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Firing up to fight cancer

While searching for a unique fundraiser theme, the Chesapeake Cancer Alliance decided on kitchens, and convinced six homeowners to showcase designs and amenities that most people can only imagine.

The charity, based in Bel Air, offers the debut of the area's first Dream Kitchens Tour from noon to 5 p.m. Saturday.

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"Kitchens are very popular now, with people getting into making them into efficient and attractive gathering spaces," said Kathy Welch, alliance volunteer coordinator. "They are not just work spaces anymore."

The kitchens on the tour go well beyond a cluster of appliances needed for daily meals, becoming grand spaces for dining and entertaining.

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"With HGTV and [home improvement] shows, everyone has become a savvy buyer," said Jack Lacesa, president of Rojahn Custom Cabinetry, who convinced two of his clients to show off their kitchens.

With custom-made furnishings, rich wood cabinetry, glistening granite counters, stainless steel appliances and every imaginable gadget, these cooking and dining spaces allow a gourmet chef to cater to a group of guests or provide for an intimate dinner for two.

"This is the time of year when most of us think about remodeling," said Linda MacNeill, an alliance volunteer. "With the tour, you can go through others' houses and get all kinds of new ideas."

And recipes.

Each stop on the tour will feature notable chefs who will share their culinary prowess by serving a few gourmet entrees.

At the home of Michael and Terri Watts in Jarrettsville, Kerry Dunnington, a private home caterer and author of This Book Cooks, will prepare a carrot and leek gratin, a casserole so sumptuous no one believes it's all about vegetables, she said.

"It's really fun to see how others operate their kitchens and what things they put together," she said.

Dunnington will probably linger after her own cooking stint to watch the chefs who follow, including Barry M. Boston, executive chef and partner at the Milton Inn in Sparks. He plans to prepare Maryland oyster stew and berries with marsala zabaglione.

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"They are both delicious and simple to make, but impressive," Boston said.

Barry Graham, who grew up in Bel Air and now cooks at the Peabody Court Hotel in Baltimore, will also take a turn in the Watts kitchen, promising visitors a how-to on cream soup. He has seen photos of where he will work.

"It looks to me like if you can't settle in there, you might want to change careers," Graham said.

Most guest chefs will walk into the featured kitchens for the first time, but feel certain the accommodations will rise to their needs.

"As far as equipment, as long as you have a heat source, you're fine," Boston said.

The Wattses' kitchen has a large stove, with extra burners, and two ovens as well as microwave drawers and a warming drawer. Hot water spouts instantly from a separate tap at the kitchen sink -- a must for tea drinkers, Terri Watts said.

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After offering kitchen tips, sharing recipes and watching her peers at work, Dunnington said she hopes to tour the rest of the house. She will have much to see.

The Wattses built their livelihood on remodeling homes through Bel Air Construction, the company they began in their basement. They have frequently tested their mettle on projects at their own three-bedroom rancher.

The home, on a spacious lot in Harford's rural northern area, has undergone several transformations since the couple built it in 1985. They have added a bedroom, built an addition onto the front and remodeled the entire basement, much of it into a replica of a 1950s soda fountain shop.

"The house just grew with our children," Watts said. "It changed as we needed it to."

The three children, all adults with homes of their own, had little to do with the most recent and probably most disruptive remodeling. Two years ago, the couple knocked down walls and eliminated a spacious length-of-the-house deck to create an entirely new kitchen.

"We had everything torn up," said Watts. "We really got to see what we put our own customers through."

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The new room had to be spacious, as entertaining usually means 30 or more, but also gracious, in keeping with its place as the hub of the family, Watts said.

"I like people to feel welcome," she said. "Designers call this kitchen classic, but I think people feel right at home here."

Sunlight streams into the formal seating area from a wall of windows that reach the ceiling and offer a view of the grounds. A wood-burning fireplace warms the space, its stone chosen to complement the dark cherry wood of the cabinetry.

"Everything has a cabinet front," she said. "You often wonder, 'Now where is the refrigerator?' "

A large kitchen island, covered in jet black granite, dominates the work area. It offers seating, a prep sink, family-sized and mini dishwashers, and even a pop-up electrical outlet for small appliances.

"Everybody is always in the kitchen," Watts said. "We live around this island."

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Entertaining large crowds does not intimidate a woman who has hosted several open houses for the family business and gatherings for church groups, she said.

Because her mother is a cancer survivor, the cause for this event played heavily into Watts' decision to open her home to the public, she said. All proceeds benefit cancer patients and their families.

"Every family has a cancer story," said Lacesa, who lost his own father to cancer. "When I heard about this benefit, I just answered with, 'What do you want me to do?' "

The cancer alliance has printed 700 tickets for the open house, complete with directions to the six homes and highlights.

"You can pick the house where you want to start and work your way from there," said Laurie Manns-Adolph, tour co-chair.

Each stop will have raffle tickets available for several prizes, including dinner for six cooked at home by Marlene Baumgartner, owner of Fritzie's Deli & Catering in Bel Air.

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mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

Tickets are $25 and available at Havre de Grace Visitor's Center, Preston's Stationery and Open Door Cafe in Bel Air, Bel Air Construction in Forest Hill and Adolph's Citgo Service in Lutherville. Information: 443-617-1220 or 410-569-5542 or chesapeakecanceralliance.org.


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