A gathering of gourmets

THE BALTIMORE SUN

At a discreet signal from the front of the hall, the assembled guests -- some six score men and women, all formally attired -- put down their glasses of champagne, and the black-frocked attendants slip quietly out into the Belvedere Hotel's lobby and close the doors behind them. A hush falls over the room as those remaining inside take their seats and wait for the ancient ceremony to begin.

There are a few words reminding the audience of the gravity of the event before a distinguished-looking man with close-cropped white hair and a vivid green sash over his dinner jacket stands in front of the group. He carries a broadsword in his hand, and looks for the first new disciple to approach.

"Sidney Blumenthal," a voice calls out, and a tall, silver-haired man in his 70s rises from the audience and walks over to stand by the man with the sword, who intones the arcane litany. "Je vous consacre chevalier de chaine." "I anoint you chevalier of the guild."

With that, he taps the other man lightly on the shoulder with sword, and the first of the evening's 13 initiates returns to his seat, now wearing the purple sash of the chevalier and beaming with happiness. He is no longer merely Sidney Blumenthal, successful electrical contractor, patron of the arts, high-handicap golfer and avid bridge player; he is now a member of one of the oldest societies in the Western world. It is a fraternity so elite, so discriminating, that even the French couldn't abide it, and outlawed it for the better part of two centuries.

The Chaine des Rotisseurs claims descent from the society of medieval chefs -- goose roasters, actually -- who organized in 1248 to uphold culinary standards in the royal court of France. For the next five centuries, the Chaine prospered; then came the Revolution, and the guild's goose was, so to speak, cooked.

It remained little more than a footnote in history until Charles de Gaulle came to power in postwar France and the French government, perhaps with an eye to the franchise potential of Gallic elitism, reinstated the group's charter.

The first American chapter was formed shortly thereafter in New York City, with a membership mostly comprised of food professionals -- people who cooked, distributed or wrote about food. This began to change in the '80s when, fueled by the richesse of Reaganomics, eating became a Status Statement. Americans discovered designer water and power lunches, and membership in the Chaine soared tenfold toward its present numbers of more than 7,000 in 140 chapters in every major city in this country. (The Baltimore chapter, begun 15 years ago, has 80 members.)

Recent members, though, are more likely to be doctors and prosperous entrepreneurs than chefs. Modern-day Chaine participants are united by a culinary taste for the extravagant, the refined and the exotic. There are no precise criteria for membership; one needs only to be proposed by a member, then pay a relatively modest $275 initiation fee, annual dues of $375 (to support various enterprises of the organization), plus the price of attendance at the monthly or so dinners. For example, this evening's affair at the Belvedere has set each Baltimore chapter member back $120.

Once admitted, the new member may begin his or her ascent by arranging a dinner party, finding a new source for wine, or providing some other service to the group -- through a hierarchy that rivals the court of Byzantium in its complexity. Those holding entry-level rank are the chevaliers and dames. Officers hold such resonant titles as argentier (treasurer), charge de presse (press officer) and bailli (chapter president). There are also regional and national officers, appointed at the whim of those above them, the highest-ranking of whom belong to the conseil magistral, the society's international governing body.

Members further signal their status in the society through an elaborate array of ersatz-diplomatic sashes, ribbons, pins and "medals of honor," giving this evening's dinner an air of international intrigue and fantasy. "Just look at all the beautiful people here tonight," urges the Chaine's Duke Goldberg as he surveys the crowd at the champagne reception that precedes the induction ceremony. The men are sleek and self-composed in their tuxedos, the woman bejeweled and shapely in form-fitting gowns. For that matter, when it comes to style, Mr. Goldberg himself -- who will, this very evening, assume the presidency of the Baltimore chapter -- is no slouch.

A former amateur four-wall handball champ, the new bailli is in his 60s, yet remains the picture of youthful vigor. He's broad-shouldered and lean, with a curly, jet-black mane. Where his male conferes have contented themselves with the conventional black bow tie, Mr. Goldberg, a Stevenson resident, evokes a pre-Victorian mood, with a snowy white riding stock cascading into the V of his dinner jacket. In lieu of formal pumps, he sports a pair of handmade, snakeskin Wellington boots from Italy.

Mr. Goldberg, founder and proprietor of a firm that imports and manufactures high-style eyewear, is originally from Miami where, a young man, he helped manage his family's theaters and later, his own nightclub.

As the evening unfolds, it is evident he hasn't lost his touch for the theatrical. With the conclusion of the customary formalities, which see Mr. Goldberg presented with both a medal of honor and the green presidential sash, he takes over as master of ceremonies. "The evening's dinner will be like no other you have ever attended," he says. "You are about to enter a world of fire and ice. Tonight, you will experience the Zakuski!"

With that, the guests rise and, with much excited chattering, sweep through the lobby and up to another hall on the 12th floor, where . . . Ta-da! . . . they find the "Zakuski," a table seemingly as long as a bowling alley, draped in red and heaped with hors d'oeuvres in the reputed style of Imperial Russia.

There is caviar with toast bits, chopped onion and chopped egg whites and yolks; pickled herring and marinated wild mushrooms; a vast assortment of vegetable purees with walnuts and prunes; trays of smoked salmon on wild lettuce leaves; grilled herring with arugula; beef sticks with pickle dip; meat pies, veal piroshkis, onion piroshkis and cabbage piroshkis. At the far end, bartenders pour vodkas flavored with currant, lemon and pepper from bottles frozen in blocks of ice. And this is just the first course.

"It's the most decadent thing I've ever seen," a woman in a slinky gold lame gown says to the man responsible for the Zakuski, Tom Stuehler, president of Truffles, the evening's caterers.

"Thank you," he says proudly, if a little anxiously. He, too, is a member of the Chaine -- his is the orange sash worn by chefs and restaurateurs -- and he knows what's at stake here. Every detail of the evening's festivities -- from the Russian theme to the Bollinger Speciale Cuvee Brut champagne being served with the appetizers to the battery-powered lights hidden beneath the sorbet dishes to make them glow -- has been planned to the nth degree, but more than one Chaine dinner has gone awry. Who among the members will forget the affair where the chef attempted a course of squab and pate in a sausage casing? Or, the looks of distaste when the diners discovered that the chef had miscalculated the cooking time, and that the squabs were still raw?

Then again, it wasn't always the chef's fault; sometimes things just plain get out of hand at these dinners. Such was the case at the buffalo dinner, where everybody got plastered. Instead of greeting the main course with polite murmurs of appreciation, the dinner guests staggered to their feet for a rowdy chorus of "Give me a home, where the buffalo roam."

What are the chances of that happening tonight? After all, besides the welcoming glasses of champagne, and the vodka and champagne at the Zakuski, there will be vodka toasts before dinner, followed by four more wine courses.

Oh well, too late to worry about it now, Mr. Stuehler seems to shrug as he watches the guests file through the hall toward the ballroom, where they will eat (a sit-down dinner) and drink in earnest.

New member Sidney Blumenthal is with his old friend and sponsor, Henry Eisner of Stevenson. Mr. Blumenthal, a Baltimore City resident, admits he was taken aback by the initiation ceremony. He wasn't sure what was going to happen with that sword. Still he enjoyed the ceremony. "It was all done with good humor, and that's really why I decided to join the Chaine. I'm no food snob. My most gourmet experiences have been Chez Mitzi," he explains, introducing his wife, Mitzi.

Ted Task, the genial, husky 6-footer who presides over the chapter's wine celler, chats with his friend and fellow wine connoisseur Dr. Ed Goldberg, a physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital and a Baltimore County resident. Mr. Task sports a floppy, rainbow-hued bow tie over giant studs that look like thick gold coins. "These are plastic," he confides. "They're button covers. I just like to stand out from the crowd." He is, it appears, a veteran buffet goer; his vodka glass seems to hover magnetically at the rim of his plate. "This is a great gimmick," he says, unclipping the plastic gizmo that was fixed to the edge of his plate. "Your drink goes here" -- he points out the prongs for holding the glass -- "and this end clips to the plate. Here, take it."

Mr. Task is a 20-year member of the Chaine, and his card identifies him as vice conseiller, ordre mondiale, commandeur. Sometimes, the card works wonders. "So my wife and I are in the Loire," begins Mr. Task, a wine merchant from Colesville. "And the head of a French winery insists on taking us to lunch.

"We drive through the country to a lovely little inn, and on the wall, I see the sign of the Chaine. Now, I don't speak French, I've never been there before, but I pull out a card, give it to Madame, the wife of the owner and chef, and she runs out of the room. She comes back with her husband, a guy who makes me look petite. He throws his arms around me and insists he make something special for us. . . .

"So, there's a lot of camaraderie among members, and that's part of the appeal. But, I don't think any of us take ourselves too seriously."

A slender brunette, recently separated, ponders her reasons for Chaine membership on the way into the Belvedere's elegant Louis XV ballroom. "You know, I never thought about it as a place to meet men. But why don't you give me a call sometimes, and we'll talk about it?"

There's a rumor going around tonight that Channel 2 might be filming the dinner, and an excited buzz moves through the crowd as Beverly Burke, the TV station's news anchorwoman, walks in. Only, where's the film crew? A late-breaking story took precedence, explains Ms. Burke.

Nevertheless, here she is, and here, too, is her friend, a heavyset, middle-aged man nobody recognizes. That would be OK, only . . . well, the invitation did say "black tie." And while Ms. Burke's suit might be fine for doing a TV news report on the national deficit, it's not really what the Chaine had in mind for the biggest social event of the year. Then, there's her friend; he's not wearing formal wear, either. In fact, he's wearing a gray suit. A rumpled gray suit.

"I can't believe she'd do this," one of the members says to his wife, as the newswoman and her date approach. "She's been here before; she knows the rules. This is just bad form. Very bad form."

But what to do? "She's on TV," his wife reminds him. And so, they greet her warmly.

Ms. Burke and her guest, their breach of protocol notwithstanding, are accorded seats of honor, next to Duke Goldberg, his wife, Marlene, and her mother, Rena Rolnick.

There is little time for small talk before Nancy Stuehler, spouse and partner of caterer Tom, steps up to the microphone in the middle of the floor to make a toast. Unfortunately, the ballroom, with its 36-foot ceiling, is an acoustical nightmare, and her words have the sound of a reading of train departures. She concludes her speech by knocking back a sizable jigger of vodka, and the dinner guests follow suit.

Next comes a troupe of Russian folk dancers in peasant garb, one of whom carries a loaf of bread in a basket, the deeper meaning of which -- or maybe it is more train announcements -- somebody narrates. But the attentions of the guests are already fixed on the paupiette of Caspian Sea bass, which arrives with the pouring of an amiable DeLoach Chardonnay, 1991.

The second course is the czarina's duck, a bird wrapped in cabbage, accompanied by a Domaine Les Goubert Gigondas, 1985. Next up, according to the menu, is a sorbet intermezzo dubbed Rasputin's blackberry granita. Only this is no ordinary sorbet; it's intended as much to blow guests' minds as to cleanse their palates. Without warning, the waiters and waitresses suddenly come swooping out in single file from the kitchen, each hand bearing a plate glowing eerily from within and giving off mysterious clouds of fog.

A hubbub rises from each table, as the dinner guests bend over their sorbets, which continue to glow and steam in front of them. Some of the more adventurous disassemble their sorbet apparatus, which comprises a bottom plate containing dry ice, a lTC small light bulb and a battery pack over that, and then a cloth napkin solidified in ice with the solitary dollop of blackberry sorbet lying on top.

Next is the main course, a well-received dish called Nicolai's medallions of veal -- slices of veal under fried onions. And, of course, more wine, a Chateau Leoville Lascases, 1987.

"Do you know how much you'd have to pay for a dinner like this in a restaurant?" Mr. Goldberg asks. His guests don't know, and neither does he, but everyone agrees it would be a lot more than $120. But the food itself is just a small part of the Chaine's appeal, Mr. Goldberg observes, turning philosophical. "From what I've seen, the way people feel about food is the way they feel about life. Some people are moved by it. They get emotional over it, they appreciate it. Just like they appreciate the finer things in life . . . .

"Maybe that's why we have more entrepreneurs than corporate executives," he muses. "Entrepreneurs aren't dull people; they're not subdued, they're characters. They express themselves. . . . They just seem to like life more than executives.

"You know," he adds, "I have wealthy friends who haven't gone out to a black-tie affair in seven or eight years. Where's the elegance in their lives? We go to them at least six times a year."

With the main course cleared away, sophisticated palates are calling, "Hey, where's the salad?" Not to disappoint, the Stuehlers present their version of a Russian peasant salad -- a blend of mache, a leafy green similar to watercress; frisse, a cousin to endive; and red oak lettuce.

"You know," says Mr. Goldberg, "these greens were selected specifically to complement the veal. Before selecting tonight's menu, we had to have 12 tastings. Twelve. Sometimes we'll do a tasting, and have to tell a restaurant they're just not ready for us. It wouldn't be fair to let them host a Chaine dinner, if they're not up to our standards." (Restaurants visited by the local Chaine in the past year include Da Mimmo in Little Italy; Rudys' 2900 in Finksburg; Hampton's in downtown Baltimore, and Due in Owings Mills.)

If Mr. Goldberg or the Stuehlers are harboring any doubts as to this evening's success, those doubts will disappear with the appearance of dessert. But first, the Russian dance troupe emerges again, this time, to perform a Cossack kick dance and get us in the mood for . . . the Faberge gift: white chocolate eggs decorated with candy rubies and emeralds and topped with edible silver crowns. Inside each is a chocolate mousse and raspberry puree. Squeals of delight go up all around.

Now Mr. Stuehler is approaching Duke Goldberg's table. He's had a long day. "Do you know what a pain in the a-- it is to paint a hundred fifty of these eggs?" he demands, flushed with the exhilaration of the evening.

Mr. Goldberg concedes it must have been quite a job.

"We had nine people working all night last night, painting these eggs. Then, 12 more today, all day," persists Mr. Stuehler. "If we sold them individually, we'd have to charge $90 for one egg."

It was all worth it, the bailli assures him, as he gets up to resume his role as master of ceremonies. "How about putting your hands together for Tom and Nancy Stuehler," he exhorts the crowd, and the cacophony in the ballroom swells as the dinner guests applaud, first, the Stuehlers. Then, their executive vice president. Then the chef, the sous-chef, the pastry chef, the restaurant manager, the off-premises manager, the maitre d', the head of the wait staff and, finally, the waiters.

When the noise dies down, the Baltimore chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs moves out into the night, disbanding for another month.

The next morning, Tom and Nancy Stuehler go on vacation for 10 days to recuperate.

JACK SMITH is a free-lance writer living in Philadelphia.

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