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Paying attention to details Chef: Michael Gettier describes himself as the 'synergistic coordinator' of his new restaurant -- which means he does a little bit of everything.

Michael Gettier, chef and restaurateur, is nowhere to be found when a visitor shows up to see him at his new establishment in Towson.

He's not in his office or the accountant's office, he's not in the kitchen, he's not in the lounge or the dining rooms or the banquet rooms. He's not in the wine cellar or the walk-in coolers. And he's not in the parking lot or on the roof. So there's only one place he can be.

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Sure enough, there he is, in the basement stairwell, where an associate with a plumber's snake is trying to drain the water that flooded the bottom floor when a boiler was accidentally left to drain overnight. A minute later, visitor in tow, he's in a storage closet in the upstairs hall, looking for an attachment for the snake.

To anyone who knows him, it's no surprise that Gettier, detail-meister, is on the move.

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Here are just a few of the things that have changed in the life of Gettier and his wife, Claudia, in the past few years:

* Where they work

* The jobs they do

* Where they live

* The size of their family

Some people were surprised, however, when Gettier gave up M. Gettier, his tiny, friendly, French-inspired place in funky Fells Point early this year and bought the big, traditional, soundly American Hersh's Orchard Inn on East Joppa Road.

But Gettier says, simply, that it was time.

"The pendulum will always swing," he said, sitting down ("That music's a little too loud, isn't it?" he asks, getting up again to turn it down) for a rare lunch in the restaurant's Rose Room.

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Making his name

After all, Gettier, 40, first came to culinary prominence in Baltimore in the early '90s as executive chef at the Conservatory restaurant, then a romantic Victorian vision atop the downtown hotel that was called the Peabody.

"At the hotel, I was very, very happy," Gettier said. "I had 35 cooks, two kitchens, full dining and banquet service." He was honored with invitations on three separate occasions to prepare dinners at the prestigious James Beard House in New York, and the Conservatory was accorded four stars by the American Automobile Association. In 1992, the James Beard Foundation named him one of the best hotel chefs in America. But, he said, during the three years of his tenure there, "things drifted" until he was more of an executive and less of a chef. "First you're working saute every night, then you walk in the kitchen and people say, 'We remember you, you used to work here.' "

By the time the hotel changed hands in July 1992, he said, "There was so much else to do, I had gotten away from the food. So it was time for downtown."

M. Gettier opened in April 1993 at 505 S. Broadway -- wedged between a drugstore and a liquor store on a block north of the market. At the time, he and Claudia were living in a waterfront cottage on the Bird River in Chase and commuting to the city. When they bought the building, they installed a pied-a-terre on the fourth floor, so when they worked late in the restaurant, they wouldn't have to drive back to the county.

And work late they did. Michael did everything -- cooking, accounting, menu design, managing. Claudia made the desserts and helped in the kitchen. When son Michael Albert came along in 1992, he often napped upstairs with a baby monitor in the kitchen.

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The hectic pace was worth it. "When you do one thing, you learn a lot about it. There's something about cooking every single dish, for four years -- it's like being hit over the head, you can't help but learn," Gettier said. "The whole experience was critical. But enough was enough."

They had traded the cottage for a house in Stoneleigh, the area where Michael grew up. Son Michael -- now joined by daughter Giuliana Amalia, born in May 1996 -- had just started kindergarten.

On the lookout

So the Gettiers began to look around for a new venture, and they heard that the Orchard Inn might be for sale.

"We said, 'Let's go look at it,' and here we are," Gettier said.

They bought the restaurant in January, and closed it for two months for refurbishing, doing everything from replacing dozens dimmer switches to installing a new air-conditioning system.

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They opened in March -- suddenly, when a long-time client from M. Gettier wanted to give his wife a birthday party in the new place. Gettier swallowed hard and agreed. "We have a reservation for Wednesday," he told the staff.

Over the summer they have gradually been brightening up the muted '80's-era decor with plants, paintings and sleek service areas. And they are still learning how everything works in the restaurant-bar-banquet complex.

"We just found out how to get our outside lights on," Gettier said, noting that a good three-quarters of the bulbs were burned out. "I had a spare hour, and I just said, 'All these lights are going to be on tonight.' "

One of Gettier's goals at the new place was to get off the cooking line. "I wasn't going to be a saute cook for the next five years."

So he hired Curt Alford, formerly of the Conservatory and Pier 500, as executive chef, and Steve Cowan, formerly of Peerce's Plantation, as maitre d'. Alain Seheut, formerly of Regine's in New York, is the wine steward. Michael Souchak keeps track of (( ordering and inventory. And Gettier is the self-described "synergistic coordinator."

"I want to take the parts and make the sum more than that," he said.

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They have been fortunate, he said, to retain much of the restaurant's regular clientele. "It's been the Orchard Inn for 43 years," Gettier said. "People are always telling us they've been coming here for 40 years."

Because of the restaurant's tradition, he approached menu changes carefully at first. "I try to keep a lot of familiar items on -- not necessarily to appease the old clientele, but to give options to everybody." Gettier's tradition -- he was trained at La Varenne in Paris -- tends to be French. But, he said, "I don't think French food can support a restaurant this size."

However, he said, "I wasn't ready for the fervency of what people wanted" -- people who had been following his career. "To me, the line between roast beef and mashed potatoes and steak au poivre and pommes duchesse is very thin." But people were saying, "Where are the French things, where's this, where's that?" he said. "It really surprised me. I didn't think they'd want so much of what we had downtown."

Something for everyone

So now the menu offers prime rib and crab cakes, as well as a salmon club sandwich and pistachio-encrusted tuna fillet with fresh herb vinaigrette on grilled eggplant. He is presiding over the transformation of the wine list from Riunite and Asti Spumanti to a more adventuresome mix of French and Italian wines. "This )) was never known as a wine property. We're slowly turning that around." And he plans more gradual changes -- building the bar business with live music, offering some of the more requested dishes from the Conservatory and M. Gettier -- as work on the restaurant continues.

"We absolutely have long-term plans for this property," he says. "We've chosen to do things" -- like the new air-conditioning -- "in a solid, fundamental, way."

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Meanwhile, typically, he's involved in every detail, from how water glasses are filled to how much shiitake mushrooms cost. He notices a tiny crack in the glass of a picture hanging on the second floor, and he notices a banquette that is slightly out of place in a dining room. He even manages to keep track of what a group of people at the next table are talking about during lunch. ("Did you hear that? They're talking about the history of the restaurant.")

"You've got to multi-task," he says, laughing. "I think once in a while I surprise the staff with what I know."

Pub Date: 9/14/97


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