Chef on Call
Low-Key, on a Higher Level
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
I thought I had a quaint "Beyond the Beltway" story on my hands, with country folk and everything. Four couples in their 60s living in southern Anne Arundel County belong to a dinner club they dubbed the Swamp Circle, a sly reference to historical maps that labeled their beloved (and now pricey) real estate as "the Great Swamp."
Norman Rockwell images of bespectacled matrons, challis aprons and prizewinning apple pies danced in my head.
"In 10 years," wrote Susy Smith in a letter to The Post, "we have had no instruction or tutorial for the Swamp Circle members. And we have never prepared a meal together. To celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the Swamp Circle we would love to have a Chef on Call give the group a lesson and guide the preparation of a special meal."
But it turned out that these folks were more Town & Country than country. Smith was once a legislative director for a U.S. senator; her husband, Terry, was a senior producer for "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer." Add to the mix three former D.C. lawyers, a former paralegal for the Justice Department, a onetime Alexandria real estate agent and the current president of a construction company, and you have a group of people who are, for the most part, very Washington, despite their self-imposed reassignment to more bucolic parts.
Retirement notwithstanding, Washingtonians take things seriously, even when it comes to throwing dinner parties.
The group started, Terry Smith said, when Liddy Chaney made a "beautiful salmon" for a dinner party. "We realized that dinner at any of our houses was better than anything we could get at a restaurant around here," he said. "And so the decision was made to do it every few months. It's very casual."
That is, if you consider duck breast in pumpkin seed sauce, baked halibut in port wine reduction and poached pears with apricot syrup casual.
Such a group required a teacher with an impressive résumé. Richard Hamilton, 40, corporate executive chef for the company that owns Restaurant Local in Easton, was the man for the job. He came to the Eastern Shore via the Ritz-Escoffier Ecole de Gastronomie and Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and the kitchens of exalted chefs such as Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Thomas Keller, Todd English and Charlie Trotter. And he once turned down a position as head chef in the White House.
Hamilton showed up at the Smiths' home with fine ingredients, top-quality equipment and his A team: Restaurant Local's hands-on chef, Mike Quatrucci, and pastry chef, Ben McCormick. Then he got down to business.
"This menu is all about technique," Hamilton said, dividing the couples into four teams, one per course. "I chose dishes to teach you proper cutting, proper poaching, proper marinating. No use making flashy dishes without learning the whats, whys and hows."
The Swamp Circle requested and received a menu that emphasized the use of sustainable seafood and seasonal ingredients. (One of its members, Bob Gallagher, is a river keeper who strives to maintain the quality of the area's waters and shorelines.)
The vegetables for the gazpacho starter were locally grown. The Marvesta brand shrimp for a first course of lettuce wraps were "12 hours out of the water," Quatrucci said, fresh from a new indoor shrimp-farming operation in Hurlock. The rockfish for the main course had been bought hours before from a Tilghman Island fisherman, one of a dozen locals from whom Hamilton purchases such products. Not satisfied with the quality of the local strawberries available for his dessert, Hamilton substituted raspberries and blueberries at the last minute.