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Charm City culinary stars shine at legendary James Beard House

Eastern Shore buffet plate of whole shrimp, Maryland-fried drummy, crispy skin rockfish.
Eastern Shore buffet plate of whole shrimp, Maryland-fried drummy, crispy skin rockfish. - Jonathan Mount
I stepped into the former home of the late cookbook author James Beard, where a number of folks were gathered in the foyer as well as the front anteroom. I spied the open kitchen in the New York brownstone, pausing to take photographs and watch the chefs hard at work.

What the Emmys are to television, the Oscars to the movies is what the James Beard Foundation Awards are to the culinary industry. Snagging a nomination for the highly coveted award is a badge of honor. Woodberry Kitchen's Spike Gjerde and Charleston's Cindy Wolf were among the mid-Atlantic nominees this year while PABU, the Japanese restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore, was nominated one of the best new restaurants.

Another way restaurants and chefs get national recognition is preparing a dinner at the James Beard House. On May 30, chefs from three Baltimore restaurants prepared a Chesapeake Bounty five-course dinner. The chefs were representing The Food Market and Birroteca in Hampden and Canton's Fork & Wrench.

As the epicurean stars aligned for these Baltimore restaurants, it also was an excuse for me to finally partake in a dinner at the James Beard House.

Michael Birchenall, the editor and publisher of Foodservice Monthly clarifies the significance of cooking at the James Beard House:

“James Beard to the food world stands as the ‘dean of American cooking’ alongside culinary notables like Julia Child. The new generation knows the James Beard brand and sees his brownstone as the contemporary show kitchen of modern cooking.”
The James Beard House hosts more than 250 dinners a year and the opportunity to cook in his home kitchen is a validation of the chef’s culinary skills that will stay with the chef forever. And to have Baltimore chefs prepare a gastronomic evening featuring a ‘Chesapeake Bounty’ is a tribute to our region, Birchenall says.  

Birroteca Partner and Chef Robbin Haas, had previous connections with the James Beard organization, having cooked at the 2002 Awards Gala. It was he who precipitated the evening, featuring the culinary talents of Chef Chad Gauss of the Food Market; Chef Cyrus Keefer, formerly of Birroteca and now with Fork & Wrench; and, Sajin Renae, the former Fork & Wrench chef who is moving to New York City. 

“Cooking at the James Beard House is a rite of passage for many chefs, something that only happens for a select few,” says Baltimore’s Adam Borden, managing director of private equity firm Bradmer Foods. Borden is a former James Beard Foundation Programming Committee member, and worked with a number of chefs around the country to plan and execute their dinners in New York. 

All the guests traveled through the kitchen and the atrium and up to the terrace for libations and passed hors d’ouevres.  In the foliage there was a stone carving of James Beard’s head, which made it to photo status on my Facebook page. A warm evening, a strong drink, well executed and delicious “Chesapeake Bounty” hors d’ouevres, and fun conversations with the three of the chefs’ wives — Tanya Haas, Wendi Gauss and Angela Keefer — kicked the evening off just right. 

We went to the second level dining rooms once dinner was served. Each room contained an impressive portrait of the larger-than-life epicurean James Beard. He is considered to be the chef who established an American gourmet food identity. Bruce Bodie and Gino Cardinale, of Mount Vernon’s City Café, were at my table along with their former employee and now partner in the Food Market, Elan Kotz. Wendi Gauss and Angela Keefer rounded out our table.  

Chef Haas and his Sous Chef Melanie Molinaro represented the Woodberry neighborhood restaurant, Birroteca. Chef Haas told me that the opportunity to bring his younger culinary staff to participate in events like this makes it all worthwhile.

The theme “Chesapeake Bounty” brings to mind Maryland blue crab, Southern fried chicken, rockfish and Smith Island Cake.  All were on the plates but with each chef’s vision; Chef Melanie Molinaro of Birroteca’s created the blue crab cake with a sea urchin mayonnaise. The Eastern Shore buffet plate of whole shrimp, Maryland fried drummy, crispy skin rockfish were taken up a notch with Chesapeake spiced jus and caramelized ramp essence by Chef Gauss of the Food Market. Chef Gauss really put a spin on the Smith Island Cake with Cherry Glen Goat Cheese Co. milk ricotta and strawberries, rather than the usual chocolate and peanut butter.

“It was an honor to have the Food Market, at less than a year old, be qualified to cook in the James Beard House,” Gauss says. “I think it allows the public to know how serious we take our restaurant.”

The evening was perfect, it was a sold out crowd with New Yorkers as well as us Baltimoreans who came to glow in our hometown restaurants’ achievements and enjoy a well-executed dinner. 

Photographs by Jonathan Mount except group shot and cake photos by Dara Bunjon.
Click photos to read captions.
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