Just as she has done five times before, Cindy Wolf will soon walk the red carpet at the James Beard Awards as a nominee for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic. The chef-owner of Baltimore’s luxe low-country restaurant, Charleston, has jokingly compared herself to Susan Lucci, who had 19 nominations before landing a Daytime Emmy for her star turn on the TV soap “All My Children.”
If Wolf doesn’t take home the medal May 1, she’ll be in good company among hard-working and deserving women recently passed over for plum titles.
And if she wins?
“Cindy would probably cry,” says her longtime pal Stacy Kamphuis, who will be with Wolf at the Chicago event. “But she won’t cry if she doesn’t.” In the past — 2006, 2008, 2014, 2015, 2016 — when her rivals were announced as winners, says Kamphuis, “Cindy’s reaction has been, ‘Oh, yeah! That person’s really good.’ ”
Charleston opened 20 years ago — before its now tony waterfront neighborhood was branded Harbor East. It has consistently held the No. 1 spot in Baltimore’s Zagat listing, and is an OpenTable top-five restaurant nationwide. Wolf’s Southern-inspired menu is executed with classical French precision, in dishes such as date-and-walnut-stuffed quail, butter-washed brioche topped with seared foie gras and black truffle, and cornmeal-fried oysters with lemon mayonnaise and peppery upland cress.
The food at Charleston “is not only delicious but it speaks to the region,” says Phil Vettel, restaurant critic for the Chicago Tribune and chair of the Restaurant and Chef awards committee for the James Beard Foundation. “The service is terrific, the wine list exhaustive and thoughtful. And it’s a beautiful room.”
Vettel points out that Wolf is not alone among Beard finalists with multiple losses. Suzanne Goin, of Lucques in West Hollywood, took last year’s top honor as Outstanding Chef nationwide after seven previous nominations for the spot. “It can be extremely frustrating,” he says. “But to just be a nominee means a lot.”
Wolf, 52, is in the Charleston kitchen every night, typically logging 60-plus hours per week and frequently stepping out to greet guests. Every so often, though, she takes time off to travel to France. Or to show up on reality television, just the once so far, competing on Food Network’s “Beat Bobby Flay” last year, where her entrance onstage included a little twirl and sashay that may have seemed uncharacteristic.
“She’s been portrayed as this unemotional perfectionist,” says Rob Marbury, a marketing consultant who engineered Wolf’s appearance. “The show allowed people to see the Cindy behind the chef.” (Spoiler: Though Wolf did not beat the host, she left with her dignity intact.)
Wolf grew up with an appreciation for fine dining as the daughter of a mother who loved to cook and entertain and a father whose job as an executive for Ponderosa prompted family outings to eat at the likes of Le Perroquet and the Whitehall Club in Chicago. “I was eating things like escargots and Dover sole and hearts of palm in the sixth grade,” she says.
As a student of the business management program at the University of Indiana at Evansville, Wolf would describe in detail the restaurant she wanted to one day own. “She talked about how intimate she wanted it to be, how she wanted everyone to feel it was dinner just for them,” Kamphuis recalls. “She was describing Charleston.”
But Wolf went the experience route; at age 19, she dropped out of college and went to work at a restaurant called Silk’s at the Planters Inn in Charleston, S.C. “The minute I stepped into that kitchen, I knew I wanted to be a chef,” she says. After backpacking through Europe, she enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park.
Wolf met Tony Foreman in 1993, when the two were working for a company that owned restaurants in Baltimore as well as Georgia Brown’s in the District, where Wolf developed the menu. She was working in the kitchen when he came in with a group of executives. “Tony came up and said, ‘Is there anything I can do to help you?’ It was the first time anyone front of the house had asked me that,” says Wolf. “I knew it was the beginning of a very good relationship.”
The two married in 1994 and divorced 15 years later, but remain friends. “I don’t think there was any hesitation about the business when we decided to dissolve the marriage,” Foreman says. “We’ve always loved working together.”
Their restaurant group, called Foreman Wolf, owns and operates six restaurants in the Baltimore area; in addition to Charleston, they have a French bistro, Petit Louis (with a second location in Columbia); a Northern Italian called Cinghiale; and Johnny’s, an upscale comfort food restaurant. They recently switched out Pazo, a Mediterranean restaurant in a soaring repurposed tool factory, for an Argentine place called Bar Vasquez, named in tribute to Marcelo Vasquez, who gave Wolf her first executive chef job, at Morton’s at the Vendue Inn in Charleston when she was 25.
Foreman Wolf also operates two wine shops, Bin 604 in Baltimore and Bin 201 Annapolis, and the pair hosts a radio program on WYPR, Baltimore’s NPR affiliate, on Sunday mornings. The latter is an apt expression of their partnership: “I’m usually better at building the structure,” says Foreman: “Say we’re talking about lamb. I’ll lead in with a question about it and then Cindy will talk about how to buy it, how to season it.” They divvy up the restaurant duties in a similar way, he says: “When Charleston opened, Cindy wanted to take care of the kitchen, and I would take care of everything else.”
(Foreman’s efforts in the front of the house at Charleston have also received accolades from James Beard, with semifinalist nominations for outstanding wine program in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017, outstanding restaurant 2012 and outstanding service, 2011.)
Even with such national attention, Foreman and Wolf have never expanded beyond the Baltimore market. He puts it bluntly: “I don’t like the idea of signing checks for people I’ve never met.” They observed the recent “Day Without Immigrants” by closing all their restaurants.
Most of the kitchen staff at Charleston has worked with Wolf for a long time — some of them since the restaurant opened, a relative rarity in the business. Her sous-chef has been there for 19 years. His name? “I don’t want it in print,” says Wolf, who has watched as protegees start restaurants of their own, some plundering her kitchen staff along the way.
For Baltimore diners, however, the migration from Foreman Wolf isn’t a bad thing. The company’s meticulously trained employees — both front and back of house — are peppered throughout the city’s dining scene.
“Throughout the company, all the kitchens operate like working classrooms,” says Chris Scanga, executive chef at Petit Louis in Baltimore. “Cindy and Tony are excellent teachers. If you don’t learn, it’s on you.”
Scanga interned at Charleston in 2007 when he was a student at the CIA and came back full time after graduation and worked the garde manger station. “It was my first time working with high-end products like black truffles and foie gras — stuff that they wouldn’t let students get their hands on in culinary school,” he says.
If Wolf wins the James Beard Award this year, Kamphuis says, “the first thing on her mind will be, ‘I can’t wait to get back to my kitchen and share this with my staff.’ ”
Award or no, Wolf seems satisfied with her lot in life. But she does admit to one unrealized dream: to cook for Barack Obama.
She came close, in 2014, when the chef was invited to the White House to cook for the president and his West Wing staff. “It was such a thrill . . . and then he wasn’t there,” Wolf says. “He was unexpectedly called away at the last minute.” A black chef’s jacket, embroidered with her name and the presidential seal, hangs in a frame in the kitchen of Wolf’s home on 15 acres in north Baltimore County.
Cooking for the Obamas, she says, “is something I’d like to do before I die.”
Thomas is a Baltimore writer. Charleston is located at 1000 Lancaster St., Baltimore. 410-332-7373. charlestonrestaurant.com. The chef will join our Free Range chat Wednesday at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.
6 to 8 servings (makes 8 to 9 cups)
MAKE AHEAD: The soup can be refrigerated for up to 2 days; reheat over low heat.
Adapted from Cindy Wolf, chef-owner of Charleston in Baltimore.
4 bunches pencil-thin asparagus, preferably local (about 3½ pounds total; see headnote)
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 medium Spanish onion, cut into small dice (1 cup)
2 large shallots, cut into small dice (½ cup)
6 cups low-sodium chicken broth
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup heavy cream
½ cup crème fraîche, for garnish
Leaves from 2 or 3 sprigs fresh tarragon, chopped, for garnish
Cut off/discard the woody ends of the asparagus. Cut the asparagus stalks in half. Lay or stand the pieces in a pan full of cool water; let sit for 20 minutes (to let any grit fall out), then drain.
Melt the butter in a large, stainless-steel soup pot over medium-low heat. Stir in the onion and shallots until evenly coated; cook for 6 to 8 minutes, until translucent; do not allow them to pick up any color.
Pour in the broth, then season lightly with salt and pepper. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring just to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 20 minutes.
Add the asparagus; increase the heat to medium-high. Once the mixture returns to a boil, cook for about 5 minutes, or until the asparagus is al dente (firm to the bite.) Remove from the heat.
Working in batches, transfer the soup mixture to a blender with the center knob of its lid removed. Place a paper towel over the opening to prevent splashups. Puree until smooth, then strain through a fine-mesh strainer into a heatproof bowl. Discard the solids.
Heat the cream in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat; bring just to a boil, then stir in the strained asparagus puree. Turn off the heat. Taste and adjust the seasoning, as needed.
Whisk together the creme fraiche and chopped tarragon in a bowl; garnish each portion of soup with a dollop. Serve warm.
Nutrition | Per serving (based on 8): 270 calories, 7 g protein, 11 g carbohydrates, 23 g fat, 14 g saturated fat, 70 mg cholesterol, 460 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 7 g sugar
Recipe tested by Bonnie S. Benwick; email questions to email@example.com
More from Food: