Q&A; -- DAMON HERSH

The Baltimore Sun

Damon Hersh, the new executive chef of Kali's Court and Mezze in Fells Point, is one of the lucky ones. Although he didn't plan to make cooking his life's work, it's what he loves to do.

"The job is difficult, but it rings a bell in my soul," he says. "I love creating and sharing with other people one of their most basic needs, food - and doing it in a way that makes it more than basic."

Hersh, 39, is best known to Baltimoreans as the chef who opened Louisiana, another Fells Point restaurant, to almost instant acclaim. After leaving, he worked in several local restaurants before landing his high-profile job.

We asked him about the Baltimore restaurant scene's extraordinary changes in less than a decade -- and about upcoming trends.

How would you characterize the dining scene here when you started at Louisiana in 1999?

The dining scene was ready; it was open. People like Cindy Wolf [owner/chef of Charleston] were beginning to become an institution. They had established the fact that new, young power players were entering the dining scene.

Baltimore still had restaurants like Tio Pepe, Burke's and Victor's Cafe; but there was a bit of a changing of the guard. I was able to strike when the iron was hot [at Louisiana]. People were hungry for new things.

You came from the Occidental Grill in Washington. What struck you when you starting running a kitchen here?

Things that didn't work in D.C. worked in Baltimore. Baltimore loves its history, it loves its crab cakes, rockfish and other hallmarks. Here, you better have them on your menu. In D.C., people forced themselves to be more cosmopolitan, and they turned their back on local flavors.

Some high-end things didn't fly here then [that I was doing in Washington] like petite portions and decoration on the plate. There's a certain amount of practicality with Baltimore diners: "It has to taste good, and I want to feel like I've had a meal."

What were the food trends that you thought were important then and that you wanted to introduce to the city?

I'm a big fan of sauces and slow cooking. Sauces take something ordinary and make it extraordinary.

I like slow cooking because there's something so satisfying about taking [a raw ingredient] and turning it something nurturing.

When I came, it was important to me to make my own demiglace and duck confit. You can taste the difference, but there's also a ritual to it that's very satisfying.

What changes have you seen in the years that followed?

Baltimore is rocketing forward, I would say, in its variety of restaurants, and just in the raw talent that exists in the chefs and the restaurants they are putting out there. Baltimore is pulling chefs in from other areas now. Hotels are shooting up, and in each one is a big restaurant -- or a boutique restaurant.

Eight years ago Baltimore was hungry for [these changes], and now we're getting them.

There's a younger, affluent diner out there becoming more educated. There are the chef programs on TV. It's now OK to grow up and want to be a chef. Even 15 years ago, people would say, "When are you going to get real job?"

People are getting more knowledgeable. They want and expect a more cutting-edge, avant-garde product. Techniques like painting the plate are more accepted.

It's not just tall food anymore; it's focusing on food as food and as an art form.

Describe what's going on now nationally insofar as food trends are concerned, and how you think that applies to Baltimore.

The biggest culinary trend nationally is probably comfort food, but doing it in exciting ways. Baltimore, with the recession, is more thinking local, going local -- a nostalgic myopia. We need to turn around and be supportive to local farmers and producers.

Green, if you're able to put it into effect in a restaurant ... is hard to do. All the buzzwords like "eco-friendly," "organic" and "sustainable."

We haven't seen the end of small plates. They will still go for a little bit longer, because of the recession. People will still like them when they go out because they're a bargain.

Anything that's hot that you just know won't work here, and why?

Molecular gastronomy [a weird mix of lab science and oddities such as edible menus, strange froths, bizarre taste combinations and food served on wires]. It's just too much now. It offends the sensibilities of the Baltimore diner. Let's not play games, let's have real food that's real good. It can be real pretty, but the Baltimore diner is practical.

What would you like to see more or less of?

Baltimore has a wonderful history of their ethnic restaurants. Before the high-end stuff, Baltimore was known for its ethnic restaurants and ethnic neighborhoods. I think we've lost a lot of them.

I feel strongly people want to have fun with food. Ted Stelzenmuller at Jack's Bistro, Jesse Sandlin at Abacrombie, Jill Snyder at Red Maple, Jason Ambrose at Salt love what they do and are having fun with it. They are able to laugh, to tickle people's whimsy. There are a lot of restaurants that take themselves too seriously.

How is the faltering economy affecting high-end restaurants like Kali's Court, and how do you think they will be affected long-term?

There will always be a high echelon that for most part will be untouched. There will always be people who still have the money, and they want to go to a place where they are surrounded by other people like that. Maybe they will make some mild adjustments, but in the long run it won't make a huge difference to them.

It's exciting to see in just eight years where the dining scene has gone. There's a young demographic out there, a young professional out there starting to make their presence felt. It's going to be reciprocal.

Hey, that's exciting, I'm looking forward to more really cool developments.

elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

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