You have to bump into a lot of French chefs before you find one waxing enthusiastic about the cuisine of little Greensboro, on the Eastern Shore. So imagine the surprise of a humble restaurateur when first one, then another, then another chef from the land of Escoffier agreed with enthusiasm to come, to cook, even to celebrate Greensboro, of all places.
These things happen, although it takes imagination. Craziness, even.
Raymond Blank, who is sane enough to make a nice living as a management consultant, hatched the mad scheme one evening in July 1997. Maybe it was the wine talking. Or maybe it was the elixir of travel, the charm of the Cockle Warren Cottage on an island in the English Channel where Blank and his three companions were eating fish soup and roasted guinea hen.
Whatever it was, Blank wondered aloud over that dinner about the prospects of bringing European flavor to Greensboro. He and his partner, Myrna Poirier, an architect by profession, have a home near there, and his other travel companions, Harry and Jeri Wyre, own a restaurant there called Harry's at the Goldsborough House.
Specifically, Blank suggested that they pick their favorite restaurants along the route of their 30-day bike trek and invite the chefs to come to Harry's as guest chefs. All expenses paid, of course.
"And so, they laughed at me," says Blank, a vigorous 70-year-old raised in Maryland.
Still, Blank considered the possibilities.
"We can give them a house at no expense," as the restaurant is located in a historic building that once served as an inn. "They can eat at the restaurant and we can give them two air tickets. For working four nights in the restaurant, putting on a gourmet show. They can stay for a month."
Blank says he has no financial stake in Harry's, but he did figure the visiting chefs could give the place a little cachet, not to mention more attention. He and Poirier first started having dinners there about eight years ago and took a shine to the place.
Blank was still hanging onto the notion a few days after Hayling Island, England, when they stopped for a meal and lodging at an inn in Mont-St-Michel, chef Michel Leroux presiding. More than a month later, Blank wrote to Leroux with this wild proposition.
The answer, oddly enough: "Mais oui."
In January 1998, Leroux arrived in Greensboro with his wife, Annie, and son, Guilliame Leroux, who is also a chef. They prepared a fixed-price meal consisting of a choice of appetizers - sole in champagne sauce, scallops with vermouth and herbs, duck confit - and a selection of entrees - salmon with red-wine sauce and vegetables, beef in port sauce with mushrooms, lobster and duck breast with cider and honey sauce.
And, of course, a breathtaking array of desserts.
So began the "guest chef" program at Harry's, which continues to this moment. Chef Jean-Maurice Gaudry and his wife, Christiane, prepared dinner for two nights last weekend and will do it again this coming weekend.
The $60 five-course meal includes, among other offerings, fish soup, foie gras with oysters, beef tenderloin, lobster, assorted cheeses and desserts.
It's the fourth working visit to Harry's since November 1999 for Gaudry, who otherwise runs the kitchen at the Hotel Autour D'une Fontaine in Charmes-sur-Rhone, a village not far north of Provence.
In a conference call to France arranged by Poirier, who also acts as translator, Gaudry says he initially agreed to the Maryland expedition because, "It was an opportunity to see something other than New York. ... It was an adventure."
Gaudry says Harry's is not unlike his restaurant in Charmes-sur-Rhone, because "It's in a small town and they try to do more elaborate food than you would expect to find in a town like this."
Both restaurants seat roughly 100 people. The Hotel Autour stands a short distance from the Rhone River; Harry's is not so far from the Choptank in Caroline County.
The standard fare at Harry's - prepared by Jeri and the Wyres' daughter, Jeanine Fairchild - isn't all crab cakes and stuffed sole. A sample menu offers, for instance, sea scallops baked with garlic and wine, pistachio-crusted orange roughy, roasted quail with pate, filet mignon and grilled cobia glazed with herb shallot butter. Yes, there is a crab cake: broiled with chipotle sauce.
The Wyres opened the place in 1991, having moved back to Maryland from Maine, where they owned an inn in Searsport, on the coast a few miles north of Camden. Harry, 54, decided to try the innkeeper's life after working as a general contractor for about 12 years.
As things turn out, Harry winds up escorting chefs from overseas, some of whom speak no English, from seafood wholesaler to butcher shop to produce market in search of the stuff of greatness.
Six chefs in all have made the trip - five from France, one from South Africa. The latter, Reuben Riffel of the Franschoek Country House in Cape Winelands, prepared, among other things, lightly peppered ostrich with goat cheese, sweet garlic confit and hazelnut balsamic sauce.
Crowds for these weekends have been building as word gets around, with customers coming from farther away than the folks who would otherwise patronize the place, Jeri says. Harry's draws much of its clientele from Delaware, the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Annapolis. Last November's guest chef dinners were just about sold out.
Jeri says Gaudry will disappoint those who would imagine the imperious French chef barking orders to hapless underlings.
"He's the most easygoing French chef we've had here," says Jeri, who with her daughter becomes part of the five-person kitchen staff when Gaudry is in charge. And, she says, "He can make magic with nothing."
For information or reservations for this weekend's meals, call 410-482-6758.