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Chef Michael Rork takes on New York, New York

NEW YORK -- A New York waitress in search of Chesapeake Bay rockfish ducked into the kitchen of the James Beard House, where she worked. "I hear the fish is fabulous," the waitress told visiting chef, Michael Rork, owner of the Town Dock Restaurant in St. Michaels.

Rork smiled as the waitress ate a plate of herb-crusted rockfish with creamed sweet corn and tomatoes. The waitress was sampling Chesapeake Bay victuals that soon would be served to a crowd of diners filling the Greenwich Village townhouse turned headquarters of the James Beard Foundation.

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The visit from the waitress prompted Rork to give a thumbs-up sign to his crew composed of Peter Fontaine, Chris Moyer, Brian Callahan, Gerardo Gonzalez, and Pam Zak. These were Rork alumni, folks who had worked with the chef either in Baltimore, where until 1994 he was executive chef at the Harbor Court Hotel, or at his St. Michael's restaurant. The alums and friends had come from restaurants from Charleston, S.C., to Wilmington, Del., and the Eastern Shore, to cook with Rork.

Reacting to the visit from the waitress, Rork told his crew, "If the staff likes what we are cooking, we're golden."

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The compliments of the waitress were soon echoed by members of the foundation who had snapped up the 75 tickets to this Monday night dinner shortly after word of it was announced in their newsletter. The foundation invites chefs from throughout America to cook regional dishes in Beard's old townhouse.

As one fellow from New Jersey polished off a Nanticoke River oyster, he paused to tell me why he had bought a $75 ticket for the dinner. He didn't know the chef and had not seen the menu. But he figured in August chances were good that a Maryland chef would fix wonderful seafood. The guy from Jersey was right.

Besides the oysters, Rork and crew prepared appetizers of smoked bluefish on miniature sweet corn cakes, and tiny cantaloupe balls skewered with mint. We enjoyed these morsels along with glasses of a crisp 1995 Les Jamelles Cinsault rose, on the patio. Then we moved upstairs, where, under beaming portraits of Beard, we sipped a 1995 Peter Lehmann Semillon and feasted on sauted soft crab with lemon and sage sauce, basil and tomato tartlets and rockfish. When the pork loin with roasted cumin and almond crust arrived, the wine turned red, a '95 Morgon Striffling. Dessert was an elaborately molded bread pudding topped with a tiny, whole peach.

Throughout the meal there were "oohs." When Rork appeared at the end of the meal, the Beard House rocked with applause.

Rork beamed as he addressed the diners. "It feels really great to be here. It is an honor, but I feel really humbled, too," he said.

He also probably felt relieved. Cooking at the Beard House, I learned, is a considerable logistical and financial undertaking. Chefs buy their ingredients at home, then ferry them to New York. One of the cars in Rork's caravan, for instance, was stuffed with melons and, by the time it got to New York, smelled like a cantaloupe. When the caravan ran into a traffic jam at the Holland Tunnel, Rork worried that his cargo of soft crabs would overheat. They didn't.

He did, however, almost forget the pork loins. "We were on the road, picking up the bread, when he remembered," Rork's wife, Betsy, told me. Rork recovered by calling his restaurant. Someone there found the loins and somewhere near Wye Mills, they were reunited with the chef.

As for the expense, Rork told me, putting on the Beard dinner was comparable to cooking a dinner for a community charity, something he and other chefs are often called upon to do. A major expense, he said, is putting up staff in New York hotels, where rooms run $200 a night and up. "I got two rooms," Rork said, "and told everybody we were going to be real friendly."

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In return for their toil and expense, chefs get recognition.

"It is an honor to be here," Rork said. Several hours before the dinner, Rork walked through the house looking at paintings, knickknacks, and Beard's outdoor shower. Noting the layout of the kitchen, he wondered how Beard, a large man, was able to negotiate the tight quarters. "God bless James Beard," Rork gushed.

Some of other area chefs I spoke with who have cooked at the Beard House echoed Rork's sentiments. "You get exposure," said Donna Crivello, co-owner of the string of Donna's cafes, who cooked there last year. Moreover, Crivello said, she got to impress her parents by inviting them to dinner at the Beard House.

Nancy Longo of Pierpoints in Fells Point fed New Yorkers apple- smoked crab cakes two years ago, a year after the crew from Obrycki's Crab House fed them steamed crabs.

The thing is, Longo said, once New Yorkers taste Maryland food they often come down here to get more. Several folks she met at her Beard dinner have since showed up at her Baltimore restaurant.

So after Rork's triumph, I wondered how were we going to keep those New Yorkers in Gotham, now that they've tasted our rockfish?

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Pub Date: 8/27/97


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