It is a good time to be Cindy Wolf.
Her latest restaurant, Petit Louis, a French bistro in Roland Park, is a huge success. Lines for dinner start at 6 p.m. No fewer than 250 meals have been served each night since the restaurant opened last month.
It's like lightning striking twice because Wolf's other restaurant, Charleston, has already established itself as one of Baltimore's most highly regarded fine-dining venues. Rave reviews, scores of regular customers, national notice all have followed since the restaurant opened its doors in December 1997.
Competitors marvel at the 35-year-old's success -- artistically and commercially. She is famously demanding on her staff and on herself. She's happily married to her business partner, Tony Foreman, whose equally hard-charging personality, encyclopedic knowledge of wine and hospitality skills seem a perfect complement to her own.
And best of all -- unquestionably best of all -- the bad dream is over.
Gone are the days of chemotherapy and surgery and radiation. No more getting sick. No more terror -- not so much for her life but that she might fail her investors, her husband, her staff, her family.
Even today, relatively few people appreciate the burden she carried silently for months. That's how she wanted it. But her battle with breast cancer -- the time she calls "the bad dream" -- is past, and she can talk about her life without getting tearful. And crying openly has never been a favorite Wolf pastime.
"I can't believe it happened to me. It feels very far behind," says Wolf. "Am I different today? I'm happy to be alive -- not that I wasn't before -- but I'm thankful. I just hope to God it doesn't happen again. "
Rooted in the business
Born in Virginia and raised in Rocky Mount, N.C., until age 9 and then in northern Indiana, Wolf is more easily defined by temperament than by region. She is some combination of north and south -- a southern charmer with cropped blond hair who can be a Yankee drill sergeant in the kitchen. One moment, she is smiling and warmly introduces herself to a young, new employee. The next she chides a prep worker for chopping vegetables too slowly.
In her kitchen, Wolf insists on being addressed as "Chef." Even her husband does so -- maintaining a level of professional respect that tends to surprise newcomers. Like her staff, she's always dressed in a chef's white coat. No T-shirts. No shorts. No exceptions.
That's a far cry from her first job as a 16-year-old waiting tables at a Mennonite restaurant the summer before her senior year in high school.
To some degree, food was already in her blood. Her father, Robert F. Wolf, was an executive for the Hardee's fast-food chain and, later, the Ponderosa chain of steakhouses. He was the third generation in the meat business, descended from a line of sausage-makers in York, Pa.
But Cindy wasn't expected to go into the business. Her parents thought she would be a teacher. She didn't cook much at home. That was her mother's province. Cindy liked to dine out -- as the family often did when they traveled. She was a people person, a bright, energetic, upbeat extrovert who also inherited her father's work ethic and steely will.
"She determines what she wants to do. She grabs hold of it and goes," says Robert Wolf, 73, semi-retired in Pinehurst, N.C. "I was initially unhappy with her decision. In the food business, it's your life. You don't get to get up at 9 a.m. and decide today you're going to play golf. But she was determined, and that was that."
Started in South Carolina
She was a business major at the University of Evansville when she decided to become a chef. So at age 19, she began on an appropriately low rung -- prepping food at Silk's, a top-flight restaurant in Charleston, S.C.
In 18 months, she worked practically every job in the kitchen and impressed management so much they offered her the restau-rant's top post, a stunning achievement. But Wolf declined. She knew she wasn't ready. Instead, she entered the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., for its prestigious two-year academic program.
In 1987, after four years working for another well-regarded Charleston chef, she moved to Washington, D.C., hoping to work for one of the city's great kitchens. Initially, she was unsuccessful. A three-month job at a top Washington hotel proved a sad reminder that hers was still a male-dominated, egotistical profession. At one D.C. venue, she found herself doing most of the work of a lethargic male head chef -- hardly the learning experience she had wanted.
Frustrated, she decided to change course. She went to work for a company now called Capital Restaurant Concepts Ltd., which owns a chain of restaurants. She started out as chef at a Paolo's in Georgetown. The experience taught her more about the business side of restaurants than she'd ever been exposed to.
Then came her big break. Capital pegged her to open a fine-dining restaurant in D.C., Georgia Brown's, which would feature her Carolina low country cooking -- a kind of classical technique meets Coastal Southern ingredients. It was there she met her future husband, who had been hired as the restaurant's general manager.
Initially, they were colleagues, and then friends sharing after-hours dinners -- as often to check out competitors as to unwind from a long work day. But they soon discovered they were kindred spirits -- both serious about food, both perfectionists in what they did, both lovers of theater and travel. The couple married in 1994.
One year later, they opened Savannah for the owners of the Admiral Fell Inn, their first venture in Foreman's native Baltimore. In December 1997, they were ready to fulfill Wolf's lifelong ambition to own a place of her own.
"This was my big moment," she recalls.
Together, Wolf and her husband planned Charleston down to its smallest detail -- from the marsh grass etched into the dining room's decorative glass to the Vulcan ovens in its show kitchen. On the entrance awning, Wolf's name was printed above the restaurant's -- her talents, her cuisine, her celebrity was Charleston's selling point.
But a matter of weeks after the restaurant's opening Wolf detected a lump in her right breast. One month later -- while visiting her doctor for an unrelated test -- she had it checked out. She was only 33, she thought, what were the odds?
When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Wolf was stunned. But after the initial shock wore off, she approached cancer much as she approached her work in the kitchen: She wanted to stay in control. She enrolled in a drug-trial at Franklin Square Hospital. She would first undergo eight rounds of chemotherapy (four with the experimental drug), then surgery, then radiation treatment.
She planned no extra time off from work. She didn't want anyone to know. Would customers dine in a restaurant with a sick chef?
"I wasn't pleased to find out I had cancer," Wolf recalls. She remembers telling herself, "I don't have time to throw up. I don't have time for you to do this to me every day. I don't have time. I don't have time."
It didn't help that Wolf had an older sister, Cathy, who died of leukemia at 19. Telling her parents about the cancer was the worst part of it all. She had her older sister Julia Hejazi visit them to relay the news in person.
"My parents had already lost one child to cancer, and it upset me a great deal to have to tell them I had cancer myself," she says.
After that, the focus was on was doctors and needles and doing what needed to be done. "The rest of it was, 'Let's get it going,' " Wolf says. "I didn't have a lot of other choices."
For months, Wolf stuck to her plan. On days she was so sick that the smell of chicken stock simmering on the range made her nauseous, she worked. When the drugs made her body ache and steroids worsened her asthma, she worked. On those summer nights when the temperature inside her kitchen hit 100 degrees and the chemotherapy was giving her hot flashes, she worked so hard she could barely stand up when the last customers departed.
"I'd come out after service and sit there," she says, gesturing to a window table, "and start crying. I was feeling so bad."
Foreman chose not to intervene. He never told his wife to stay home. He was even more scared of what might happen if she did. He had seen friends suffer terrible depression during cancer treatments because they'd sat around their homes and spent too much time contemplating their condition.
So they carried on at the restaurant as if none of this were happening. But the ordeal still took its toll on her husband, too.
"I'd wake up in the middle of the night, certain someone had broken into the house," recalls Foreman, 34. "I'd have to search every room and then I could never fall asleep. I re- alized later that something had broken in and attacked my wife. I just couldn't do anything about it."
While her cancer was never discussed openly, she did suffer the common side effect of hair loss during chemotherapy. She took to wearing a bandanna around her head. "It's hot in the kitchen," she would tell patrons puzzled by her fashion statement.
The staff started wearing bandannas in a show of support for their boss. To this day, many of them still do.
"It is [Wolf and Foreman's] nature not to show people their other side. They are consummate professionals," says Steve Ward, owner of Vespa, a restaurant in South Baltimore, and the couple's friend. "But when their hair is down, they are terrific people. A brush with mortality probably galvanized their relationship."
The chemotherapy did its work well. The tumor was gone by the time a lumpectomy was performed in October. Wolf stayed home two days after surgery to remove lymph nodes under her right arm and some tissue from her breast. The final radiation treatment was performed two days before Christmas.
Since then, she's been given a clean bill of health. She continues to take tamoxifen and visits her doctor every three months. There is no evidence the cancer will return. "They think I'm perfectly healthy," she says.
New restaurant, new start
With her health better, she and Foreman talked about taking over the former site of Morgan Millard, which was only a few blocks from the house where Foreman grew up. They received financial backing from a private investment group headed by Douglas Becker, CEO of Sylvan Learning Systems Inc., the same group that had invested in Charleston. By April, the deal was done and extensive renovations had begun.
With its marble tables, wooden floors and zinc-lined bar counter, Petit Louis bears little resemblance to Morgan Millard. The restaurant's menu is classically what you might find in a Paris cafe, from the vichyssoise to escargots -- a far cry from the roasted magret breast of duck with pecan and sweet onion stuffing more typical of Charleston.
"She was already good, but since overcoming cancer she's just exploded as far as her quality of cooking and her confidence," says wine critic Robert Parker, a frequent Charleston customer and family friend. "She's been on fire."
In her private time, Wolf has taken up herb gardening, cultivating plants on the roof above her penthouse apartment across from Johns Hopkins University. She and her husband go out to movies, dine at other restaurants or read.
A year ago, Wolf started talking more openly about what she'd been through. She agreed to appear in ads for Franklin Square Hospital with her oncologist, Dr. Madhu Chaudhry. In the 30-second TV spot, Wolf says she's grateful to have her life back. A tear glistens in one eye. She's still embarrassed about that.
"There's a joy to what I do. It's wonderful. It's fun," Wolf says of her life of 14-hour days, six or seven days each week in the restaurants. "It's also endless. There's always something to be done. You don't stop working. Believe me, I know."