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Cookbook author gleefully stirs up career memories


I WENT TO LUNCH with cookbook author-restaurant owner John Shields recently and pried into his past. He ordered the Vegetarian Volcano, a dish that resembled chili, without the meat. I had fried oysters.

Shields was not exactly tight-lipped about his prior life. He gleefully told tales of a meandering career path that took him from Baltimore to Boston to Berkeley and back to Baltimore.

In recent years, he has written several cookbooks, including "Chesapeake Bay Cooking With John Shields" (Broadway Books, 1998). He also is host of a nationally televised public television cooking program, "Chesapeake Bay Cooking With John Shields," and is the proprietor of Gertrude's restaurant in the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Like a good local boy, he started by telling stories about his old neighborhood, the community around St. Ann's Catholic Church at 22nd Street and Greenmount Avenue. His mother grew up there, and Shields lived there as a small boy until the family moved to Parkville. The old neighborhood is not far from the BMA, and Shields said his family regularly visited the museum.

"When my mother was a student in St. Ann's school, she said the nuns would take her class on tours of the BMA. When the St. Ann's girls came upon a nude," Shields said, "the nuns would instruct the young ladies to, 'turn their heads,' " he said, laughing at the recollection.

"My family used to come to the museum every Easter to get our pictures taken," Shields added. He recalled the "promenade" on Charles Street of women in their Easter bonnets, a tradition he is thinking of bringing back by sponsoring an Easter bonnet day at the restaurant.

Shields, who is in his late 40s, went to high school in Parkville, graduating in 1969. He garnered a reputation for "throwing the best parties in Parkville High," according to his younger sister, Patricia. "John has always been big in hospitality," she told me in a telephone interview.

After high school, Shields wanted to be a rock star. He spent a few years at Peabody Conservatory, studying music, when he decided to leave Baltimore. He packed up his piano in a rented trailer and moved to Cape Cod, Mass., to pursue his dream.

When he got to Cape Cod, it was winter, the town was empty and "there were no rock star positions available." But there was an opening for a kitchen worker at the Provincetown Inn and Convention Center. He needed a job, so he went to work in a commercial kitchen.

His first professional culinary undertaking, peeling garlic, was a disaster. "I grew up Irish, we didn't do garlic," he recalled. Instead of removing the skin of garlic cloves, he sliced himself, ending up with bandages on every finger of both hands, he said.

His next assignment, making pie dough, wasn't much more successful. Shields recalled that he made enough dough for 30 pie shells, only to discover at the end of his task that the bandages were missing from his fingers. He quickly plucked them from the pie shells.

From that inauspicious beginning, Shields went on to work at the kitchen of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Boston. In the early 1970s, he journeyed to California, landing a job as a sous-chef at small Berkeley restaurant called Ala Carte. At this restaurant, everything was made from scratch, every day.

"I went shopping with the chef in the morning, then helped him prepare the soup, the salad, the fish dish, the poultry or meat dish, and two or three desserts. That was really where I learned to cook," Shield recalled.

He worked at Ala Carte for seven years, then opened his own restaurant, Gertie's, in 1980. There, from a location in downtown Berkeley, Shields served the fare of his old stomping ground, the Chesapeake Bay.

Shortly after Gertie's opened, the phone started ringing. On the line were displaced Marylanders who, Shields said, wanted answers to two questions: "Did we have steamed crabs? And did we have Old Bay?" The callers were told yes to both queries.

Getting Maryland crabs to California, however, turned out to be a problem. Many of them died en route to the West Coast. But eventually Shields found a fellow in Texas who could successfully ship live crabs to California, and steamed crabs -- a staple of Chesapeake cuisine -- became a once-a-week menu item.

In 1986, Shields sold Gertie's and moved back to Baltimore. He soon was prowling the Eastern Shore, gathering recipes for his first cookbook. He was helped by a high school buddy, Glen Jordan, who worked for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

Jordan knew virtually every good cook in every Eastern Shore town, Shields said. Armed with Jordan's introduction, Shields was welcomed into rural kitchens to taste the local fare and get local recipes. Many of the recipes subsequently made their way into Shields' cookbooks, his television show and now his new Baltimore restaurant, Gertrude's.

Getting the restaurant off the ground has been challenging, Shields said. He ticked off a list of restaurant machinery that balked in the opening weeks. A grill stopped grilling. A fridge went on the fritz. A cash register stopped computing, he said.

Moreover, he said he has been trying to balance the need to keep food authentic to its Chesapeake region roots -- which in many cases means fried -- with some customers' requests for lighter fare. For instance, he said, some customers have suggested that Maryland pan-fried chicken be seared instead of fried.

Shields said he also has tasted some of the rewards of opening a restaurant in his hometown. The crowds have been good, and he has been able to tap local talent to work in his place.

For instance, one of the waiters in the restaurant, Jason Alan, painted a mural on one restaurant wall. Another wall is decorated with the work of a local photographer, Dave Harp. And Shields has made a point of buying products from small local purveyors, like Metrople, a Baltimore operation that specializes in selling fresh meats and local seafood.

By the end of our lunch, and the recounting of Shields' career, I had the distinct feeling that Johns Shields was enjoying himself. He is back in his hometown. His mother, he said, still can't believe that her little boy, who used to pose for Easter snapshots at the BMA, is now operating a restaurant there.

And now that winter has set in, Shields is looking forward to adding a couple of new, authentic, local items to the restaurant menu.

"I can't wait to put muskrat and maybe nutria on the menu," he said.

Pub Date: 01/13/99

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