Unlike most master chefs, Clair Epting was not formally trained in culinary arts. He never even attended a cooking class.
Instead, his cooking instructor was his grandmother, and the classroom was their Amish kitchen in Pennsylvania, where Epting baked his first family suppers in a wood-burning oven.
Now an executive chef at McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurant in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, the soft-spoken Epting still incorporates Amish family recipes and techniques into his modern-day cuisine.
"According to my grandmother, every chore we did had a higher meaning. She'd tell me this long, elaborate story about why we were doing something and what made it important," he says as he pushes his wire-frame glasses up on his nose. "When we canned wax beans, we weren't just preparing for winter. We were saving in times of plenty for times of lean. My grandmother probably didn't know it then, but she was giving me a hidden course in financial management."
His grandmother's life lessons were undoubtedly borrowed from the cornerstones of Amish culture. An Old-World religious order concentrated locally in Lancaster County, Pa., the Amish stress humility, community and the importance of hard work. Although they segregate themselves from the outside world, they function as a tight-knit unit, working together to survive. As devout Christians, they interpret the Bible literally, but the Amish also practice their own folklore, especially in the kitchen.
"We had an entire line of herbal medicines growing in our garden - garlic cloves, basil cloves and special herbs," says the 50-year-old Epting. "We'd dry them for winter, and at the first sign of cold weather, we'd cook up a cold-preventing soup of those herbs to ward off the germs."
Epting also stresses the importance of balancing the table, a traditional Amish ritual that he uses even in cooking for his guests today.
"The right combination of sweet and sour keeps a meal from leaning too far to one side, and that's the key to a good dish," he says. "When a meal is equally balanced, there's less chance of anyone getting sick."
Epting reflects fondly on his first successful attempt at mastering these rules. At age 10, he baked an apple pie. Epting presented the dessert to his relatives after their particularly long day of farming.
"It was such a treat that night, especially when we had it with lots of milk and sugar. Even the elders got a kick out of it," he says. "No one seemed to squawk about not having roast beef."
Epting continued to study under his grandmother until he was 12. It was then his father made a decision that would change the family's life forever.
"One day he announced that we were leaving the order and moving to Philadelphia," says Epting. "Of all reasons, it was so he could be a race-car driver. I mean, we're Amish. We always had buggies!"
In 1962, the racing market was tight, so Epting's father instead found work as an auto mechanic. Epting, who is admittedly quite shy, found solace in his new world by studying the technology around him.
"These kitchen gadgets like toasters baffled me. We always had primitive equipment on the farm, and it took a long time for me to get accustomed," he says. "Even today, I'm a terror in the kitchen when it comes to appliances. I can barely put a plug into a socket."
It wasn't until Epting enrolled at the University of Delaware that he became truly comfortable in the kitchen again. To finance his studies in elementary education, he took on a part-time job in a nearby restaurant.
Schaefer's Canal House, a quaint seafood establishment nestled along the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, hired Epting as a prep cook. Within two days, he was bitten again by the cooking bug and had found his niche in local seafood.
"I had these amazing opportunities to work with classically trained European chefs from France, Germany and Italy. It was incredible. My plans of being a kindergarten teacher went out the window after that."
By the time he graduated, Epting had been promoted to line chef at Schaefer's, but he was ready to head somewhere new. On a whim, he moved to Louisiana to try his hand in Cajun cooking.
In New Orleans, Epting immediately began a three-year stint at Commander's Palace under renowned chef Paul Prudhomme. Prudhomme, whom Epting credits with bringing Cajun cooking to its modern state, refreshed Epting's memory regarding everything he had learned as a child with his grandmother.
"Paul quickly became my mentor. I realized immediately that he and my grandmother were on the same page," he says. "They both stressed how important it was to be ecological - something that I am very much today - and never to waste any ingredient. The similarities were uncanny, even though my grandmother taught me on a farm without electricity and Paul had a state-of-the-art modern kitchen."
Epting's enthusiasm for seafood took him next to Maine, where he studied New England cuisine in a tranquil seaside resort for five years.
"If I could open a restaurant anywhere in the world, it would be there. It's so beautiful, so peaceful. My resort would be seasonal so I'd have time to raise trout in the farm I'd have right outside," he says. "I don't know if I'll ever do it, but it's still my dream."
His last stop before Baltimore was Orlando, where as an executive chef, he headed Fulton's, one of the busiest seafood restaurants in the United States. Although he reflects on his 15 years there as a crucial learning experience, he inevitably grew harried by the restaurant's pace.
"At the right time, McCormick & Schmick's found me. I had a little bit of local coverage in the papers, and they recruited me for the job here in Baltimore."
Now five months into his career at McCormick & Schmick's, Epting is still fascinated by the Maryland seafood industry.
"Even though the restaurant is corporate, I can still add my own touches, like the rules of the sweets and sours. And I've always been adamant about using Chesapeake Bay products, many of which we use here," he says. "Chesapeake Bay workers are our farmers and growers, and we should help them out and give something back."
His devotion does not go unnoticed at McCormick & Schmick's. Several of his co-workers admire his passion for the industry and humble presence in the kitchen.
"When I think of Clair, I think of a hard worker who knows his seafood," says Charles Allen Beck, a sous-chef at the restaurant. "And maybe it's because of his upbringing, but he's quiet and so respectful to everyone that he works with."
Brian Farkas, also a sous-chef at McCormick & Schmick's, added, "He's a great chef. But I think because he's Amish, he's a little primitive. I think the house he lives in now is his first one with electricity."
Upon hearing that, Epting chuckles good-naturedly, noting that he's had electricity for nearly 40 years.
"But in Florida, my house was 75 years old and had its original wiring," he says. "It was an electrical nightmare."
Although Epting's demanding work hours allow him little free time, he still devotes himself to learning more about his trade. Attending every informational session he can has its rewards. His travels recently took him to the American National Oyster Shucking Contest in St. Mary's County, Fishing Creek's crab-processing plants on the Eastern Shore, and Chincoteaque Island for prime ingredients for his new Amish-Style Oyster Stew.
Epting never returned to the family farm in Lancaster County after he became an outsider.
"I did drive by once, and there was a 7-Eleven right where the farmland used to be," he says. "I thought I was in the wrong place until I recognized this old church and a hill. Most of the old families had moved away, and the ones who are still together moved farther back on the beaten path so they'd have less interaction with tourists."
Sometimes he wonders how his life would be different had his family not left the order.
"I know I'm fortunate to have seen the world, but sometimes I do have regrets," says Epting, who plans to visit the family farm this month. "Like when I'm stuck in traffic on the way to work from my house in Bowie, I wonder what my life would be like without all this artificial stress from technology. Would I be smarter? Would I have a bigger heart?"
But at the end of the day, Epting knows he'd have hated to have missed out on what he's been blessed with.
If he could change only one thing, he'd give himself one more day with his grandmother, who died 20 years ago while Epting was living in New Orleans.
"I never saw her again once I moved, and I really regret it now," he says. "I wish I could have some time now to ask her questions about recipes that have me stumped. If only I'd paid more attention to her stories on nice days instead of looking out the window, I might be better off now."
If he could, Epting would arrange a meeting between his grandmother and his son, who's 24 and hates cooking. Epting says he might have inherited his grandmother's flair for food, but regrets he's not a mentor the way she was.
"When I needed a dishwasher at one of my restaurants, I called in my son. There were no two-hour stories about dishes and why they were important," he says. "I just gave him the dirty ones and told him to start washing. My grandmother would have been mortified."
Amish-Style Oyster Stew
1 cup corn broth (from 2 corn cobs)
1/2 cup roasted carrots and parsnips
1/2 cup shucked roasted corn (from 2 ears)
4 teaspoons butter
2 cups shucked oysters (with liquor)
3 cups half-and-half
salt and pepper to taste
2 teaspoons chives
Roast 2 ears of corn in husk. Shuck and make stock out of cobs. Dice roasted carrots and parsnips. Saute corn, carrots and parsnips for 1 minute in 2 teaspoons butter.
Add corn broth and bring to simmer, then add oysters and simmer for 1 minute. Then add half-and-half and bring to boil; then shut off.
Season with salt and pepper. Garnish with remaining butter and chopped chives.
- Clair Epting