Cindy Wolf is the executive chef at Charleston and was a 2006, 2008, 2014, 2015 and 2016 James Beard Foundation finalist for Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic. Chef Wolf’s cuisine is backed by French fundamentals and grounded in preparations that emphasize the natural flavors of the very finest local and regional products. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, Chef Wolf has been featured in Food Arts, Food & Wine, Bon Appétit, The New York Times, The Washington Times and The Washington Post, among others. In addition to Charleston, Chef Wolf along with her partner, Tony Foreman, owns Petit Louis Bistro, a classic French bistro with two locations; Pazo, a southern Italian restaurant; Cinghiale, a modern Italian restaurant; and Johnny’s, a West Coast–inspired restaurant.
I sat down with Chef Wolf to chat about food, family and what’s great about Baltimore.
Was food a big part of your upbringing? Did you cook when you were a kid?
CW: I didn’t really cook that much as a kid, no. My mother was a great home cook and I always helped a lot, making cookies, helping with dishes, chores. I ate really well as a kid, being surrounded by great cooks in my family. My mom cooked with the seasons without really thinking about it, it’s just the way it was. My great-grandparents and great-uncles had a butcher’s shop on the family property, so my dad ate well as a kid, too. He ended up working in food, for Ponderosa and Hardee’s, and he ate in great restaurants all over the county when he would travel on business. He was the first person to import lamb from New Zealand into the United States. We lived in Charleston when I was culinary school and I’d come home and we would test different cuts of meat and figure out what to sell to large companies. I was 21 and that was really fun to work with my dad like that. Great training, right?
Lots of kids get to choose the meal on their birthday – anything they want…to a point, I suppose. What would be your “birthday meal” now? What did you ask for when you were a kid?
CW: We always had whoopie pie cakes – five layers of chocolate cake with whoopie pie filling. Always. (Smiles.) And as I got older, I wanted lobster. Also, really good homemade mac and cheese made with great pasta, cream and cheeses. Also my family does this dish that’s chicken wrapped in dried beef with mushroom sauce. That’s a classic for us. For my birthday now? I’d love to go back and eat at Les Pres d’Eugenie Michel Guérard, just outside Bordeaux. Michel Guérard is my favorite chef. I don’t usually name someone as my most favorite, but really he is it. He is a brilliant man and has cooked his life. He is also very kind. Wonderful. My father gave me his cookbook when I was 17 or 18, and I have admired him since then. That was the first cookbook I was ever given. He’s a contemporary of [Paul] Bocuse. He’s amazing.
Do you have a mentor? Any chefs who really helped you find your way?
CW: Yes, Marcello Vasquez, he’s Venezuelan and was a chef in Charleston where I did my externship during school. The restaurant was Silks in the Planters Inn. After I graduated, he hired me as his sous chef there. There were 35 seats in the house. His approach to food and service was very French. His wife, Penny, worked with him and wore full tails every single night during service. His respect for food and for the people who worked for him was extraordinary. Everything was to be done perfectly. His palate, his ability – they shaped me. His parents would host parties for the staff. He became very close with my family. After Hurricane Hugo, he moved the restaurant to Knoxville from Charleston, and at the new restaurant, I took on my first executive chef position. I was 25. The restaurant was Morton’s at the Vendue Inn. [Note: Not the Morton’s steak house. Rather, Morton Needle owned the hotel. Chef Vasquez has since retired and is living in New Mexico.]
How do you balance home and work? Is it even possible?
CW: My life is my work.
Are there any celebrity chefs you admire? Any you’d like to work with?
CW: Michel Guérard, Paul Bocuse, André Soltner. I’d love to go back to Guy Julien’s restaurant. I’d love to see how he works, he’s a very warm and generous chef. It would be a lot of fun to work in his kitchen, but I should probably just eat the truffles! He gets them in Mondragon in the Southern Rhone Valley. He’s got an incredible wine cellar. Absolutely incredible.
What do you like about Baltimore?
CW: Well, I love Baltimore. We are surrounded by amazing farmland and waterways and great people working them to bring us seafood, vegetables, livestock and more. We are so lucky to be here.
What do you love about food?
CW: I love everything about food. And, cooking…for me? I love soups and sauces, the ritual of making risotto, the patience. Stock on the back of the stove. Pasta dough in your hands. Making bread. As a chef, I have the greatest pleasure of putting whatever I want on the menu (local rabbit and buffalo, for example), and people will come in and eat it. Happily. For me, that’s joy.
What do you want people to know about Baltimore?
CW: We are very diverse, our ethnic communities have influenced the city for hundreds of years. Also, that we have really amazing local farmers and watermen. So many great products here, so much more than crabs. There’s rockfish and oysters and buffalo. There are so many people doing great work here, and there are tons of culinary opportunities. Chefs are doing really amazing things. We have so many creative people here – more and more brewers, winemakers, distillers now, too. Innovation is everywhere here. And, then many restaurants in Baltimore have been open a very long time like The Prime Rib, Tio Pepe’s and more. It’s a wonderful place.
OK, obligatory question – when you cook at home, what do you like to make? Do you have a favorite “go to” meal at home?
CW: I love making stock on Sundays. Braised short ribs, coq au vin, risotto, slow cooked lamb with beans. I really love Persian food. My brother-in-law is from Iran, and my nephew is Indian. I love working with those flavors, too.