May 30 turned out to be warmer than Doug Wetzel expected. High 80s is sweltering for a triathlon, especially on Eastern Shore asphalt roads with little shade. Even the ocean temperature was a few degrees higher than the competitors anticipated. “It had been wetsuit mandatory and suddenly it was wetsuit optional,” Wetzel learned—after he was suited up for the first leg of the race, the mile-long swim. “It was my first time swimming in a wetsuit.”
Wetzel was already hot when he climbed on his bike for the next leg, 24 miles of cycling. At some point during the ride, he tipped on the bike. His outer right leg skid along the pavement, causing a contusion, and his inner left thigh jammed into the bike seat. He doesn’t remember the fall.
“I know I can be kind of stubborn. I probably just shook it off and kept going,” says the 32-year-old. “But that’s probably when the heat stroke started.”
Photos from the race show Wetzel, smiling, at around mile three of the 10K run, says his boss of eight years, John Shields, owner of Gertrude’s restaurant in Baltimore, where Wetzel works as a pastry chef and kitchen manager (“we call him the kitchen czar,” says Shields). But not long after that, Wetzel jogged off the course. The racers around him probably assumed he was taking a restroom break, but Doug didn’t have a plan. He staggered into the backyard of Tom Parry, a retired construction worker who lives on the bay. Parry happened to be taking care of a friend’s Chihuahua, Pippa, who has a habit of reacting to small disturbances. “She barks when someone turns around in the driveway, when a squirrel runs across the roof,” says Parry. But on that sunny Saturday, she jumped at the backdoor and wouldn’t let up. Parry finally went out to the yard and found Wetzel passed out under a tree, saliva foaming from his mouth. Parry called 911, and on the advice of his friend and Pippa’s owner, Denise Hepbron, a trained paramedic, he held an icepack to the athlete’s neck.
“I was basically saved by a Chihuahua,” Wetzel says. “Up to this point, they weren’t really my favorite dog.”
Still unconscious, Wetzel was flown in a Medevac helicopter to the shock trauma department of the University of Maryland Medical Center, where his leg was cut open and drained, and he was bumped to the top of a list for a liver transplant. He had swelling in his brain, and doctors determined that he had suffered a mini-stroke.
By the time he woke up from a coma a week later in the surgical intensive care unit, plans were well underway for a fundraiser on his behalf.
The July 1 event, a superhero-themed party called DougStrong, was held at Gertrude’s, spilling out into the Baltimore Museum of Art sculpture garden, where dozens of restaurants and breweries set up tables. Farms and meat and seafood purveyors had donated foodstuffs for the chefs to create “super”-themed dishes. Everyone chipped in auction items. Bryan Voltaggio, who couldn’t attend the event, sent a sous chef to serve tonnarelli pasta with Maryland blue crab from Aggio, and donated a dinner for eight at the famed Table 21 at Volt, his restaurant in Frederick, for the live auction.
The day after Wetzel’s accident, Peter Jackson, a friend and fellow cyclist, visited him in the hospital. Shields and his husband, John Gilligan, were there, along with Wetzel’s wife, Kasey, and his parents. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever been through,” says Shields. “Doug is like my son.” The group milling about the SICU waiting room, Shields says, felt helpless. “Everyone was in shock.” But he and Jackson figured Doug would need money—and lots of it. “We were thinking about co-pays,” says Shields. “What’s the co-pay on a billion dollars?”
Jackson, who works as an associate at the commercial real estate firm JLL, left the hospital for Union Craft Brewery to attend an event for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation (where he serves on a fundraising committee). There, he ran into one of the event’s organizers, Dave Seel, director of marketing for the Bagby Restaurant Group. Seel teased Jackson about the plastic hospital visitors’ bracelet on his wrist. “He thought I was coming from another event,” Jackson recalls. “But the minute I told him about Doug, he said, ‘what can we do?’”
Word got around. Tim Dyson, who runs the kitchen at Dooby’s, Zach Mills from Wit and Wisdom and Cyrus Keefer of 13.5 were all at the CFF barbecue. “Everyone just kept coming up and asking, ‘What can we do?’” says Jackson. Phil Han, owner of Dooby’s offered to send a stand-in chef to Gertrude’s—with salary fully paid—during Wetzel’s absence.
“We all jumped on board right away,” says Keefer. “It was like, ‘Holy cow, here’s this guy who’s one of us.’”
Keefer is no stranger to fellow Baltimore chefs lending a hand. He’d recently tried to raise money to open a restaurant, and Jonah Kim (of the former Pabu), Jerry Pellegrino, at the time chef at Waterfront Kitchen and Oliver Beckert, executive chef at the Four Seasons, had helped him stage a pop-up dinner at Sotto Sopra restaurant.
Friendships from Passion
Some of these friendships were forged at the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s big shindig, Passion for Food and Wine. The affair features a personalized five-course dinner prepared on-site for intimate tables of 10 or 12 by one of Baltimore’s top chefs. Since it started four years ago (2016 will be number five), the event has been planned in large part by the chefs themselves, who get together at monthly meetings—that have taken on the semblance of mini-reunions.
“There was a lot of cracking jokes along with hashing out the details of the party,” says Jackson, who attended one of the chefs’ 2015 meetings. A friendly one-upmanship generates extravagant items for the auction, traditionally emceed by Jerry Pellegrino and Sergio Vitale, whose family owns Aldo’s restaurant. “Jerry was trying to get chefs to jump on a series at Schola,” Jackson recalls. The package was six separate dinners for 10, each prepared by a different chef at Pellegrino’s new cooking school. It ended up selling for $11,000. Pellegrino enlisted participants from within the Passion event, as well as those who weren’t there—like Steve Monnier from Arômes and Mark Levy from Magdalena. Passion, he points out, only has space for 16 chefs, “so we try to get some other guys to be part of it.”
It’s easy to draw a line from the Cystic Fibrosis fundraiser, where guests pay $750 for a seat at the table (before the auction even starts) to the fundraiser for Doug Wetzel, a seat-of-the-pants effort that came together in four weeks, with a $50 ticket price, raising about $40,000. “The communication between all of us chefs definitely became stronger through working on CFF,” says Wit & Wisdom’s Zack Mills.
But perhaps even more relevant to the success of both Passion and DougStrong is the scale of Baltimore’s restaurant scene. Nowhere is the notion of Small- timore more apparent than in the relationships between chefs. “Baltimore is a bit more nitty-gritty” than larger cities like New York and D.C., says Jonah Kim, who was scheduled to open Yona in Arlington, Va., in late November. And because the city’s food scene is still developing, he says, chefs tend to help each other out. “Baltimore is a special place. It’s rough around the edges, but that creates a culture of being passionate about cooking.”
Says Mills: “We’re not competitive with each other because we all want to see Baltimore thrive as a food community.” And that community seems more and more chummy. Over the fall, Mills worked with Voltaggio and Chris Becker, executive chef for the Bagby Group, as well as the sommeliers from their respective restaurants on three different wine dinners. “Fork and Cork,” as it was called, “wouldn’t have happened without Cystic Fibrosis,” says Mills. Likewise, a Thai dinner he’s putting on this month with Tim Dyson and Cyrus Keefer to benefit the Urban Light Foundation, a Thailand-based organization to help boys who are victims of exploitation and trafficking, can be traced directly to relationships forged planning Passion for Food and Wine, he says.
Joining the Team
The first Passion event was held in 2012 in the gutted ground floor of the Morgan Stanley building. Audrey Slade and Martha Morningstar, who worked for the marketing team at the new Four Seasons Hotel, attended that first event. They offered a Four Seasons ballroom for the following year and kicked in a stay in the Presidential Suite with a poolside dinner for six to the auction.
One of the chefs that first year, Opie Crooks, who worked at Roy’s, subsequently got a new job with Shoo-fly, the Woodberry Kitchen spinoff, and brought Spike Gjerde into the fold the second year. The year after that, Bryan Voltaggio, who opened Aggio in in June 2014, joined the team.
A lifelong Maryland resident, Voltaggio was thrilled to be part of CFF—not just to support the cause, but to get to know the community. “It’s one event I love,” says the onetime “Top Chef” contestant, who owns eight restaurants in D.C., Maryland and Virginia. “I have a small selfish motive. I know it’s a great cause, but it’s also good networking with other chefs.”
Voltaggio had met Wetzel in early May during Ride for the Feast, a bike ride for A Moveable Feast, to raise money for those homebound with HIV/AIDS. “I got to spend time with Doug on that ride,” says Voltaggio. “We stayed in touch through Facebook, and talked about getting together, but we’re all so busy.” Less than a month later, Wetzel would compete in the Rock Hall Triathlon.
Voltaggio is looking forward to cooking for the folks who cast the winning bid for Table 21 at DougStrong. That would be Dr. Thomas M. Scalea, the chief physician at Maryland Shock Trauma, Wetzel’s surgeon. “I’m going to be able to meet the doc who took care of Doug,” says Voltaggio. “It’s so nice to see someone give back to the patient they cared for.”
Scalea describes buying the table at Volt as “an extension” of the care delivered in Shock Trauma. “The relationship does not end when someone leaves the hospital or even when we discharge them from our care.” Of course, he admits, his regard for Volt “made it easier to be enthusiastic” about casting the winning bid.
As for Wetzel, he graduated from the hospital to rehab on the day of Doug-Strong. Organizers had set up a screen for a chat with him on Skype and just about everybody in the audience cried, including Doug’s parents, Jim and Debbie, and his father in spirit, John Shields.
Doug returned to the Gertrude’s kitchen on September 22, though his speech was still a little slurred and he was still moving more slowly than he’d like. “It was weird going from doing three-mile swims and 40-mile rides to needing nurses to help me walk,” he says. His doctors tell him he’ll begin to feel more himself at the sixth month mark—in December.
Meantime, Wetzel says he was heartened to know that the party thrown on his behalf wasn’t a sad affair. “I loved hearing about all the nuances,” he says of the superhero theme. “It’s just the kind of party I would love to go to. My friends are all saying how much fun it was, and I’m like, yeah, thanks, I wasn’t there.”