It's after 6 p.m. and things are beginning to speed up in the kitchen at Savannah, the new Southern-American-with-a-French-accent restaurant at the Admiral Fell Inn in Fells Point. An order comes in and Executive Chef Cindy Wolf reads it out.
"Ordering palm salad, David," she says to David Deutsch, an engaging young man in a backward baseball cap who is working cold food prep this evening. Without pausing a beat, she adds, "Do you know how to do palm salad?"
Mr. Deutsch doesn't miss a beat either. "I have no clue, chef," he sings out.
Everyone laughs, and Ms. Wolf's infectious burble rings through the kitchen. She leaves the line and heads for the cold station, where she patiently, quietly, leads Mr. Deutsch through the delicate steps of plating up the salad. "Always try to keep the lettuce bunched up tight," she says.
"I'll try," he says.
"You do not know how to talk to a chef," says Eric Grimm, a line cook, who is filleting a whole salmon nearby. "It's yes, chef. Every time, chef. Eternally, chef."
There's plenty of laughter and plenty of patience in this sleek, stainless steel environment, but there's no question who's "chef" in this kitchen: Ms. Wolf, a 1987 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, configured it to suit herself, and runs it with a firm hand -- and that characteristic laugh. With her red hair in a ponytail and her wide hazel eyes, she looks younger than her 31 years, but she has packed a lot of culinary life into them so far.
"Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to open my own restaurant," she said. She speaks quickly, with little reminder of her birthplace of Richmond, Va., in her speech. Her father was a restaurant executive who worked for the Hardee's and Ponderosa chains, and she expected that she would work "the front of the house," as the dining area is known. "I traveled a lot with my parents, and I ate in a lot of restaurants. I grew up hearing my father talk about the restaurant business from his point of view."
A natural path
She studied business management at college, but something about it dissatisfied her. Her parents were living in Charleston, S.C., then, and she took an apprenticeship in the kitchen at a new restaurant called Silks, in the Planter's Inn. She worked every station, doing tasks as diverse as ordering supplies and making pastries. "I found out I really liked it."
After culinary school, she worked in other restaurants in South Carolina, and Knoxville, Tenn., then moved to Washington. She had a brief stay at a French restaurant in Georgetown, then joined Capital Restaurant Concepts, the company that operates Paolo's in Georgetown, Towson and the Inner Harbor, and Georgia Brown's in Washington. Ms. Wolf designed the menu for Georgia Brown's, drawing on her Southern background. While she waited for the restaurant to open (in July 1993), she worked at both Paolo's locations in Baltimore, her first experience with the city.
She was destined to get more, however, because while working for Capital Restaurant Concepts, she met Tony Foreman, who was the opening general manager for Georgia Brown's. They were married in August 1994. Mr. Foreman was born in Baltimore and wanted to come back to his home town. The couple hoped to open a restaurant of their own, or to find one to operate.
Last May they found the Admiral Fell Inn, which was in the midst of a $6.5 million restoration and expansion program, where Ms. Wolf now offers her nouvelle Southern cuisine and Mr. Foreman oversees the wine and runs the dining areas and the pub.
"We needed to find a knowledgeable, capable chef," said Jim Widman, a founder and partner in the hotel, but he noted it was also important to have someone who understood the dining room and wine aspects. "We felt in Cindy and Tony we had that kind of a team."
The Southern food concept was Ms. Wolf's, and the idea of naming the restaurant Savannah was Mr. Foreman's. Mr. Widman said he initially resisted renaming the restaurant, previously simply called the Admiral Fell Inn -- even though, coincidentally, he is from Savannah.
But Ms. Wolf and Mr. Foreman were adamant about giving the restaurant its own identity, and eventually Mr. Widman agreed. Ms. Wolf and Mr. Foreman also chose decorations for the understated, but elegant and comfortable dining rooms, where shades of green, cream and pale yellow predominate. The couple will also oversee banquet space on the fifth floor that is being added to the hotel, and the kitchen has just begun to offer room service.
At least one other Fells Point restaurateur welcomes the competition.
"I'm on the abundance theory, not the scarcity theory," said Michael Gettier, of M. Gettier the country French restaurant that's a few blocks north of the Admiral Fell Inn. "There's more than enough [customers] for everybody."
Mr. Gettier thinks the Southern food will appeal to the same people who like French food. "Both have deep, rich flavors. When the spa cuisine people set aside their preferences for a while, these are the places they come to."
"One of the things I like and appreciate about Southern food is that it's a very straightforward cuisine," Ms. Wolf said. "It's steeped in the history of this country, it's a major part of our culture. It has influences from the American Indians, the African-Americans, and Western Europeans, particularly the English and French. It's a food that has a lot of flavor and a lot of character. I can mingle my classical background, my training, which is French . . . with this cuisine."
Rice, grits, pork and smoked bacon, corn, crabs, shrimp, oysters, country ham, quail, corn bread, eggplant, peanuts, benne (sesame) seeds and okra are among the Southern foods that find their way onto her menu.
And while she believes in elegant presentations, she doesn't follow the current trend toward "tall" or architectural food. "I think presentation should be beautiful but simple and straightforward," she said. "I don't think we build buildings out of food. It doesn't go with Southern, it doesn't go with me."
David Wizenberg, regional vice president for Capital Restaurant Concepts, and Ms. Wolf's former employer, said she is one of "a whole group of women in the field who have done a phenomenal job at presenting themselves," he said, both in cooking and in managing. "She did a very good job, not only with the food, but with the checkbook."
Like most young chefs, Ms. Wolf is concerned not just with the freshness and quality of her food, but with where it comes from and how it was grown or raised. "My goat cheese comes from Alabama, from a small goat farm, my grits are stone-ground for me by a mill in Virginia." She has found getting exactly the supplies she wants no problem. "I've found people that want to work with me, so they get me what I need," whether it's baby mustard greens or bacon made without chemicals.
The menu changes daily, though not every item changes. "I'm very seasonal with my menu -- except for the fact that I use a lot of blackberries and peaches, they're very important parts of the cuisine, so I just get them," she said. "I don't serve asparagus in the winter, I save that for spring when it's beautiful."
Ms. Wolf's cuisine is getting good reviews in Baltimore's "foodie" community.
"I adored the food," said Ann Wilder, owner of Vann's Spices, which imports and packages spices and creates specialty seasoning blends in Towson. Ms. Wilder liked the restaurant so much the first time she tried it she went back shortly afterward and took some friends.
"There's definitely a place for her cuisine here," said Diane Neas, a local restaurant consultant. The Southern influence in cuisine has been growing in the restaurant world lately, Ms. Neas said, though Baltimore -- "which is the South" -- hasn't seen much of it yet. Ms. Wolf is also "a nice presence on the floor" when she comes out of the kitchen to talk to diners, Ms. Neas said. "She has a very nice sparkly personality. Not all chefs can do it -- I know, I work with them to teach them."
Ms. Wilder and Ms. Wolf are also colleagues in the Washington chapter of Les Dames d'Escoffier, a group of food professionals. "Women need that kind of thing," Ms. Wolf said, of Les Dames. Women in the group have various sorts and levels of expertise, she said, "and you can call them up and they can help you."
Ms. Wolf said she never found it a handicap to be female in what traditionally was a male domain -- except for one job that lasted only three weeks. "I was treated differently because I was a woman. It was a very competitive atmosphere. To me, the beauty of working in a kitchen is teamwork and learning, and doing things together. This is a business that's already highly stressful, you don't need somebody's ego."
Mr. Widman, for one, has noticed the atmosphere in Ms. Wolf's kitchen. "It's a pleasure going into a commercial kitchen and people are saying 'please' and 'thank you,' " he said.
"I was thinking of the whole myth and romantic notion of Southern gentility," said Charles Grazioli, general manager of Paolo's in Towson, who has known Ms. Wolf and Mr. Foreman since both were at Capital Restaurant Concepts. The food and atmosphere at Savannah are "in sync" with those ideas, he said; everything is genteel, subtle and understated. "It's often true, the people who speak with the most subtle composure have the most interesting things to say."
Mr. Grazioli doesn't think Southern food is a fad or a trend, and he doesn't think Fells Point will soon be populated by "Southern" restaurants. "I think it's a one-of-a-kind place," he said. And he expects it to succeed. Ms. Wolf and Mr. Foreman "are two of the most passionate people I know in terms of their careers and being in the hospitality business," he said.
"I love what I do," Ms. Wolf said. "If I didn't, I couldn't do it." During the blizzard last month, she and Mr. Foreman, who live in Fells Point, were stuck. "My car doesn't do anything in the snow," she said. So she came to the restaurant. "I was alone in the kitchen -- it was wonderful, I was making tomato sauce. I just loved being down here and doing my thing."