It's only 10 a.m.,but the vast second-floor kitchen at the Harbor Court Hotel is a symphony of sound and movement: Chefs are preparing salads and stocks and pastries, dishwashers are washing dishes, stewards are pushing large carts that deliver food to banquet facilities. In the center of it all is the conductor, executive chef Holly Forbes -- appropriately enough a former music major -- directing the action, monitoring the timing and bringing the pieces together.
Since July 1, when she stepped in to fill the large shoes of award-winning local culinary titan Michael Rork, Ms. Forbes -- an animated, humorous, down-to-earth woman whose favorite expression is "Cool!" -- has established herself as a solid presence in the kitchen, which serves hotel banquets and events, room service, Brighton's, and the four-star restaurant Hampton's.
Moving from her role as sous chef into the job as executive chef has not been daunting, Ms. Forbes says. "I feel like I've been in training for it for a couple of years. Now I'm responsible for everything, and I can put a little bit more of my personality into it. It's my food stamp on here, not Michael's anymore. . . . Now it's my Barbie dream kitchen and I can do what I want to do."
Mr. Rork, who left the hotel after eight years to become chef-owner of the Town Dock restaurant in St. Michaels, says Ms. Forbes is a natural: "She's very talented besides being a good cook. She's really good with employees, too. She has a very sincere attitude toward her employees, and toward her cooking too,."
Born and raised in Knoxville, Tenn., Ms. Forbes, 35, originally trained for a career in music, studying voice and piano at the University of Tennessee. But she decided she would never advance beyond a certain level of proficiency in music, and petitioned her father, a piano technician, for permission to change careers. She took a year off and researched cooking schools.
"I had always been interested in cooking. I only ever wanted to cook as good as my mother did," Ms. Forbes says. Her mother was a self-taught gourmet cook who "embarrassed" her children by eschewing anything as mundane as turkey at Thanksgiving in favor of crab-stuffed roast tenderloin.
Ms. Forbes settled on the Baltimore International Culinary College: "The price was right and it wasn't Knoxville." She graduated in 1983, taught and worked in a number of restaurants, including the Omni Hotel and Broadview dining room, in Baltimore and Washington. "I learned a lot in three years, it was just this amazing mushroom of knowledge." A job at Harbor Court "fell out of the sky," she says. She spent two years as pastry chef, then spent the last four years as Mr. Rork's sous chef.
Now that she's in charge, she plans some "fine-tuning" of the menus at the hotel and at Hampton's. "Michael had a Southwestern influence. I'm going more toward a Southern influence. A little more progressive. A little more healthful -- we're trying to reduce the amount of cream sauces and be a little more '90s. I think Hampton's has been in a food coma for a couple of years."
Do not mistake Southern for down-home, or healthful for health-food store: Hampton's four stars should be safe with such dishes as rack of lamb with homemade lamb sausage on wild rice cakes, and stuffed salmon steak with shiitake mushrooms and cilantro sauce. Diners can also expect to see such things as bean relishes, spoon bread or corn bread, in place of traditional sauteed vegetables or rolls.
Ms. Forbes says the food is influenced by Maryland's spot on the map: "It's almost Atlantic, but then it's kind of still Southern. Maybe it's a good thing, because there is such a wealth of resources available to us -- seafood, and we have wonderful farmers down in Virginia that we get our range lamb and range veal from.
"I'm a down-to-earth, approachable kind of person, and that's how I cook. I'm not into the pretensions and all the frou-frou -- touch my food too much and I won't eat it. We can still do a kind of Asian, pan-Pacific, fusion kind of thing, on our specials. But the foundation menu just needs to be little more simple, a little more light."
Duke Goldberg, who as president of the gourmet food and wine group La Chaine des Rotisseurs has overseen a number of events at Harbor Court, says of Ms. Forbes, "If she puts her mind to it, and the hotel gives her the freedom, she's going to do a great job." When she was pastry chef, he says, her creations were "beyond spectacular."
Ms. Forbes, however, seems too modest to seek fame for herself. "I'll never be a Jean-Louis [D.C. chef Jean-Louis Palladin] or a Lydia Shire [chef at Biba in Boston]. There have to be some Marian the Librarians somewhere."
If she can get her staff to be "enthusiastic" about the food and serving the hotel's guests, she says, she'll be happy.
"I just want the food to speak for itself. I'm always scared the food reads better on the menu than it tastes on the plate." Instead, she wants people to be surprised and delighted by what appears on the dish in front of them.
It is time for her to get into action. She twists her long, straight, blond hair up to fit under a chef's hat; the hat will soon be discarded because it's hot. At mid-morning, the hotel seems quiet, but behind closed doors, it is a seething giant. Meeting rooms are full, dining rooms are being prepared for meals that the meeting participants will soon break for. "My banquet chef comes in at 11," she says, "and he's going to be in the weeds" -- kitchen talk for running behind.
"I'm going to do some prep for him."
She checks a list of the day's food requirements and begins to mince some garlic. Some executive chefs never touch an implement in the kitchen, she says, "But I don't feel like I've done anything in a day if I don't pick up a knife."
She puts the garlic on to saute, begins chopping leeks. Things happen fast in a big kitchen. Tenderloins lie seemingly abandoned on a counter, then suddenly appear as carefully sliced sandwich fixings on decorated trays. Rapidly sliced vegetables are tossed into a pan, then vanish into a steamer and reappear in the plating line.
Ms. Forbes says she appreciates the rapid rewards of cooking. "With music, progress is so slow you have to stick with it for years and years" to see results, she says. With cooking, "it's instant gratification. It's satisfying a basic need. It's creative. You go home knowing you've accomplished something."
It's not unusual for kitchen workers to have come from another background. "It seems like everybody is a misfit of some kind," Ms. Forbes says. "One of Hampton's chefs was an arts major. At the Broadview, there was a woman who was an antique-book restorer."
Sometimes the unusual background can help. A few years ago, Ms. Forbes had to step in when a pianist didn't show up for a wedding. She put a tuxedo jacket over her chef's coat and played "The Wedding March." "My father was so proud when I called him up," she says.
She races off to a meeting of the banquet-event staff, where they go over every event occurring at the hotel in the next few days, making sure the food service will be on time and in place for each one. They substitute one dish for another for one event. "Holly, is that price still the same?"
Prices and inventory all fall within Ms. Forbes' sphere, as do staffing and hiring and firing. She oversees 23 cooks who prepare the food, and 17 stewards who wash dishes, help deliver food to the banquet rooms and help "plate up," or place food on plates before serving.
"It can be really overwhelming if you're not careful," she says. "I have to kick myself every now and then -- you can't do everything at once."
With the meeting over, Ms. Forbes is back in the kitchen helping stock the huge rolling racks that will carry the prepared food to a central area near the banquet facilities. Guests never see these parts of the hotel -- the endless, mysterious, crooked hallways and surprising rooms that allow hotel employees to appear, whisk food into place, and whisk it away, all apparently by magic.
Ms. Forbes runs out to check the progress of meetings, and calls back to the banquet chef to adjust timing. Shortly afterward, the racks come rumbling into the small assembly room, and Ms. Forbes, banquet chef Sean Fields and a steward begin plating up the two different lunches for two functions. Everyone works swiftly and silently. The finished plates are covered and stacked and a member of the wait staff hoists up the huge tray and disappears. Lunch is served. For the moment the rush is over.
Back in her office, Ms. Forbes pauses to plot her schedule for the next week, taking items from the daily lists and writing them on a chart that she pins on the wall. Does all the organization, the constant, shifting panoply of ingredients inspire her to cook at home?
"I don't cook at home," she says, laughing. "I order in. It's real rare that I cook at home." Indian and Chinese meals are favorites, she says. The Forbes family -- husband Judd is a federal employee and they have daughters Marley, 3, and Kyle, 1 -- lives in a house in Fells Point built in 1782. "I feel sorry for the ghosts -- we may have driven them all out."
Her daughters have eclectic tastes.: The 3-year-old will not eat anything but potato chips and "other junk"; the younger child will eat Sichuan peppers.
"My husband and I are 'hot heads,' " Ms. Forbes says. "That's the only thing in our refrigerator. We must have 60 varieties of hot sauce. We travel around looking for the hottest stuff. It's almost an addiction after a while."
Her "lunch" this day is a sampling of potato chips; she's looking for something different to serve with simple sandwich-type meals and for snacks. A member of the hotel staff comes in to go over inventory. "Here, try the Cajun," she says. "How many tomatoes have you got downstairs? Got enough eggs and butter?" She samples the "Tex-Mex" chips and likes them, flips over the package to check the ingredients. "No way -- these have blue cheese in them. I hate blue cheese."
Working in a premier hotel such as Harbor Court also means catering to the tastes of celebrity visitors. Frank Sinatra's party presented two pages of food requests, then was so pleased it stayed an extra day. Members of the Saudi Arabian royal family visit a few times a year, Ms. Forbes says. Sometimes they bring their own chef, who stores extra spices in Ms. Forbes office. Sometimes they ask for Kentucky Fried Chicken. which someone has to .
But Ms. Forbes wants Harbor Court to be a place where food is pleasing and fun, not daunting. She recently served a "beer and barbecue" dinner at Hampton's to a group of gourmet diners that included smoked yellow-tomato gazpacho, wild game sausage and roasted lamb with Anchor Steam sauce.
"I wanted to set the table with Chinet and Dixie cups," she jokes, "but the wait staff wouldn't let me."
Here's a recipe from the "beer and barbecue" dinner, which has
also been on the menu at Hampton's.
Grilled Leg of Lamb With Anchor Steam Sauce
1 5-pound leg of lamb, deboned, butterflied and pounded lightly
1 head of garlic, roasted in 325-degree oven for approximately 10 minutes (see note)
1/2 cup of chopped fresh herbs (basil, rosemary, sage, or other combination to taste)
kosher salt, to taste
freshly ground pepper, to taste
1/2 cup olive oil, approximately
Anchor Steam sauce (recipe follows)
Heat oven to 325 degrees.
Rub one side of leg of lamb with salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with half of olive oil and rub that in. Press out the garlic and rub that in. Sprinkle with chopped herbs. Roll up jelly-roll fashion and tie with butcher's twine. Rub rest of olive oil over outside, salt and pepper to taste.
Sear in roasting pan over medium heat until browned on all sides. Finish in oven, cooking approximately 15 minutes per pound. Or grill for about 2 1/2 hours, until preferred degree of doneness is reached. (Ms. Forbes prefers rare-medium rare.) Serve with Anchor Steam Sauce.
Per serving: calories, 778; protein, 57 g; fat, 59 g; sodium, 696 mg; carbohydrates, 2 g.
Anchor Steam Sauce
Makes about 4 cups
2 bottles Anchor Steam beer
2 bottles Beck's dark beer
1 head of garlic, cloves peeled
1 large onion, chopped
1 can beef broth
1 can chicken broth
2 carrots, chopped
1 bay leaf
several sprigs of thyme
salt and pepper to taste
2 to 3 tablespoons cornstarch, mixed with 2 tablespoons water
Put all ingredients in nonreactive pan and cook over medium-high heat until liquid is reduced by half. Strain and return to pan. Add salt and pepper to taste, thicken lightly with cornstarch (use only what you need to reach desired consistency), adjust seasoning.
Note: Roast the garlic as you preheat the oven to cook the lamb. For best results, cut off top quarter of bunch, place in glass dish or on cookie sheet. Do not let the garlic burn.
Per 1/2 cup: calories, 148; protein, 2 g; fat, 1 g; sodium, 1074 mg; carbohydrates, 6 g.