If you walk through the mahogany doors of Louisiana restaurant in Fells Point on any day between noon and 2 p.m., you might find chef Damon Hersh preparing one of America's greatest dishes: the grilled cheese sandwich.
For him, it's an afternoon snack, it's comfort food, and it reminds him of rainy days with his mom.
"When I was a kid, on a day ... when it's cold, it's rainy, it's misty, just a blah kind of day," Hersh says, "my mom would make grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup or chicken noodle soup, and she and I would sit at the table and have lunch. It was always a nice thing."
But by 3 o'clock on the job, Hersh begins preparation for what he compares to a "show." And he hopes that when patrons enter Louisiana, the highly acclaimed restaurant that serves Southern-inspired cuisine, they are transported.
"You can have places where the food is equal to or better than here - there are plenty of places that are like that - but the combination of the food and service ... walking in and seeing this place and not realizing what is really behind those mahogany doors as you walk down the street on Aliceanna.
"Once you walk in ... you are taken somewhere else."
Putting together the show isn't easy. Hersh, 36, says he takes one day off a week and often comes in on that day for a couple hours just to make sure everything is OK.
He says doing paperwork and checking inventory as well as making menu changes are all a part of the job, but he spends most of his time in the kitchen.
"I view a chef as an overburdened line cook ... a line cook with too many responsibilities," he says.
His three line cooks also keep Hersh in the kitchen. "I've got to show them that I can hang with them, so I've got to keep practicing." Being in the kitchen also gives him time to teach.
Hersh has gained a reputation as one of Baltimore's top chefs, but being a chef wasn't his first career choice. He joined the Army right out of high school, at age 17. He signed up to be a Korean linguist because he had always been fond of learning about languages and cultures.
During his four years in the Army, he was stationed in Korea for about a year and was there in 1988 for the Seoul Olympics. After that, he was stationed all over the United States.
Hersh says that after the Army he tried his hand at college and went to the University of Maryland for about two years, from 1990 to 1992. But he felt college wasn't for him.
After UM, Hersh says he had a few jobs that he wasn't crazy about, one of which was at a pizza place. He did say, though, that he liked working in the kitchen there.
After quitting a job that involved a long commute to Virginia, he says he went into a family-style Mexican restaurant up the street and said, "I want to be a server, bartender or a manager, and they said, 'Well, let's start with server.' Within 3 1/2 years, I was the general manager. I loved it. I spent all of my time in the front of the house, but I kept looking, seeing what was going on in the kitchen ... trying to learn the recipes, trying to make stuff."
He left there and went to work at the Cheesecake Factory in Washington, where he followed a similar routine, working upfront but often dropping into the kitchen. Then he wanted more.
"I began to feel like it wasn't the right place to end my career; I wanted to do more. So within the space of a week, I applied to and was accepted to cooking school. Quit Cheesecake Factory, picked up a bartending job and started school [L'Academie de Cuisine in Washington] in the space of one week. And everything changed there.
"Within about a week and a half, I couldn't believe how much I loved doing it and how exciting it was."
That was in June of 1998.
During the six months before his June 1999 graduation, he worked as a chef at Occidental restaurant in Washington. By the time he left to take the Louisiana job in January 2000, he had been promoted to sous chef.
"This is what I love to do," he says of his job. "There are days when I kind of laugh at myself - I can't believe I get paid to do this. Do they know how much I love this?"
He is grateful for the chance afforded him by Louisiana owner John Saki. He was chosen as the restaurant's first chef and started Jan. 13, 2000. He and Saki worked together to develop the menu, and since then, he and the menu have evolved.
Lily Athari, Louisiana's general manager, says, "It is a piece of cake to work with Damon. ... Damon has a touch.
"Doesn't matter what he does," she says. "If he boils a little bit of water, it's tasty."
Blackened Shrimp and Grits
With a Creamy Corn Emulsion
2 tablespoons sweet butter
2 tablespoons cooking oil
12 nice jumbo shrimp
1/2 cup blackening spice
1 cup sweet white corn (cooked)
1 cup heavy cream
1 ounce white wine
6 ounces sweet butter (cold, and cut into 1-inch cubes)
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup butter
1 1/2 cups coarse ground grits
4 ounces cream cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
Greens (for garnish, optional)
In a large saute pan, heat butter and oil over medium-high heat. Liberally coat shrimp with blackening spice. When pan is hot, add shrimp carefully. Saute shrimp, turning once, until cooked through (about 4 minutes).
Bring corn, cream and wine to a boil in a saucepan and simmer for about 3 minutes. Remove from heat. Carefully pour into a heat-proof blender and puree for a minute or until all is liquefied. With the blender still going, add the cold butter cubes 1 by 1 until totally incorporated. Strain well and add salt and pepper to taste.
Make the grits by bringing all liquids and butter to a boil in a saucepan. Reduce heat to medium-low. Slowly sprinkle grits into the liquid while stirring with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon. Stir continuously to prevent grits from sticking to bottom. Continue stirring until all liquid is absorbed (about 10-15 minutes). If still dry and not soft, continue adding milk until soft throughout. Finish by stirring in cream cheese and salt and pepper to taste.
Spoon out enough corn emulsion to almost cover the bed of a plate. Place a scoop of grits on top of emulsion in the middle of plate. Place 3 pieces of shrimp, tail on top, in a circle on scoop of grits. Use choice of greens as garnish (optional). Repeat on 3 more plates.
Per serving: 1,361 calories, 17 grams protein, 115 grams fat, 68 grams saturated fat, 70 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams fiber, 355 milligrams cholesterol, 628 milligrams sodium