Baltimore's newest and perhaps most-noted chef, Karim Lakhani, didn't set out to be a culinary star, colleague with the likes of D.C.'s Jean-Louis Palladin and California's Michel Richard, gossip target of Washingtonian magazine. At one point he didn't intend to be a chef at all, in fact; he wanted to be a photographer, or a pilot.
But life had already taken several unexpected turns for Mr. Lakhani, born in Africa of Indian descent. His family was well-to-do, with servants and nice cars. But, in 1972, Ugandan dictator Idi Amin ordered all Asians to leave the country. Mr. Lakhani, then 12, his mother and his uncle fled to Canada in a transition he calls "riches to rags."
Now, sitting in the Peabody Grill at the Latham Hotel Baltimore, where he's been in charge for just four months of a culinary empire that also includes Citronelle, the rooftop restaurant created by Chef Richard, Mr. Lakhani tells his life story without pathos, and with some amusement. "I remember the day we arrived -- and we'd never seen snow," Mr. Lakhani says. "It was November . . . and it was snow up to our thighs. We didn't have any warm clothing, no boots, nothing."
They settled in Regina, Saskatchewan. Times were hard, at first, he says. "My uncle had to become a janitor. My mother was a very good seamstress, so she started doing that."
But his family had always been in the food business, with bakeries and restaurants in Uganda, so it was natural that he would gravitate toward the kitchen. At the hotel where they were staying, he recalls, he got a job helping wash dishes and pots. "The chef would always look after me, give me a nice meal afterward . . . I was a big fan of eating."
Mr. Lakhani's early experience in the business left him with a profound respect for the dishwashers of the world. "I think in any hotel or restaurant, without them you couldn't survive. They are the ones that really lead you through the day, through the toughest times . . ." If he finds dishwashers who long to be chefs and have some talent in that direction, he will make sure they get promoted. "So at least they have some sort of career ahead of them, if that's what they want," he says. "I look after them."
He credits his mother for nurturing his early interest in cooking, tolerating the "big mess" he made in the kitchen. "She's always been the strongest support," he says.
He jumps up to see what he can do for a customer who is looking for her waiter; earlier he broke off conversation to seat a couple and give them menus. He will do virtually anything to please a customer, from discussing the menu to making recommendations to preparing a fat-free meal to carefully downsizing a dessert. One regular customer of Citronelle's will not order until he talks to "Chef." "That's the service business," Mr. Lakhani says, with a smile.
When the family moved to a small town outside Toronto, Mr. Lakhani again went to work in a hotel kitchen, working his way up from dishwasher to the pantry, and later followed the chef into a catering business. But when he graduated from secondary school, he enrolled in a photography course.
However, he discovered at an orientation session he would need about $3,000 in equipment to pursue the course. "I just didn't think it was fair to put that kind of strain on my family," he says. So he went to talk to his chef friend, who told him about Canada's apprenticeship program for culinary professionals. He found a chef at Toronto's Windsor Arms Hotel who agreed to sponsor him, and decided, "Let me give it a try."
Because of his previous culinary experience, he was credited with one year toward the 3-year program, the first of a series of breaks that would propel him to his first executive chef position at the tender age of 27, at the Palace Hotel in Philadelphia -- and a few years later to executive chef at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, sharing space, recipes, ideas, and perhaps just a little fame, with 2-star Michelin chef Jean-Louis Palladin.
Friends and colleagues
"He's a good guy," says Mr. Palladin, noting that in the 15 years he's been at the Watergate, Mr. Lakhani is the only executive chef he has been friends with. "He listens," Mr. Palladin says. "I cannot stand an executive chef, because he is working with numbers and not with the oven. You need to prove yourself to me in front of the oven" -- and Mr. Lakhani was able to do just that. "From the mentality of an executive chef, he became a chef," Mr. Palladin says.
The erstwhile photographer had developed into a chef with a passion for success. "Whatever I do I put my heart into it," Mr. Lakhani says. He has no patience with people who complain that "the system" keeps them from succeeding in the kitchen or anywhere else. "It's all up to the individual," he says. "You have to go for what you want. I'm a minority, and look where I've gotten to. It's because I was giving it 110 percent and going after my dreams."
Why then, did he leave the power-packed world of Washington for the home-town environs of Baltimore?
"A lot of people ask me that," he says. "I gave the Watergate four years, and I felt that that was long enough. I had worked with a great chef, like Jean-Louis, and I figured it was time to go on and work in a different place with a different environment, and working with Michel Richard was another steppingstone toward [becoming] a recognized chef. . . . Being 33 years old, I am still young, and I can still learn a lot."
Working with Mr. Richard means he has a chance to make day-to-day decisions and to "look after" Citronelle, which is one of a series of Michel Richard restaurants across the country. (There are other Citronelles in Santa Barbara, Calif., and Georgetown.)
He follows Mr. Richard's philosophy in the Citronelle kitchen, but, he says, "I also give it my own touch with the local produce, Maryland produce, Maryland seafood. . . . The responsibility is on my shoulders to make sure the clientele of Baltimore still likes what we do."
Mr. Richard likes what Mr. Lakhani has done so far. "First, he's a very nice man, he's smart, he respects my philosophy," says Mr.Richard, whose newest restaurant, Bistro M, opens in San Francisco in 10 days. "I think that what I really like with him, . . . he's not afraid to spend some time in the dining room and talk to the customers -- which is very important these days."
Making sure Baltimore likes what the restaurant does may be the biggest challenge for Mr. Lakhani. He's the fourth Citronelle chef since the restaurant opened in February 1993. Food-service veterans in Baltimore have wondered aloud if the vision is clear enough to succeed.
Mr. Lakhani bristles, slightly, at the notion that Citronelle, brainchild of a trendy West Coast chef, is "too California" for Baltimore. "I wouldn't call this so much California cuisine," he says. "What I would call this is a light French restaurant, but still with good basics of cooking."
Something of a change
There's definitely a market in Baltimore for the upscale-casual atmosphere and carefully designed food that Citronelle offers, Mr. Lakhani says. "People in Baltimore wanted a change, they were looking for something different. They didn't want to travel" to Washington or Philadelphia. "So they enjoy this type of cuisine."
William Driscoll, general manager of the hotel, considers Citronelle "a little more leading edge" than mainstream Baltimore restaurants, and suggests it may require "a little longer introduction" to the Baltimore market. Owner Capstar, which took over the property in August 1992, is committed to the idea of a fine restaurant enhancing the "boutique" quality of the 104-room hotel, he says, even though, "the Baltimore dining market tends to be more of a weekend and special-occasion place, so we're not doing the volume we would like."
Both Mr. Driscoll and Mr. Lakhani express the desire to draw a somewhat younger crowd than frequented its predecessor, the posh Conservatory, to the more casual, trendy atmosphere at Citronelle. Mr. Lakhani has just revised all the menues at Citronelle and the Peabody Grill; at Citronelle, he broadened the choices. Both men are concerned that people remember the Conservatory as being pricey, while Citronelle is more reasonable. Mr. Driscoll says the average food check at Citronelle is $35, $50 with wine, compared with $80-$85 with wine at the Conservatory.
Mr. Driscoll says the hotel was "very, very fortunate" to hire Mr. Lakhani. "We were not only looking for a strong individual with culinary talents, but also one with a good personality . . . someone as good in the front of the house [the dining area] as in the back of the house [the kitchen]. Karim's excellent with the public. . . . He's a good listener. Sometimes chefs have egos that get in the way . . . but he never lets that happen."
"He's a commodity," says Diane Feffer-Neas, a Baltimore restaurant consultant, of Mr. Lakhani. "For him to come to Baltimore is very interesting." With his Watergate experience, she says, "He could have looked for a job in New York, or in Washington." Mr. Lakhani's task will be to "endear himself to the city," she says, noting that local chefs are unusually active in the community here. But she noted that Citronelle is "sort of an enigma to most people. They need to do some serious consumer education, to say this is what we are, this is what our food is."
Mr. Lakhani's aware of that, but for the moment, he has several more immediate problems: He needs a pastry chef, he needs an oven repaired in the downstairs kitchen, he needs a reliable source of good bread, and he needs Japanese ginger in big jars. For at least the latter two items, he turns to Marcus Taylor, of Preferred Purchasing Concepts Inc. Mr. Taylor, a former executive chef in Washington, now runs a company that seeks out and delivers to their door whatever it is chefs want.
Over lunch, Mr. Lakhani and Mr. Taylor discuss a number of things, but bread is a problem: the two discuss several options for getting what Mr. Lakhani wants but part with no conclusions.
The search for quality
It's easier these days to get the exact products he wants, Mr. Lakhani says, because more good chefs are demanding them. And it has to do with more than merely pleasing customers' palates. "In the '90s, it's just changed. Being a chef does not mean you just cook." Among other things, he says, "you have to read the stock market." The prices of commodities like sugar and coffee can have a profound effect on a restaurant's bottom line. "With food costs and labor costs, the profit margin is very small."
In the afternoon, he goes to Cross Street Market -- part of a campaign to familiarize himself with the city markets -- then goes by Mastellone's Delicatessen on Harford Road, where he and owner Andrea Mastellone are experimenting with a mozzarella cheese roll with olive pate inside.
But it is getting late, and Mr. Lakhani has to hurry back to the hotel to change back into his chef's clothes for the dinner service at Citronelle.
Despite his familiarity with the markets -- he's also been to Lexington and Northeast -- he's had little time to view the city. He still lives in Silver Spring and commutes to Baltimore, which he considers a boon. "I enjoy the drive," he says. It gives him a chance to get organized for the day, or to review how things have gone and ponder changes, without interruptions or problems. "The creativity just flows better," he says.
Social life? What social life?
What it doesn't give him is much time for social activities. "The only part I don't like about this business is the social life that comes with it," he says. "There is none."
That did not keep Washingtonian, in a article this month on "Big Name Hunting: Second Marriages with a Twist," about powerful women who seek out marriages with powerful men, from listing Mr. Lakhani, along with Jean-Louis Palladin and Yannick Cam, as chefs in demand by social trophy hunters. Mr. Lakhani grimaces at the designation. "Nobody needs that."
Back at the hotel, he begins the evening by tasting all the stocks and sauces -- there are no heavy cream sauces; instead Citronelle uses broths and infusions to add flavor without fat. Michel Richard's rules for his cuisine begin with fresh, high-quality ingredients and end with "keep it simple, keep it light," Mr. Lakhani says. It's a philosophy he has no trouble following, as it matches his own interests, honed by a stint in Monte Carlo with 3-star Michelin chef Alain Ducasse, acclaimed by some as "the best French chef ever" and dismissed by others as "not French at all" for his championship of extremely simple preparations.
"Alain Ducasse showed me a way of cooking, of just simplifying it. Instead of masking things with sauces you were using their own flavors . . . Because you've got a good fresh-quality product, you've got the flavors that are going to come out of that product and you don't want to lose that."
In the kitchen Mr. Lakhani is low-key, but intense, moving with economy of motion, seemingly doing several things at once. Dishes go out looking elegant and unusual -- a lobster shell perches above steamed lobster on corn polenta, veal chops stand up and brace a sprig of rosemary -- and come back completely empty, almost as if they have been scraped clean at the table.
One waiter comes in to say his table includes a baby; can she just have some pasta? A line chef prepares a small plate of pasta with butter and a little Parmesan. Mr. Lakhani prepares red snapper in a bed of salt -- "The scales are left on so it won't get salty" -- and discusses the impact reviews have on restaurants. "The power of the press is phenomenal," he says; a single review can make or break a restaurant.
The waiter returns to get another plate of pasta for the child, who turns out to be a year old. "Is she eating that or throwing it on the floor?" Mr. Lakhani asks in amazement. Later he goes out to talk to diners, and pretty soon he's got the baby, carrying her around introducing her. "Her name is Mary," he tells the hostess.
"People today, they want a personal touch," he says. "I love Baltimore, because the people who come in for dinner, it's their entertainment, the meal is their whole night. They want to talk to the chef. In Washington, people were in and out, you were there to be seen. Baltimore people are much warmer."
He carries Mary back to her mother and returns to the kitchen. "She's having a great time," he says, grinning. "She's waiting for her ice cream."
Here are some of recipes from the Peabody Grill and Citronelle. Two are Mr. Lakhani's, one is from "Michel Richard's Home Cooking with a French Accent," by Michel Richard with Judy Ziedler and Jan Weimer (William Morrow and Co., Inc, 1993, $30).
Pistachio-encrusted tuna with mesclun salad
FOR THE MARINADE:
2 cups olive oil
1/4 bunch tarragon, chopped
1 teaspoon white peppercorns
1/2 bunch chives, chopped
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 ounce lemon juice
FOR THE TUNA:
4 tuna steaks, 5 ounces each
3/4 cup shelled pistachios
3 ounces olive oil
FOR THE SALAD:
2 packages daikon sprouts (see note)
2 ounces mesclun salad (see note)
4 yellow pear tomatoes
4 red pear tomatoes
FOR THE DRESSING:
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons chopped herbs (basil, thyme and chives)
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 teaspoon Pommery mustard
Mix all marinade ingredients together. Place tuna in casserole or other glass dish, pour marinade over and cover. Marinate overnight in refrigerator.
To prepare tuna, crush pistachios to bits in blender or food processor. Spread crushed nuts on small plate and gently press both sides of each piece of tuna until nuts adhere. Heat olive oil in large skillet at medium heat and saute tuna, about 3 minutes per side, until rare.
To prepare salad, mix dressing ingredients together and toss with mesclun.
Serve tuna with mesclun, daikon sprouts and pear tomatoes on side.
Note: Daikon sprouts and mesclun salad (a blend of baby or exotic lettuces) are available in the produce section of supermarkets.
Citronelle serves cracked steamed lobster atop this intensely flavored corn polenta devised by Michel Richard. It would also be good with crab cakes, or served as a side vegetable.
Fresh corn polenta
6 large ears of corn, husked
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, or to taste
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 to 3/4 stick chilled unsalted butter, chopped
Brush silk off corn. Using a sharp knife, and slicing from top to bottom of cob, cut a slit through center of each corn kernel. Holding corn over a large, deep baking dish or tray, scrape the pulp out of the corn kernels with a large soup spoon or the back of a heavy knife, leaving the corn skin. (This can be prepared ahead, covered with plastic wrap and set aside at room temperature.)
To serve, heat a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the corn puree and stir until the corn liquid is absorbed and the mixture thickens, for about 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the cheese. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in the butter. Mound in a vegetable dish or spoon out onto 4 plates with entree. Serve
Blueberry lemon yogurt mousse
1 ounce butter
1/4 cup sugar
16 ounces plain yogurt
1/2 cup sugar
6 ounces lemon juice
zest from 4 lemons, blanched and chopped
16 ounces heavy cream, whipped to soft peaks
5 sheets of gelatin (see note)
2 cups fresh blueberries, cut in half
sponge cake (recipe follows; see note)
blueberry sauce (recipe follows)
Butter 12 4-ounce molds or ramekins on sides and bottom and pTC sprinkle with sugar.
Mix sugar, yogurt, lemon juice, and lemon zest together. Soak gelatin sheets in cold water until soft. Remove sheets from water and place in glass baking dish; melt in microwave for 5 seconds. Pour gelatin into yogurt mixture.
Set blueberries in bottom of molds, cut sides down.
L Pour 4 ounces, about 1/4 cup, of yogurt-gelatin mix into mold.
Place 1 piece of sponge cake, trimmed to fit mold and sliced 1/4 -inch thick, on top of mixture in mold and set in refrigerator for four hours.
Unmold on plate so berries are up and serve with blueberry sauce.
Note: Gelatin sheets are available at supermarkets and gourmet specialty stores (one brand is Otekar). You can make the following simple sponge cake, or use purchased pound cake.
Makes one large sheet cake
4 large eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup plain bleached cake flour in a sifter
Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
Beat the eggs and sugar in the bowl of mixer for 5 minutes, until thick, fluffy and tripled in volume. Rapidly sift and fold in the flour with a big rubber spatula and scoop the batter into a non-stick baking sheet 1/2 inch high.
Bake on middle level of oven for 20 to 35 minutes, until done. Cake is done when toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Turn cake out on a rack to cool completely before trimming for molds.
Makes 2 cups
1 1/2 cups fresh blueberries
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Puree blueberries with 1/2 cup of sugar in blender or processor. Add lemon juice, taste and adjust flavor. If necessary, pass sauce through a fine sieve.