Chesapeake cuisine takes on a decidedly French accent next week when five young chefs put their talents together to cook a "world-class" dinner for noted French chef, author and culinary educator Madeleine Kamman.
The chefs, all of whom attended Ms. Kamman's School for American Chefs at Beringer Vineyards in St. Helena, Calif., are cooking up a benefit dinner for the American Institute of Wine and Food Nov. 2 at Caves Valley Club in Owings Mills. In putting together the six-course dinner, the chefs tried to apply the principles Ms. Kamman instilled in them.
"I teach classic techniques of classic French cooking," Ms. Kamman said in a recent phone interview from her home in St. Helena. "That is the best."
In tiny classes, just four people each, Ms. Kamman goes over such varied topics as techniques, the chemistry of foods, the history of foods, and the pairing of food with wine. She may also touch on such non-food topics as restaurant costs, insurance and legal problems.
"They come from all levels so I put in a lot of culture," said Ms. Kamman, who was born in Paris and educated at the Sorbonne. "I put in a whole comprehensive food history -- I go back 10,000 years, back to the Stone Age."
The heart of the course is a list of ingredients from which the chefs have to construct a menu. When Barry Fleischmann and Ned Atwater, co-chairmen of the chef's committee, were planning the AIWF dinner, they decided to structure it just like that.
"We wanted to use the format of how she did it at the school, and we wanted to use things that were indigenous to the season and the region," said Mr. Fleischmann, chef and owner, with his wife Maria, of Innovative Gourmet Caterers in Owings Mills. He attended Ms. Kamman's professional course in 1994. "We definitely wanted Maryland seafood -- rockfish, oysters, lobster -- Atlantic lobster, they do come off the coast locally -- some poultry, something that was game-related."
The resulting menu includes roulade of fois gras, leeks and caramelized pears with almonds, hazelnut flour spaetzle (dumplings) with chanterelles and roasted pearl onions, rack of venison with braised cabbage and bacon, and milk chocolate pecan torte with chocolate leaves. Each dish will be paired with a Beringer wine.
"It's one of the first times I've sat down with this many chefs and tried to come up with a menu," said Dave Rudie, executive chef at the Milton Inn who attended Ms. Kamman's school in 1994. Others in the group are Mr. Atwater, executive chef at the Caves Valley Club in Owings Mills, Gwen Kvavli Gulliksen, executive chef at Foster's Restaurant and Wine Bar in Fells Point, and Sean Murphy, executive chef of Culinary Services, Bluebell, Pa., which supplies food service to retirement communities in the region. Mark Henry, chef and owner, with his wife Barbara, of the Chester River Inn, also attended the School for American Chefs in 1992, but wasn't able to participate in the dinner.
It's unusual to have so many School for American Chefs graduates in one place; Baltimore has the largest contingent outside of the San Francisco area of the 200-plus graduates in the eight years the school has been operating.
In the late 1980s when Ms. Kamman, who had a cooking school and restaurant in Boston, wanted to move to California, she asked Tor Kenward, vice president of winery relations at Beringer, if the winery would be interested in helping her set up a culinary school there. Unlike Julia Child, the country's other noted proponent of French cooking who has spent decades convincing ordinary people they could master the classic techniques, the emphasis of Ms. Kamman, the chefs' chef, has long been on the work of professionals. The school at Beringer allowed her to take that one step further.
"I had been teaching people to go into the profession," she said, "but [Mr. Kenward] said, let's make it a scholarship school for chefs already working."
"Challenging" and "thrilling" are words that came up often when the local graduates talked about their experiences at the school.
"Anyone who's met her realizes she has a profound love of this field and a mind-boggling amount of information," Mr. Rudie said.
"You kind of walk away with a numb head," Mr. Henry said. "There's so much information, from farming to chemistry to geography to history -- it takes a couple of months to sink in."
Ms. Kamman, whose popular cookbooks include "The Making of A Cook," "When French Women Cook," and the "In Madeleine's Kitchen," has a reputation for being somewhat daunting, and some of her students admitted to being nervous before the first daylong session of the two-week course.
"Madeleine has a lot of energy and she's pretty direct," said Mr. Atwater, who was at the school in 1994. "If she turned something
over to you and you didn't know how to do it, or you didn't listen to her explanation of how to do it, she didn't hesitate to get in your face."
Ms. Kamman's emphasis is on the basics. "It's about keeping food simple, letting the flavors speak for themselves," said Mr. Murphy, who was at the school in 1993. He noted that Ms. Kamman was preaching about fresh foods and simple preparations in the 1970s, concepts that are still making their way onto restaurant menus. It's a particularly radical notion in the retirement service industry, he said. "It used to be convenience foods, can-opener cooking. I'm turning it around to all fresh foods, seafood and stuff."
"One of the most difficult things to do is to build a palate," Ms. Kamman said. "People really don't know what food should taste like. I try to give them an opening to the spiritual angle of cooking -- taking the ingredient as it was created, and giving it full value. It's really a taste drill, a tremendous taste drill."
The emphasis on taste may be Ms. Kamman's most profound contribution to American culinary education. "There's gradually been a loss of taste in this country, physically and aesthetically," as people lose cooking skills and turn increasingly to convenience foods, said Ms. Gulliksen, who was in the same class as Mr. Murphy. "And there's this small group of chefs out there pushing against that."
The chefs hope the AIWF dinner will be a major push in the taste direction.
"She likes to call the school the 'Graduate School for American Chefs,' " Ms. Gulliksen said. "This is like our Ph.D. oral exams."
"We hope people realize Baltimore has not just great crab cakes, but sensational food otherwise," Mr. Rudie said.
The dinner to honor Ms. Kamman begins with champagne at 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 2 at the Caves Valley Club, 2910 Blendon Road, Owings Mills. The dinner is at 7:15 p.m. Cost is $150 per person for AIWF members, and $175 per person for nonmembers. Seating is limited. For more information, call AIWF at (410) 244-0044.