Culinary Visions Palates and plates: At Visionary Art Museum cafe, chef Peter Zimmer satisfies appetites for the unusual.


There's one thing chef Peter Zimmer wants made absolutely clear: His philosophy of supporting sustainable agriculture, biodiversity and environmental protection stems not from some spacey New Age notion of Mother Earth, but from a deep sense of responsibility for every single person who eats at his restaurant.

"It's not about being holistic or on a pedestal," he said, sitting in the light-drenched dining room of the Joy America Cafe at the new American Visionary Art Museum, which opened last week on Key Highway. In the restaurant industry, he said, "We serve billions of people a year, [foods with] pesticides, herbicides, residues -- should we really be doing this? When should we take responsibility? It's not about being New Age, not at all. It's just about awakening a little bit and saying, I'm going to be responsible for everyone who comes through my restaurant."

That said, the young man who is widely expected by most of the people in it to turn Baltimore's culinary community on its collective ear with his Southwest-meets-Far-East food, goes on to note of his decision to move from Sante Fe, where he was a four-star, five-diamond celebrity chef at the Inn of the Anasazi, to the brand-new and mildly controversial museum for "outsider" art in Baltimore, "A lot of it had to do with a leap of faith," he said.

"I really fell in love with the whole idea of this museum, the idea of the human capacity, the human genius, the ability to express someone's self out of any form," he said. He likes the idea that the outsider artists -- who have no formal training and create spontaneously, usually out of materials at hand -- can't quite be stuck with labels. "It's something that's very strong within me, I think, because I am self-taught as well."

Rebecca Hoffberger, founder and driving force behind the museum, first met Mr. Zimmer at the Inn of the Anasazi three years ago when she and her husband took their daughter there to celebrate her birthday. "We had the most incredible food we've ever had," she said. They asked to meet the chef and were amazed to find he had no formal training. They told him about their museum for self-taught artists and he was so taken with the idea he volunteered to help design the kitchen and to train a chef for the restaurant.

Then last summer, she said, he called and said he had decided to be that chef.

"Peter is a great artist" whose canvas is the plate and whose medium is food, she said. "It's just a revelation for Baltimore. He will inspire the good chefs here."

Is Baltimore ready for Mr. Zimmer's Navajo flat bread with wood grilled peppers and tomato olive salsa and his dried papaya and cashew nut-crusted halibut with scraped vanilla bean and citrus coulis?

"I certainly look forward to his contribution to the culinary scene," said Holly Forbes, executive chef at Harbor Court Hotel in the Inner Harbor (four stars and four diamonds from national hotel-rating agencies). She met Mr. Zimmer, who's been in Baltimore about 6 months, at a recent event. "He brings a little bit more cosmopolitan air," Ms. Forbes said. "That's what we need. We need excitement and we need competition -- I mean that in the nicest way. It's nice to have someone to look up to."

"People are looking for a different place to go," said Robert Schindler, owner of Pinehurst Wine Shoppe and an active member of the local chapter of the American Institute of Wine and Food, an educational and charitable group. "I'm really excited about it."

Diane Neas, a local restaurant consultant, said, "I understand he's very talented. I think [the cafe] is going to help the museum." But she wondered where patrons will come from. "I think the location [on Key Highway below Federal Hill] is very interesting. Of course, he's going to have another market, the tourist market. He's going to have all the hotels."

While Mr. Schindler notes that the restaurant is not located in an area dense with restaurants, he said "there's a real niche for it. People will go there, that's not the problem." The problem, he said, will be if the restaurant fails to live up to the buzz being created around it. "They're building it up to be something special."

Travelers who've sampled the cuisine at Anasazi, the New Mexico inn where Mr. Zimmer was executive chef, praise its artistry. Museum visitors can get an idea of what that fare was like from Joy America Cafe's current menu, which Merry Stephen, general manager of the inn, said is "very familiar.

"It's a mixture of Southwest, Native American and American cowboy cuisines," she said.

The inn, a 59-room hotel in the heart of Sante Fe, still seems somewhat sensitive about Mr. Zimmer's departure. Ms. Stephen said that when the inn opened in 1991, the food was a collaboration among Mr. Zimmer, his father, Robert Zimmer, who was the inn's president and managing partner, and John Bobrick, the sous chef who's now the executive chef, among others. "The executive chef is the lucky one" who gets all the publicity, she said.

"His name was on the menu," said chef and restaurateur John Sedlar, author of "Modern Southwest Cuisine." Mr. Sedlar grew up in Sante Fe and knew Mr. Zimmer from his first days at the inn. "Peter's food was ultrasophisticated and refined," he said. "That's almost an oxymoron in Southwest food, where the elements tend to be a little coarse, so there's a magical quality" in being able to be so refined without losing the nature of the food. "I think he has a very deft hand."

Music before menus

Mr. Zimmer, who just turned 31, didn't set out to be a chef at all: He wanted to be a musician. He went to performing arts school and played in bands. But he also took a job in a restaurant and discovered he was "a real good dishwasher.

"I got asked to do a lot of tasks for the cook, like peel 280 pounds of potatoes, or take these 75 pounds of carrots and clean them and peel them," Mr. Zimmer said. "So I started trying TC to get my work done quickly and started doing vegetable prep work. In four years I went from a dishwasher to executive chef. I worked usually about two to three jobs."

During that time, he realized that cooking, not music, was going to be his profession. It was also when he began to develop his culinary philosophy.

"I got married and had a child, and I think that's what really changed my concept of food," he said. "Instead of just an accepted commodity that's exchanged, it became almost like a holistic commitment to the earth, a commitment toward the celebration of abundance and life and nutrients, a celebration of people and community and interaction.

"Food can be so emotional to someone who's eating. I found that I had a gift to be able to bring people emotions when they eat. Much beyond the visual satisfaction of, 'Oh, the presentation is incredible.' Someone said to me, there are areas of my taste buds and tongue that I never knew were there until I tried some of your food."

Mr. Zimmer acts on his principles in the food he buys for the restaurant: He searches out small-scale, nearby growers who can grow specific types of crops or varieties. He seeks farmers who don't employ herbicides or pesticides and who care about heirloom varieties. He tries to keep his menu seasonal, so everything will be at the peak of flavor.

At the table, his dishes are spectacular, with tall garnishes, artful squiggles and dots of sauce, fresh herbs on the plate, and perhaps some of his signature snake crackers -- sort of like bread sticks, but shaped into serpentines.

New challenges

His reputation is for Southwest-style food, but Mr. Zimmer says that was because he was in Sante Fe; in Baltimore he expects to incorporate Chesapeake ingredients. He noted that Baltimore, as a port city, has traditionally had wide access to different types of foods and has been influenced by successive waves of settlement. "It's like looking at a snapshot of 200 to 250 years of what's happened to cuisine in this country," he said.

He's not daunted by the prospect of starting from scratch in a new space that was formerly a warehouse. "I've never gone into a restaurant that was existing, it's always been from an opening, even when I was a dishwasher," he said, noting that the process is always stressful.

"It's insane. It's total chaos. There's always problems, equipment not working, a piece of installation that was forgotten and they have to rip a wall out, construction is always behind 45 days, 65 days someone blocks you on a liquor license."

But it's also always exciting, he said. "I don't know what it is, it's something about the challenge of having an empty space, nothing there, and being able to create a sculpture out of it."

But coming up with something new is never a problem for Mr. Zimmer. When he moved to the East Coast he set up a restaurant consulting company, run with his wife Janey, called Spirit Walks. (The Zimmers have two daughters, ages 4 and 3, and another child on the way.) Spirit Walks owns 50 percent of the Joy America Cafe. (The rest is owned by Rebecca and Leroy Hoffberger and other local investors.)

"I have an awful weakness," he said, "I'm really not very good at becoming routine. I have to continually develop and create." With Spirit Walks, he said, "Now I can do what I'm really good at."

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