Creating the Ultimate Chef’s Kitchen with Chef Cindy Wolf
Stainless steel gleams from nearly every surface. Countertops. Shelving. Commercial ranges and hoods. Walk into most top restaurant kitchens, and you’ll be surrounded by the stuff. Somewhere along the way, what was once chosen for professional kitchens primarily for its function — stainless steel is both easy to clean and nonporous, so it shoos away bacteria — became the standard bearer for home kitchens, as well.
Which is why it’s so surprising to walk into famed Baltimore chef Cindy Wolf’s home kitchen. To be sure, it’s not without its stainless touches, like on the dual professional prep tables that hold stacks of similarly composed pots and pans and mixing bowls.
But, hanging above one, in the space where a cabinet might otherwise be, is a framed chef’s coat with her name embroidered right there across from the Presidential Food Services’ logo — a cherished gift from the Obama administration after she was invited to cook lunch at the White House in 2014. It sits to the right of Wolf’s range. A La Cornue range, to be exact, commanding attention as much for its French, gloss-black and copper-finished glory as for the fact that it’s not a stainless steel Viking or Wolf or Thermador.
That’s the way it is in Wolf’s kitchen, the centerpiece of the chef’s Sparks home, a sprawling escape on 15 acres of verdant countryside about 20 miles north of Baltimore. Here, commercial function mingles with prized heirlooms and unique personal touches. It’s a far cry from the stark, sparkling kitchen at Charleston, where Wolf composes the kind of contemporary French cuisine that has made the eatery the most celebrated restaurant in Baltimore — and put the city on the culinary map. Wolf and ex-husband/continuing business partner Tony Foreman also own restaurants, including: Petit Louis Bistro in Baltimore and Columbia, Maryland; Cinghiale; Johnny’s; and Bar Vasquez, under the umbrella of their Foreman Wolf Restaurant Group. The pair also does a weekly radio show called “Foreman and Wolf on Food and Wine” on WYPR Public Radio.
And that’s just the way she likes it. “I wanted my kitchen to work like a professional kitchen but also to be warm and inviting,” she says. “And pretty.”
Wolf’s kitchen could serve as an instruction manual for building a memorable, personal, luxurious space over a baseline of professional function. Fresh off her sixth nomination as “Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic” for the James Beard Awards, the celebrated chef gave us an intimate look at her kitchen and the unique elements that make up the incredible whole.
Coldwell Banker Global Luxury Can you tell us about the La Cornue range in your home kitchen? Some may have thought you’d choose a more “traditional” commercial range. What drove that purchase, and what do you love about it?
Cindy Wolf I bought my first La Cornue for my (former) Roland Park home, which was built in 1904. When I renovated the kitchen, I decided I wanted it to look like a kitchen in an old French chateau. La Cornue makes a Château Series range, but it is made out of cast iron and is very heavy. I was hoping to restore the original wood floor and knew the weight would be too much. So, I decided on the new series CornuFé, which is made from stainless steel and is, quite frankly, a lot less expensive than the Château Series. I love the look of the line and the choices one has with color and metal for the fittings. And, most importantly, I really like the way the stove operates. The oven roasts a chicken like no other. I appreciate the different power levels of the five burners. Some have high BTUs and some have lower, so it is great to cook on. For me, this works like a professional stove.
Coldwell Banker Global Luxury Are there any pieces in particular that were key to imparting the feeling you were going for when designing your kitchen?
Cindy Wolf I added the moldings in trying not to stray too far from the original feeling of the house but to add what I felt was some needed detail. The floor color, which is a gray tone, took some time to come up with. We experimented with different combinations of stain and came up with one that seems natural, but feels modern and different.
After putting cabinets in my last kitchen — which I did only because I knew I would need to in order to sell the house someday (I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have cabinets in his or her kitchen!) — I decided I didn’t have to think that way when I built this kitchen, as I hope to never leave this property. I had one floor-to-ceiling, wood-and-glass piece that had housed some of my books at the old house and decided to use that for my wine glasses. And then I bought the open wooden shelving unit with a ladder attached for my good china and my daily china. Then, I decided to buy one more glass-door piece, as I had room in the old dining room for it after we renovated the room. The wood pieces and the wood floor add warmth to the room. Also, the gray wall color, which is Icicle SW 6238 from Sherwin Williams, and the high-gloss white trim and ceiling give an elegant feeling to a room that has stainless steel in it.
Coldwell Banker Global Luxury What other equipment did you insist on, strictly from a functional standpoint?
Cindy Wolf Everything is functional in the kitchen. The marble-topped table is perfect for pastry work, and the commercial stainless steel work tables are indestructible so I can put a hot pan on them and not worry. The large commercial stainless steel sink allows me to break down a whole fish, if need be. A pet peeve is not being able to wash a commercial sheet pan or big stock pots in a home sink — I can in this one. Also, I can comfortably soak my cast-iron burners in there for proper cleaning, and it’s great for cutting and arranging flowers or potting plants.
I want to be able to work freely in the kitchen as I would at work and not worry about damaging a countertop or porcelain sink. I have commercial plastic metro shelving (on wheels) in my pantry for storage. All my dry goods are in there, plus equipment and some china and glass, as well as my washer and dryer, hookups for vacuum cleaners, a closet for brooms, cleaning supplies and also room to hang laundry. It’s all out of sight of the kitchen, which is nice when you have guests! Also, I can make work surfaces for servers when I have a more formal party. I recently put a dishwasher in the pantry and find it’s very convenient, as a lot of the items are stored in there.
Coldwell Banker Global Luxury Personal mementos are strongly featured in the kitchen. Can you tell us about a few of the important pieces and why it was important for them to factor in to the design?
Cindy Wolf I have a photo of my grandfather at a butchering competition in York, Pennsylvania, in the 1930s. As my great-grandfather was also a butcher, it means a great deal to me to have this important family photo hanging in the kitchen. It reminds me of who I am and where I come from.
I have the chef coat that I was given when I cooked at the White House for President Obama during the summer of 2014 framed and hanging. This was one of the most important days in my life, and I am thankful I had the opportunity to cook there and was honored that they gave me an official White House chef coat. So, again, this is a reminder to me of what’s important to me as a chef.
Coldwell Banker Global Luxury Are there any other “favorite things” you incorporated into your kitchen — your famed cookbook collection, perhaps?
Cindy Wolf I have hundreds of cookbooks that I have collected, beginning with the first one my father gave me when I started cooking in Charleston. It is still one of my favorites and was written by one of my favorite chefs, Michel Guérard. They are right outside the kitchen entrance and easy to reference for my radio show or work.
I have also collected copper pans from my travels to Europe, special tools that are hard to find and knives. I have two of my great grandfather’s knives in my kitchen, which I cherish. Spoons and whisks are something that I collect, as they are important tools. I collect old silver serving pieces, as well. Baltimore’s silver houses (The Kirk Company and Kirk Stieff) are famous, and it is important to me to have that local history in my home.
I also have a few things from my mother’s and grandmother’s kitchens that remind me of my childhood and all the wonderful food they both made for our family. My grandmother’s recipes and my mother’s favorites are also on hand when needed.
Coldwell Banker Global Luxury What can a home cook learn from your mix of state-of-the-art equipment and personal, meaningful items when designing his or her kitchen?
Cindy Wolf There should be no rules when designing a kitchen. Write down what your priorities are and design around them. I did not want to have overhead cabinets over my work tables, as I find that to be too constricting. At my old house, I wanted a fireplace I could cook in, so when we discovered the old stove chimney, we were able to make it happen. My priority was a gas stove that had high BTUs. La Cornue provided that. I wanted a strong hood that vented outside the house, and I needed good open work space that was basically indestructible. Also, my priority was to have a huge commercial sink, and if that meant I didn’t have a dishwasher, I was willing to give that up. Then, eventually, a year and a half later, I figured out how to have access to a dishwasher. Open minds create great things!