'll whip up something -- waffles with grilled bananas, salmon brochettes, barbecued duck.

When Mr. Rork is in the kitchen, the result is often extraordinary -- and that includes the number of dirty dishes he leaves. His wife's decision to prepare more meals is partly a practical one, especially considering the family's lopsided division of labor.

"When he cooks, I do the dishes," she says. "And when I cook, I do the dishes."

They try to eat healthfully at home, making chicken, fish, pasta and vegetables as often as possible. Ms. Rork does most of the grocery shopping at Eddie's on North Charles Street and Belvedere Square. And rather than prepare dessert, Mr. Rork is more likely to walk over to the 7-Eleven for a pint of Ben & Jerry's.

Although the Rorks generally have similar tastes in food, they're split on one thing: hot dogs. She loves them; he doesn't.

"It's the heartburn effect," he explains. "Nothing personal, Esskay."

Their son isn't much for ballpark franks, either. When you're the child of a chef, maybe you're destined to have more refined taste buds. But salmon, swordfish and scallops for a toddler? That's the diet Andrew prefers: His parents say he's been resisting foods that are harder to chew, such as chicken.

Before he was born, the Rorks ate out more and lingered over dinner longer. While they still get takeout (the Pizza Boli's box is on the radiator), it's now primarily from favorite spots like Kawasaki or Bangkok Place.

With such hectic schedules, they have made one rule about the dinner hour: It's not to be disturbed. That tradition will be even more difficult to keep up this fall when their second child is due.

But the Rorks already have survived a few misadventures in the kitchen, including the first night they had dinner in their house in Old Homeland.

Mr. Rork had prepared pasta with shoestring fried eggplant. He handed the pan to his wife, not realizing it was too hot to grab without potholders. Dinner landed on the floor.

L Says Ms. Rork, "We ended up going out to dinner that night."

It's 10 o'clock, Spike Gjerde, do you know where your dinner is?

There's something akin to a meal here: beans simmering on the burner, fish fillets on the counter and the juice of a dozen blood oranges in a bowl.

But where, oh where, is the Spike & Charlie's chef? He's walking out the door in search of a forgotten ingredient -- oil. Before leaving, he hands over a copy of "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen" by Harold McGee.

"That's the most important thing in my kitchen," he says, --ing into the rain.

To be honest, there's not much else here.

White cabinets. An empty Evian bottle. A speckled linoleum floor.

The refrigerator is equally barren. Its entire contents: a container of pink grapefruit juice, three wedges of cheese, half an onion, old cilantro, a few shallots and peppers.

"Don't report me to the culinary authorities," he says with a laugh as he returns.

If you were being kind, you'd call this ambience single-guy chic. If you were being honest, you'd call it messy. There are socks in the living room, pennies all over the floor. There is one dining room chair in the entire Charles Village apartment.

"This should graphically illustrate the difference between a chef that's made it and a chef that's still struggling," says Mr. Gjerde, 30.

If he seems frazzled, blame it on the day. He nursed his staff through its first encounter with a new menu; he got locked out of his car; and now he can't find any clean clothes.

Not even the soothing sounds of Elvis Costello on his CD player will take the edge off this night.

Maybe dinner will.

He's having fish, as he does most evenings. Pan-seared grouper with black and white bean salad and poblano rice, to be exact. For a chef who got his start in the bakery business -- and whose apple crostata alone brings diners to his Mount Vernon restaurant -- sweets are rarely forgotten. The juice from the oranges will be churned into sorbet by evening's end.

When it comes to food, Mr. Gjerde is a purist. You won't find him waiting in the drive-through line of a burger palace or wandering down the frozen-food aisle of the supermarket.

"Fast food," he says, "is the pestilence on the earth. I can only use terms of biblical damnation about it."

On those nights when he's too tired to cook, he'll have a salad, a sandwich of goat cheese and sliced avocado or a bowl of Nutri-Grain cereal.

"At the end of the night, you don't want anything terrifically complicated," he says.

He considers balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, rice and cereal necessities in his kitchen. And his idea of pigging out is eating tortilla chips with salsa and guacamole while watching David Letterman.

Having only one chair and little free time has made it tough to have many people over. Mr. Gjerde isn't sure he wants to anyway.

"I entertain every day," he says.

Sunday night at the Marmulsteins': Harold wears the apron, Judi pours the wine, Paul cleans the scallops and Julian slices strawberries.

It's not a restaurant kitchen in miniature, but a family dinner planned by Harold Marmulstein, executive chef and part owner of the Polo Grill.

If he ever entertained visions of culinary grandeur, dinners like these keep him humble.

"I certainly never have to peel garlic in the kitchen at work," he says.

But with friends dropping by for dinner, all hands are needed at the counter. The menu is elaborate: mushroom caps stuffed with crab, assorted field greens, grilled halibut and sea scallops with tomato fondue, and macerated strawberries with cherry sorbet over poundcake.

"I need a little sin whenever I eat," says Judi Marmulstein, 39.

She married the right man.

Mr. Marmulstein makes dishes that diners dream about. Penne pasta with blackened chicken. Fried lobster. Creme brulee.

But regardless of what he prepares at work, he says he and his family have regular tastes.

"We're pretty normal people. I'll do Shake 'N Bake pork chops with Stove Top stuffing or hot dogs and hamburgers," he says.

Occasionally, the Marmulsteins even will set up TV tables to watch "60 Minutes" on Sunday nights.

During the week, meals range from roasted chicken to flank steak to pot roast, most of which he eats in leftover form while unwinding after work.

His problem, he says, is appreciating food too much.

"I like everything," he says. "Spam is about the only thing I don't like."

Every Monday, he begins an austere diet. "It's greens, veggies, no fat, fish with a squeeze of lemon. He gets so healthy it's awful," says Ms. Marmulstein.

But his downfall is being a closet eater, although "car eater" might be more accurate since his wife often finds candy bar wrappers hidden under his car seat by Thursday.

With both Marmulsteins being skilled cooks, there's an occasional debate about who's in charge in the kitchen.

"We don't cook well together," says Mr. Marmulstein, 32. "I take over and Judi doesn't like that."

He does adapt his cooking style for his family's palate, toning down the spices and keeping Tabasco sauce on the side to season his own meal.

There are signs that their sons, Paul, 7, and Julian, 5, may grow up to be chefs like their father. For children, they have pretty grown-up tastes, having sampled -- and liked -- artichokes, spinach and fried calamari. They've even been influential in convincing their friends in the neighborhood to try more creative foods, including the dreaded V word: vegetables.

So far, Paul seems to have the career edge over his brother. When the weather is nice, he'll set up a makeshift restaurant on the front lawn of the family's Timonium home.

Says Judi Marmulstein, "He stands out there pretending to be the maitre d'."

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