“I can get to Charleston in 14 minutes,” says chef Cindy Wolf.
“I’ve made it in 11 minutes on a Sunday morning at 5:30,” says her husband and business partner, Tony Foreman, gleefully one-upping her.
Wolf and Foreman, the team behind Petit Louis, Charleston, Pazo and Cinghiale, are drinking tea and eating croissants in the light-filled informal dining room of their Ruxton home. And though they moved in more than two years ago, they’re still grinning like children over their luck at landing in a place that feels worlds apart from the restaurants that occupy their hearts, minds and almost all of their waking hours, but is just a quick commute away.
“When you’re up here, you don’t know where you are,” says Wolf, as she gazes out one of the many windows overlooking the grassy hill that descends from the back of the house to the winding road leading from L’Hirondelle Country Club below. “There’s an 8- or 9-degree temperature difference between here and Charleston and Pazo. Sometimes in the winter, there will be 3 inches of snow here on the ground and it’s only raining downtown.”
Though Wolf, who is committed to cooking seasonally and sustainably, originally wanted to buy a small farm and would love to have a bit more land— and level land, at that— in order to plant vegetables, she is delighted by the beech, cherry and dogwood trees, the hedge of roses and, especially, the rosemary and lavender that grow on the one-acre property. “You can almost always smell it. It feels like you’re in the countryside in France, which is how we want to feel when we’re here,” she says. A self-confessed happy house-hunter, Wolf nonetheless says now she is planted. “This is a special house. I hope never to move from here.”
Built in 1930, the home was designed by prominent Baltimore architect Bayard Turnbull, whose expertise at Colonial-era architecture is evident in one of the home’s most striking features: the fact that it’s one room wide throughout, allowing for both excellent views and excellent cross-ventilation (not to mention a lot of doors— 10, to be exact).
The original owner was an entrepreneur named Colin Thomas who spent his spare time scavenging 18th-century estates along the Eastern Shore, and the spoils of his hunts— Palladian windows, colorful Dutch and Portuguese tiles framing the home’s six fireplaces, and intricate brass hardware and lighting fixtures— are the very things, in addition to the location, that Wolf fell in love with immediately. Walking from room to room, she points out the doorknobs, hinges and sconces, all of which are different.
As for Foreman, he loves the fact that the roughly 6,000-square-foot house, which is laid out like a stretched-out Z, “is unassuming on the outside, but inside it just wanders. Each turn is not what you’d expect. You have to step down, or there’s an odd turn or a little door,” he says. “I imagine being a kid coming here. If the house were a person, it would be someone who is unpredictable, but you know you’ll be charmed.”
Wolf and Foreman are only the third owners of the house. The Thomas family lived there from 1930 until 1982; in fact, Eleanor Thomas nee Hills, who grew up in the house, met Foreman at a wine-tasting and recalled that friends used to phone them and ask them to look out their back windows to see if a tennis court was available at L’Hirondelle Country Club. Not long after the house was built, Hills says, her father added a two-story addition that includes the master bedroom and, below it, a large informal living room.
The second occupants of the home added yet another addition, the wing that now houses what Wolf and Foreman simply call “the kitchen,” but is really a three-room suite comprised of the airy French country kitchen, with its commercial stove and Sub-Zero refrigerator; the informal dining room, with its black and white marble tiled floor and its weathered drawing table; and a comfortable family room that’s reached by descending a set of tumbled-marble steps. “This is where we hang out in the summer,” says Wolf. It’s no surprise that the kitchen is the center of this couple’s home.
Leaving the kitchen, one enters the original 1930 structure and is offered a vista that stretches through the home’s original kitchen— now a butler’s pantry whose many shelves house the glassware Foreman, a wine expert, uses for wine-tastings, and whose sink is the perfect place for Wolf to prep a whole fish— through the formal dining room, with its keyhole mouldings, carved corner cabinets and original sconces, and into the “front” hallway of the home.
“This is where you’re supposed to come in,” says Foreman, pointing to a wooden door from the 1700s that is framed by leaded glass windows. Neither of the couple uses the entrance regularly— Foreman parks by the new kitchen, and Wolf parks on the other side of the driveway and enters through the cozy office that adjoins the master bedroom— but they love the fact that only about 20 paces separate it and the “back” door, which opens onto a covered porch that’s the ideal perch for an after-dinner cognac and cigar.
On the floor in the foyer is a Kazakh prayer rug, one of many handmade rugs Foreman, a rug aficionado, has collected over the years. Stepping into the living room, Foreman explains that the three rugs that cover the wide wood floorboards are all from the same tribe in Beluchistan, a province in southwestern Pakistan. One he calls the “great-grandfather”— it’s 82 years old. The others, at 25 years old and 3 years old, he’s dubbed “father and son.” “I like to have all the rugs in a room be from the same tribe,” he says.
Like all of the rooms in the house, the living room is home to fine antiques and art the couple has collected on their travels in France and elsewhere. Hanging above a French walnut buffet that, like every piece of furniture in the house, holds silver, glass, linens or serving platters, is a painting by Baltimorean Jimmy Judd, who gave it to Foreman’s mother when Foreman was born and hung in his bedroom while he was growing up. Two Sheridan sofas create a conversation area in front of a fireplace edged in colorful Portuguese tile. A window seat filled with cushions offers a sunny perch overlooking the plant-filled beds at the front of the house while a set of windows on the opposite wall looks out onto the hill that descends from the home to the winding road below.
Beyond a gently curved staircase, one of three in the home, is the final room in the “wandering” house, a large informal living room furnished with a 100-year-old Turkish leather sofa, a billiards table and two rugs from Turkmenistan woven with wool from a breed of sheep whose wool is blue.
“This is a room with a whole lot of strong art pieces,” says Foreman. Behind the billiards table hangs a piece by local painter Jeffrey Kent. Over a bar Foreman’s grandmother brought back from her travels in Asia hangs a painting by Scott Thorp, a former waiter who helped the couple open Charleston and is now a professor at Savannah College of Art and Design. On a nearby wall is “Pêcheur Nuit Berie,” a painting by Christian Pendelio, an artist from the Brittany region of France.
Wolf and Foreman bought this house because they wanted a retreat from their hectic work lives. But as comfortable and serene as it is, there is a sense of passion at play. It was passion that drove the original owner to seek out the doors, windows, tiles and fixtures that give the home its Colonial-era charm. And it is Wolf and Foreman’s passion for food, wine, traveling and art that makes their home as invigorating and inspiring as it is peaceful.