Cindy Wolf

Chef and entrepreneur Cindy Wolf helped turn Baltimore into a dining destination

By Christianna McCausland / Photography by Rachel Smith and courtesy of Foreman Wolf Restaurant Group

It’s hard to imagine a time when Chef Cindy Wolf’s reputation as a culinary star did not precede her into any endeavor, but that was the case in 1997 when she and her business partner Tony Foreman opened their first restaurant, Charleston. At the time, Baltimore’s fine dining scene consisted of barely a handful of longstanding institutions.

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“We knew what we wanted to do, but I wasn’t well enough known for us to say, ‘This is Cindy Wolf’s food’ because people would be like ‘Who’s Cindy Wolf?’” she says.

Sitting in the elegant dining room of Charleston in an immaculate white chef jacket, Wolf, 51, casts a glance out the restaurant’s windows and recalls how they used to be able to see to downtown.

“We were the first business here,” she says. “Taxi cabs would not come here. We parked our cars in a dirt lot where Cinghiale now is.”

Baltimore proved to be fertile ground for the budding restaurateurs, and Cindy Wolf’s name is so well known and so inextricably linked to Baltimore’s culinary evolution, one would be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t know of her or one of the Foreman Wolf enterprises. Over 20 years, the Foreman Wolf Restaurant Group has opened six restaurants and two wine shops that employ some 400 people. Wolf has been named a James Beard Foundation finalist for Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic five times (including 2016) and she and Charleston have earned enough stars to create their own impressive constellation.

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“Chef Cindy Wolf is a powerhouse in the downtown restaurant and business communities,” says Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore. “She has not only brought thoughtful, innovative food to Baltimore, but also the excitement and recognition that come along with her accomplishments. We’ve benefitted greatly — on a national scale — from the good work she does here in downtown. Zagat rated Baltimore the No. 2 ‘Top Food City’ in the country in December, and Chef Wolf is a big reason we were honored with that distinction.”

While Foreman and Wolf seem to have the Midas touch when it comes to restaurants — and the accolades to back their achievements — Wolf’s recipe for success is backed mostly by common sense and an insatiable drive to be the very best in her profession.

A TASTE OF THE SOUTH

Foreman and Wolf came to Baltimore from Washington, DC, where the couple had met while working at Georgia Brown’s, a fine southern cuisine restaurant owned by Capital Restaurant Concepts, Ltd. Wolf was the executive chef and Foreman was the general manager at the restaurant’s opening. (The couple married and later divorced, but the business partnership never faltered.)

“When we talked about what we wanted to do with our life, we knew we wanted to own our own business,” Wolf says, adding that owning a restaurant was her childhood dream.

Foreman was from Baltimore and Wolf liked what she saw of the town, so when the Admiral Fell Inn decided it was interested in Wolf and Foreman’s concept for a restaurant called Savannah, they seized the opportunity. After two years operating as employees of the Inn, Wolf and Foreman decided they wanted to own their own restaurant. So they found investors and a new location, took the Savannah concept, and executed it under the name Charleston.

“The idea behind it was to do the best thing we could do in a restaurant, which was to have a great wine list, to have the best food we can, to have a beautiful environment, and to give the best service,” she says. “We’ve always been driven by that — trying to be better at what we do.”

Foreman and Wolf broke out their responsibilities early on in a pattern that continues successfully today. The wine program and shops are Foreman’s domain, as are the front-of-the-house staff in the restaurants. Wolf retains her position of executive chef at Charleston and manages the back-of-the-house staff.

“The deal I made a long time ago is Cindy, you take care of everything you want to in the kitchen and, if possible, I’ll take care of everything else,” Foreman says. “We do not have an entirely traditional or perfectly defined set of rules.”

“In the end, [Tony’s] front of the house and I’m back of the house, but it’s all one world, there are no lines,” Wolf says. “Sometimes you just need to bounce an idea off someone in order for it to make more sense, and all things can’t be said to all people, so you need that one person you can trust.”

A hallmark of Foreman and Wolf’s relationship is respect. Wolf says she and Foreman both have an understanding of each other’s roles and respect the other’s work implicitly, something they impress emphatically on their respective staff as well.

“The first thing I tell my staff is ‘Everyone in the front of the house will treat you with respect and you will treat everyone else with respect,’” Wolf says. “That is the way that everyone works in this restaurant. I will not tolerate it any other way.”

An obvious extension of this respect is to the customer.

“When it comes to hiring people, one of the first things we look for are good people, someone who cares, someone who’s a good person,” Wolf says. “If you want to learn and you’ve got the drive and the interest, I’ll teach you, but you need to be a good, nice person because you’re dealing with people.”

Food writer and consultant Dara Bunjon experienced this firsthand in Wolf’s early days when she hosted the now-defunct Epicurean Club of Maryland at Savannah for a cooking class. When someone showed up who had not booked a seat, Bunjon recalls that accommodations were made, and that pleasing the customer was priority number one for Wolf.

“I believe that has always been the case. The customer’s experience [is the priority]: quality food, fine wines and ideal surroundings that enhance the dining experience,” Bunjon says. “Cindy has never lost her vision — tunnel vision — as to what she wanted to accomplish. The focus is on the restaurants, being the best that they can be. You really don’t see her at chef events — notoriety is not preeminent — it is all about her guests and their experience.”

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DRIVEN BY AUTHENTICITY

Wolf was very happy cooking her food and running her kitchen at Charleston, but she and Foreman had also begun traveling. “Travel has been my biggest continuing education as a chef,” Wolf says. “I love learning about other people’s cultures and learning different viewpoints and getting to know them, and a big way to get to know people is through food, wine and the table.”

In France, Wolf found her spiritual homeland and a place that continues to inspire her today. The great bistros of that country, particularly L’Ami Louis in Paris, inspired the concept for Petit Louis, which opened in Roland Park in 2000. At the time, Wolf wasn’t thinking of opening another restaurant, but she knew her partner well enough to know he was.

“Tony’s a highly intelligent man and he’s always thinking and has ideas in his head,” she says.

Wolf and Foreman had a passion for French food and service and that is what created Petit Louis, a restaurant that was so successful, it had lines down the block when it opened and continues to be full 15 years later. Petit Louis is evidence of a genuine interest in French cuisine, not merely the output of a restaurant concept brainstorming session. That authenticity is perhaps the special sauce that makes Foreman Wolf restaurants so successful.

“We’re driven by our passion for what we do and a space that’s beautiful that we think is in a good location,” Wolf says.

Each successive restaurant has been inspired by Wolf and Foreman’s travels. Pazo, opened in 2004, was inspired by Foreman’s trips to southern Italy and northern Spain; Cinghiale, opened in 2007, inspired by a trip Tony took to northern Italy to meet with winemakers. Johnny’s, the newest Foreman Wolf concept, opened in 2012 and was followed closely by a second Petit Louis location in Columbia in 2014. It was the first time a Foreman Wolf restaurant was duplicated.

“Petit Louis is not particular to a particular chef as Charleston is to me,” Wolf explains of the decision. “If you know about French cooking, you can be the chef of that restaurant. If you know about French service, you can be the manager of that restaurant. It is a duplicable product.”

Wolf and Foreman will only open a restaurant when they know they have the talent to staff it properly, she says. With few exceptions, that means she has trained the kitchen staff herself. Her biggest challenge in the business had nothing to do with being a woman in a male-dominated business or finding the best product to serve to guests — it was finding good cooks. In the absence of available talent, she did what any good chef would do — made them. It didn’t matter if someone began as a dishwasher; if they expressed an interest in the kitchen and had the right attitude, Wolf would teach them everything she knew.

“My job, as a manager, is to make the people that work with me and underneath me successful, and to give them all the tools they need to be successful,” Wolf says.

The chef at Pazo, Mario Cano Catalan, began at Charleston as a dishwasher. Julian Marucci, chef at Cinghiale, grew up in Charleston’s kitchen, where he eventually became sous chef. David Garcia Reyes began 10 years ago as a line cook and recently became executive chef at Johnny’s. He recalls shifts at Charleston when Wolf would cook on the line with him, working as hard or harder than anyone else. He says that Wolf taught him to “work hard and everything else will fall into place.”

He adds that Wolf will teach you exactly how she wants something done, and then, “once she knows that you have her vision, she lets you grow into yourself.”

The growth-from-within strategy works well for everyone. The chefs at the group’s other restaurants require minimal handholding — Wolf says she mostly answers questions and helps with the occasional hiring need — and they don’t need to be brought up to speed on the Foreman Wolf style.

“Cindy is very driven to do her food and keep developing her food and the example she sets, and the way that she operates her kitchen has a lot to do with the success of a lot of the chefs that learn through that system and continue to evolve with us,” Foreman says.

One key to Wolf’s success as a teacher and leader is her frankness.

“She’s going to tell you how she feels and it’s not going to be watered down,” Foreman says.

Wolf owns that her leadership style is pretty no-nonsense. She will not yell, though she will correct. She will not harbor ill feelings after something has been corrected, but she also expects that the same mistake will not happen again. The kitchen is always to be a sanitary, organized and respectful place. She describes her kitchen as “disciplined” and she holds no one to a higher standard than she holds herself.

“Every leader needs to set an excellent example of hard work,” she says. “If you’re not willing to do it, why would you ask someone else to? I think a lot of what we do in business is common sense; your work ethic is what will keep you with great staff.”

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BORN TO COOK

To be a successful chef, you cannot be only an artist or only a savvy businessperson — you must be both. Wolf honed her fine dining expertise under the tutelage of chefs at places like Silk’s in The Planters Inn in Charleston, SC. After working in small dining establishments, she intentionally moved to a larger restaurant group so she could learn not only the art of food, but also the economics. She completed her formal education at the Culinary Institute of America.

But Wolf has an entrepreneurial bent that can be traced back further, to family dinners as a child.

“We would eat, we’d talk about school, and always at the end of dinner, the cup of tea would come out, the chair would get pushed back and my dad would start talking about what happened at work,” she recalls.

Wolf’s father was the son of a butcher who opted out of the family business and built a career as an executive, first with the fast food chain Hardee’s, then at Ponderosa. From him, she learned how to take care of employees, the importance of buying good product and other lessons about building a business.

“I’m extremely thankful that my father worked his way up from being the son of a butcher, never had the opportunity to go to college, and became the vice president of a major national corporation that had many many stores when he was with them,” she says.

“I had an amazing role model,” she continues. “Also, my mother was an extremely good cook. All the women on both sides of my family were good cooks. What I do is in my blood. I was born to do what I do.”

When she talks about food, Wolf is transformed. It’s like watching a proud mother talk about her kids or a minister talking about spirituality. She works closely with local purveyors and farmers, but is not slavishly a locavore, choosing to purchase only the best products directly from their source, be it crawfish from Louisiana or snails from France.

“If you want to talk about philosophy and how you run your kitchen, my philosophy as a chef that I learned the minute I stepped into the kitchen is you have to buy the very best product you can,” she says. “Not only is that the best thing for the guest and the people who work for you, it’s also a great motivator. When you see a beautiful truffle, or a beautiful nectarine, or fresh sweet corn that just came out of a field that smells like corn and hay, those things are what drive me, and that’s why I bought the farm.”

RSM_5801In 2015, Wolf sold her Roland Park home and moved to 15 acres in Sparks. Her farm is the realization of another childhood dream, fueled by images she collected as a kid of a land-loving Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind and the verdant alpine slopes in The Sound of Music. As an adult, she’s always wanted to pick food from her own garden and cook it for guests. Now she’s going to start doing just that.

At Charleston, Wolf is all business. At the farm, she’s more relaxed, in her signature cowboy boots and jeans, sharing funny stories from her recent filming of Beat Bobby Flay for the Food Network. She’s still fixing up the house, but the kitchen is immaculate, with an enviable collection of copper pots and a jewel of a La Cornue range at its center. Her dining room bookshelves groan with the expected volumes, like those by Escoffier and Robuchon, but also Julia Child biographies and old American cookbooks like Martha Washington’s Book of Cookery and The Virginia
House-wife
. It is here that she spends her mornings doing menu development before going to Charleston, where she continues to cook every night.

Not surprising, given her hire-from-within strategy, Wolf has tapped an employee, valet Sam Malriat, who happened to have horticultural training, to help her with her burgeoning agricultural enterprise. Right now she has four large raised beds for herbs, heirloom tomatoes, zucchini and squash, different beans and peas, fingerling potatoes and more that will work their way onto Charleston’s menu. Her next dream would be to one day plant some vines. Maybe even get a steer. Maybe two. She’s excited to have this new phase of her life and bring food to the table for guests who have always been receptive of her cooking.

“I love being in Baltimore,” she says. “This city has afforded me the opportunity to be the best I could be ever since the day I got here, and I have grown a tremendous amount in the last 22 years as a chef. I thank the people who live here and visit here for that.” CEO

Christianna McCausland is a freelance writer based in Reisterstown, MD. Contact us at editorial@smartceo.com.

CLOSE THE DEAL WITH A POWER MEAL

Chef Wolf selects a menu to take your next board meeting from bland to extraordinary

  • An appetizer of oysters-on-the-half-shell from the great Wicomico River
  • A few cornmeal-fried oysters
  • Lobster soup with butter-poached Maine lobster, curry oil and arugula oil
  • Black sea bass ceviche
  • Saffron and rosemary risotto
  • Pan-roasted turbot with Pernod and shrimp cream and Tabasco-scented rice
  • Grilled veal sweetbreads with fresh fava beans and Argentine chimichurri
  • Grilled French quail with creamy polenta, caramelized oyster mushrooms and red-wine reduction sauce
  • Cheese from the trolley
  • And for dessert? “Something sweet, probably chocolate!”

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