Like all hospitality professionals, veteran restaurateurs Tony Foreman and Chef Cindy Wolf are grappling with the aftermath of the closing of their beloved restaurants during the pandemic.
While it’s been challenging, they have been making the best of the situation from their respective Roland Park homes. Foreman is reimagining the wine menu at Charleston and spending time with his family. Wolf is cooking up a storm in her state-of-the-art kitchen and doing ad-hoc cooking videos for her legions of fans.
Both are eagerly awaiting the day they can reopen Charleston, Cinghiale, and Bar Vasquez in Harbor East, as well as Petit Louis and Johnny’s in Roland Park.
“I believe that there will be restaurants that go out of business, and I feel sad about that,” says Wolf. “I have to do what I do, so somehow, some way, we will reopen. I don’t know if that's pie in the sky, but I will not allow this to not happen—it has to happen.”
How are you?
Tony Foreman: There’s plenty of existential threat on the business and our livelihood as a family, but the sudden big chunk of family time and the chance to just prepare food for the people who are in my house and to just worry about homework, learning to ride the bike, do nature walks in a really wonderful neighborhood, and do stuff that we don't ordinarily have time for has been really wonderful.
Cindy Wolf: I’m used to being alone, I’m just not used to being home alone for this many hours a day. I’m used to being at the restaurant 12 hours a day, so my home time is maybe an hour and then sleeping and going to work the next day. But thank goodness I have a beautiful home to live in and no one on our staff has gotten sick.
On the last night of service before the shutdown it just didn't feel right. It was hushed—the laughter, the joy, the excitement, all of the good things about being in a restaurant were all sucked out of the room. —Cindy Wolf
What was that final night of service at the restaurants like?
TF: We had the very strong feeling the governor was going to shut us down. When he did, I was of two minds. The first thought was, ‘Let’s do something to generate income and at least keep some people working.’ We formulated a plan and immediately responded by having takeout for our guests on Monday and Tuesday.
I had a long conversation with [Petit Louis executive chef] Chris Scanga the day before. He was concerned about being the guy who would go to work and take the virus home to his family—that hit home with me. I slept on it and thought, ‘In good conscience, can I ask these people to come to work when this thing is still ramping up?’ We don’t know what it is or how bad it’s going to be. Are we contributing to it just by doing a to-go business in the name of keeping people employed? I called Cindy and she agreed.
What was the last night of service at Charleston like specifically?
CW: When I saw my waiters in the dining room wearing gloves and my runners wearing gloves and [maître d’] Peter [Keck] walking around—he wasn’t doing anything but sanitizing doorknobs—I was like, ‘This is just not right. This is a restaurant.’ Of course, it should be sanitary, but this is heartbreaking for me to see my waiters walking around with gloves and being scared to walk to tables. I was like, ‘What are we doing? Why are we open? This is not how you operate a restaurant.’ From my kitchen, I can see into the dining room and it just didn't feel right. It was hushed—the laughter, the joy, the excitement, all of the good things about being in a restaurant were all sucked out of the room.
My ability to fry things in whatever cast iron is lying around has been rehomed from my great grandmother Annie Ross’s kitchen—she was Miss North Carolina 1910. —Tony Foreman
What kinds of things have you been cooking at home?
TF: [My 6-year-old daughter], Del, loves fish and so does my wife, Katie. Two nights a week we have some kind of fish. We got really beautiful yellowfin tuna through work and a nice Scottish salmon. When asparagus are around it’s easy—it’s salmon and asparagus. I also made a fried chicken sandwich for Del. It was super tasty with sprouts and crunchy veggies piled on it. My ability to fry things in whatever cast iron is lying around has been rehomed from my great grandmother Annie Ross’s kitchen—she was Miss North Carolina 1910.
Chef Wolf, from the looks of Instagram, it seems like you’re making a lot of great meals at home.
CW: I love food, even if I’m just cooking for myself. If I have leftovers, I give them to someone who works for me. It makes me happy. When we had a sense that something bad was about to happen, I bought chicken and we broke it down and put it on our freezer in small packages at Charleston. I went to the grocery store and, for the first time in my life, I bought frozen vegetables.
What I have dictates what I cook. My farm in Ohio is just starting out. The salesperson sent me an email saying, ‘We want to send you a box as a gift.’ It was filled with radishes, potatoes, microgreens, and baby parsnips. That really improved my home cooking. In the beginning of this, I ate a lot of chicken. I had some Brabander, it’s an incredible piece of cheese. I brought home a duck breast from Charleston and made magret and ate that for three days. I also got a delivery from Eddie’s. I told them I wanted rack of lamb but didn’t want them to French [cut] it. The meat between the bones on the rack, when left on and roasted properly, is the best part of the rack meat. Between the bones can be so tender and has so much fat surrounding it.
You’ve been posting lots of cooking videos. Why did you decide to make them?
CW: I want to share. I want to teach. I teach every day at work. I’ve always wanted to have my own cooking show.
Any cooking tips for those of us staring blankly into our pantry wondering what’s for dinner?
CW: Reach into the past. All cultures have peasant cooking—all of these old rice and bean dishes. Make things with flour like empanadas—which are made with flour, fat, and water—or pasta. Learn how to make pasta if you can get your hands on flour. Get an inexpensive hand-rolling pasta machine on Amazon. Or boil a potato, mash it, and add ground beef and any spices you like—saffron, chili powder, cayenne, salt, pepper—and add an egg. It’s as good cold as it is hot. Look for old world recipes from French cooking, Mexican cooking, American food, Spanish, and Middle Eastern. Many of those dishes slow cook on the back of stove all day long and make the house smell great.
What will be on the menu at Charleston when you return?
CW: Every day I write things down for the menu, but it’s so seasonal. I have almost an entire notebook filled with either a piece of an idea or something that inspired me. I’ve been hanging out a lot with chef [Paul] Bocuse, I have a lot of his cookbooks, and Anne Willan. I just keep writing, but I don’t know when we are opening. It makes me happy to be with the cookbooks and at least have the ideas. One or two days before we open, when I bring food product in is when we will make the final decisions. I also know people will want the lobster soup and fried oysters—it won’t be a 100-percent new menu because I am here to make people happy.
Will you make changes to any of the other menus?
TF: We are working on a very different presentation and interpretation of the wine list in the cellar at Charleston—now is a chance to do it. We’re going to think about the different restaurants—each one has a pretty pure truth that it’s chasing. I want to make sure that we are as true to those things as we can be. We have the percolation time and I’m going to use it.
What do you miss about being in the restaurants?
TF: The way that our guests rely on the solidity and the care of our team from back door to front door—whether they know that or not. I like that, not just being dependable but being a dependably good piece of people’s lives in a complicated and stressful world. To know that you can go somewhere and you’re going to feel cared for.
Smaller very hand-crafted, curated, and cultivated experiences will be less and less and the attraction to creating those things is going to be less and less—there’s just too much risk. —Tony Foreman
Will restaurants survive?
TF: They are going to be changed. Things will continue to tilt in favor of chains and larger scale places. Smaller very hand-crafted, curated, and cultivated experiences will be less and less and the attraction to creating those things is going to be less and less—there’s just too much risk.
What are you looking forward to when you reopen?
TF: I’m looking forward to that first family meal with our staff. I’ve already told them I will make them a nice supper before we open and I will bring them wine from my cellar, and we will have a nice time.
I walk into that empty restaurant and it’s hard. I miss my guys. [Daytime prep cook] Hubaldo has worked for me since we’ve had Savannah—that’s 23 years. I will not walk into Charleston again until I can start to operate that restaurant again. It’s my life. —Cindy Wolf
Chef Wolf, I’ve seen from Instagram that you’ve been back to Charleston a few times.
CW: In the beginning, I went a few times. I did a bit of repair work—someone who works for us had an opportunity to make a little bit of money, so I went down there. Prior to that, I went in a few times in the first few weeks because I wanted to make sure everything was okay. Also, in those first few weeks, we still had some food left. I went four or five times when we were distributing the food. We did a huge distribution to staff the day we closed.
After being in the restaurant just yesterday, my question was, ‘When do we move forward and how do we move forward?’ It’s killing me. I will not walk into Charleston ever again until I can start to operate that restaurant again. It’s my life. I’ve wanted to do this since I was a kid. All I do is think about food. I’m at work many hours a day. When I’m not there, I’m thinking about food. When I go on vacation, I go to eat food. I eat in some of the best restaurants in France and have a glass or two of Champagne at lunch. A walk at lunch and then back to dinner—I live for that. Getting to immerse myself is so inspiring to me.
I walk into that empty restaurant and it’s hard, and I miss my guys. Hubaldo has worked for me since we’ve had Savannah—that’s 23 years. He’s my daytime prep cook. I am thankful every single day for what I do. I look at him and say, ‘Can you believe what we do?’
Why do we need restaurants?
CW: We need restaurants like Petit Louis and all the little neighborhood restaurants. We need places like Charleston so we can dress up and celebrate our anniversary, even if people need to save their coins to go to those restaurants once in a lifetime. I’m certain that whenever we reopen, our waiters will have to wear masks and gloves, which I can’t stand, but if that's what it takes to open so be it. We can’t live without restaurants.